Travel: Dún Laoghaire and Dalkey - Ireland's little Italy by the sea
Rich with history and charm, Dún Laoghaire offers plenty to explore and great places to eat and drink, writes Geoff Hill
IN the 15th century, the resident of Dalkey Castle greeted visitors by pouring boiling urine over them from the battlements.
These days, thankfully, nearby Fitzpatrick Castle greets you with a cocktail.
Suitably refreshed, I went for a potter around Dún Laoghaire and Dalkey, and what a lovely spot it is, like a little Italy by the sea with its winding streets and cafés and restaurants.
The locals think so too, with roads called Sorrento and Vico lined with graceful Georgian houses.
Just the place to come here, buy one for a few million quid, write the great Irish-Italian novel during the day, then go out for posh al fresco nosh in the evening to watch the world go by. Heavens, if you pop into Finnegan's pub, you might even see local resident Bono, who drinks there.
Sadly, not having several million quid on me for some reason, I pottered on, past walking or cycling locals and tourists who had arrived on cruise ships or taken the train from Dublin and were struggling to get predictive text on their phones to cope with spelling Dún Laoghaire in their social media posts.
Still, at least they hadn't arrived by train in the 19th century, when third class passengers had to get out and push it uphill.
Some braver souls were swimming at the Forty Foot, where men plunged in naked for 250 years until they were horrified when women joined them in the 1970s, naked women being unknown in Ireland up to then. Most swimmers these days wear costumes, though.
The new culture centre is a beautiful hymn to Scandinavian style, with its airy spaces and wooden floors, and from the top floor you can see the Martello tower where James Joyce lived for a while, and being a cantankerous sort, annoyed the locals by flying the Munster flag from it.
Just to annoy him back, the locals still fly it.
Next door, the former mariners' church is, appropriately, the maritime museum, containing an astonishing rotating lighthouse mirror and fascinating exhibits on subjects such as the sinking by a German U-boat of the RMS Leinster in October 1918, killing 529 on board, and Robert Halpin, the chief officer of the 4,000-passenger Great Eastern, the world's largest ship when it was launched in 1858. After sailing all over the world, he retired, bought Tinakilly House in Wicklow, and died of gangrene after cutting himself trimming his toenails.
Since my toenails were fine, thanks for asking, I thought it was safe to take to the high seas myself, with a bracing speedboat ride up and down the coast with the Irish National Sailing and Powerboat School.
And so to Dalkey Castle, carrying an umbrella just in case of a boiling urine shower.
"You can take photos, but no accordions," said Grace at reception.
Eh? It turned out she'd said recordings. Maybe it's my ears that need checked rather than my toenails.
Inside, the actors in costume – Magnus the barber surgeon, Rupert the archer and Saidbh the cook – brought the history of the castle brilliantly and hilariously to life, including George IV's visit in 1821, when he was so drunk he didn't remember the visit.
In the 1830s, stone from here was used to make Dún Laoghaire, and the stonemasons at first lived in tents then built cottages which are now worth €2 million each, gulp.
Next stop was the Airfield Estate, owned by Dublin solicitor Trevor Overend, who when he died in 1927 left the elegant house, farm and fortune to his daughters Letitia and Naomi.
Naturally, the first thing Letitia did was to go to London, buy a new Rolls-Royce for £1,642 and 10 shillings, and have it fitted with a tow bar for transporting the farm's cows.
For the rest of Letitia and Naomi's long lives until they died in 1977 and 1993 respectively, they devoted themselves to good works, travelling the world, skiing at Kitzbühel every winter, and when they were at home, driving the Rolls-Royce into Dundrum for shopping.
It's still in the estate garage, along with Naomi's Austin Tickford and their mother Lily's tiny Peugeot Quadrilette, nicknamed The Flea.
Today the estate is a charitable trust, and you can tour the house and gardens, then eat what's produced there in the excellent restaurant.
Then you can work off lunch by clambering around the Zipit treetop obstacle course and zipline adventure park in the mountains above, or at the Gap mountain bike centre, where for some unknown reason a pleasant girl called Sinead persuaded me to take a van up the mountain then ride down it on a bike.
"Don't worry, we'll just do a nice easy intermediate trail," she said brightly as we walked past a large sign saying: WARNING – Anyone attempting intermediate trails must have previous experience of mountain biking."
Soon after I found myself hurtling down the mountain after her at unbelievable speeds. Unbelievably slow, that is, to the extent that when we got to the bottom, her colleague Lisa had thrown away the stopwatch she was using to time me and used a calendar instead.
Oh well, there was nothing else for it but to go for a pint of Guinness and some nosh at Johnnie Fox's, established in 1798 and the third highest pub in Ireland behind Top of Coom in Kerry and the Ponderosa on the Glenshane Pass between Dungiven and Maghera.
Naturally, being up a mountain, the house speciality is seafood, but that wasn't the biggest surprise. No, that was wandering into a large room in which hundreds of tourists bussed up from Dublin for the evening were watching a sort of mini-Riverdance.
It was so surreal that I had to go back to the hotel immediately and have another cocktail. Followed by several more, just to be on the safe side, then I went to bed and dreamed, not for the first time, that I was just about to do my A-levels and had forgotten to do any revision.
Still, it could have been worse: I could have turned up at Dalkey Castle without an umbrella.
You can drive, or take the Enterprise from Belfast to Dublin's Connolly Station, then the DART to Dún Laoghaire.
For Enterprise information, visit translink.co.uk.
Where to stay
Built in 1740, Killiney Castle was derelict when hotelier Paddy Fitzpatrick drove up to it on a cold December day in 1970 with his wife Eithne.
"I'm going to buy that," he said.
"If you do, I'm divorcing you," she said.
He did, she didn't, and today as Fitzpatrick Castle it's a lovely traditional hotel run by their daughter Eithne and family. See fitzpatrickcastle.com.
Dalkey Castle is at dalkeycastle.com. The Airfield Estate is at airfield.ie. The Gap mountain bike centre is at thegap.ie. The Zipit tree and zipwire adventure park is at zipit.ie. The Irish National Sailing and Powerboat School is at inss.ie. A 2-5 to 3-hour speedboat ride including waterproofs and lifejacket is €400 for up to five passengers, €700 for six to 12.
Casper and Giumbini's is a buzzy and busy seafront bistro with excellent food and wine: dishcult.com/restaurant/caspergiumbinis.
Johnnie Fox's has good pub grub and The Hooley Show, at €60 for a four-course meal and show. Book at johnniefoxs.com.
You can find out more about staying and what to do in the Dún Laoghaire area at the DLR Tourism website, dlrtourism.ie.