13 October 2012

Dublin 1


This piece was written quite a few years ago - at least ten - following a stay in Dublin at Gino and his Dublin born wife Mary's home in Dalkey. In those distant days the Celtic Tiger was barely a cub - now it is just a skin on a waiting room floor. In those days Bono had just bought the end house of a row on Sorrento point, reputedly for several million euros; now his money is said to be on the continent.... Anyway, although some of the personnel at "Il Baccaro" may have since changed, Gino still commutes between Rome and Dublin and "Il Baccaro" still thrives, even being said by one reviewer to be the only Italian restaurant in Ireland! And Kilmainham Jail, the history of Ireland, and Dublin's fair city are all still there and ever will be. In fact, since the excesses of the Stag Party days, Dublin has settled down into married life, and it is possible to wander the streets without being oppressed by people desperately having a wonderful time, as if marriage opened the gates of hell and it was a duty to exceed all bounds before entering. So, if you'll forgive the odd metachronism......

The Panopticon, Kilmainham Jail

Kilmainham Jail symbolises much of the darker side of Irish history. In harder times than these there was a queue of people committing crimes to gain imprisonment. In recent times, films, such as “In the Name of the Father” have been made on location inside the Victorian East Wing, recreating in two dimensions the claustrophobia of some of the country’s past and simultaneously glamorising it and creating the romance of stardom. In some ways, it makes a stage set of the past, “unless, soul clap its hands and sing,” that recreation helps us build a better world to come. 

To stand in the rock breakers’ yard, hemmed in by high stone walls, on the spot where in early May 1916 fourteen leaders of the Easter Rising - Pearse, MacDonagh, Plunkett, MacBride and fellows - faced the firing squad, and to imagine those bullets smacking into flesh and bone is to take a serious view of Ireland yet, perhaps, such imaginings may be a trifle melancholy in the general scheme of things. For Ireland, or at least Dublin has come a long way since then. Kilmainham Jail represents something deep in the Irish soul and the men who died there in 1916, let alone the hundred thousand or so who passed through there in its 128 years of active service, stood for belief in political freedom and died for the rights of others. Their revolution may have failed at the time, but Ireland has flourished because of their determination and spirit.

Sorrento Point with Dalkey Island behind
There’s no looking back. Dublin has changed. There are few scars left from the bad times, the revolution or the civil war. There are few undeveloped plots, few derelict Georgian houses, and few bars where James Joyce or Myles or Brendan would feel at home. John Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street (established 1782) prides itself on its authenticity, but the towering modern buildings around it are not conducive to imaginative recreations of a Joycean night out. John Kehoe’s, at 9, South Anne Street (until recently the last of the resident owned pubs in the city centre) allows drinkers to occupy the family lounge upstairs, and the wooden partitions downstairs allow private conversations to remain private despite the throngs of young patrons who have replaced the seriously dark suited men of yesteryear. The craic is good, if you can hear it! Even the National Gallery of Ireland, home of the masterworks of Jack Yeats, has a brand new “Millennium Wing”, which, with its collection of modern and contemporary Irish Art, was opened this year.
John Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street, not much changed since its appearance in "Ulysses"

Dublin is now truly cosmopolitan, and the tiny area known as Temple Bar has become an international byword for a good time. In terms of places to be it is in the same league as Amsterdam, Greenwich Village, the Parisian Left Bank, Prague and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Weekend flights from the UK are full of bright young things heading for the bars and restaurants in the warren of streets just off the south side of the Liffey, across the Ha’penny Bridge and through the Merchant’s Arch. Almost bulldozed into a new bus terminal in the 1980s, Temple Bar was saved from one kind of oblivion and, partly thanks to Charles Haughey and his social conscience, the place suddenly took off in the 1990s, with such institutions as the Irish Film Centre, the Arthouse (the centre for the Artists’ Association of Ireland) and the Temple Bar Music Centre, being created in state of the art reconstructions. In Meeting House Square a whole-food market attracts attention in the daytime and open-air film screenings, concerts or theatre productions draw the crowds at night. Although the area has something of a reputation for excess, especially in connection with stag and hen parties from the UK, there is a convivial good humour to the evening jostle. Street performers entertain the passers-by while innumerable bars attempt to satisfy their thirsts.

The Ha'penny Bridge over the Liffey
And tucked into a corner of Meeting House Square, in what was until five years ago a disused and dingy eighteenth century cellar, there is “Il Baccaro”, one of the most natural Italian Restaurants you will find outside of Italy. The name derives from Venetian wine shops, where it is customary to stand with a group of friends eating appetising snacks while drinking local wine, and its inspiration also comes from the Roman Osterie, traditionally simple in their fare. The mastermind behind this venture is Gino Bottigliero, an Italian originally from Naples, whose long greying hair, drooping moustaches and dark flashing eyes give him a piratical air. Gino met and married Mary Pyne, a Dublin girl from the top of O’Connell Street, and, while living in Rome, had the bright idea of opening an Irish pub in the Italian capital. That was in 1976, since when Irish theme bars have become almost de rigeur in every neck of the woods in Italy, and The Fiddler’s Elbow in via dell’Olmata is just one of Gino’s series of very successful bars in Rome and Florence, and now Dublin.

Gino, Lorenzo and Sofia
Gino’s success comes partly from a no-nonsense approach to business, where he recognises the need for efficiency and quality, but also derives from a fertile imagination and the ability to create a friendly ambience. His partner, Dubliner Tiernan Maguire, spent several years working with Gino in Rome, and he shares that warmth of personality that is engendered by a blend of cultures. “Il Baccaro” looks just as you would expect an Italian place to look, with posters of Sophia Loren rubbing shoulders with photographs of Gino’s own grandparents on the walls. It is ever so slightly kitsch, and also retro as symbolised by the poster for “La Dolce Vita” but somehow that does not seem out of place in Temple Bar, and it is evidently utterly acceptable to the diners who pack it out every night. The low brick arches and wooden furniture make a cosy environment and the Italian staff, including Claudia and Manuela alternating behind the bar and Marina waiting, are expert in welcoming and dealing patiently with customers.

Lorenzo, the chef, from Rovigo, is a highly qualified and creative cook. Among his specialities is “rotolo di crepe con ricotta alle erbe e vegetali,” which is a combination of cream cheese and vegetables cooked in a thin pasta roll. He also delivers an unusual risotto made with pears and Gorgonzola, and a tasty “caponata di melanzane,” a Sicilian aubergine stew. Gino contributes to the ideas, as well, and he found a butcher in Dun Laoghaire capable of recreating traditional Italian “porchetta romana”, which is pork stuffed with herbs and spices and cooked slowly in a huge oven. There is also an interesting pasta dish called “penne all’arrabbiaciana”, which is an imaginative combination of the fiery “arrabbiata” sauce with chilli pepper and the bacon flavoured “amatriciana” sauce from the town of Amatrice in the Abruzzi Mountains. If you can manage a dessert, the home-made “tiramisu” is excellent and then, in true Italian style, an evening can be rounded off with Vin Santo and cantuccini or amaretti, traditional biscuits that are just right with sweet wine.

Temple Bar and Kilmainham Jail may not have too much in common, nor do, superficially at least, the Irish with the Italians, but there are connections in the spider’s web of culture and history that hold them together. The origin of Celtic culture actually lies in the Po Valley of Northern Italy, from whence the Celts moved north and west, through France and Brittany to Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. The Roman Catholic Church, once universal, now less so in Europe at least, is a linking strength between Eire and Italy. The excesses of Temple Bar and the austerities of Kilmainham Jail are two sides of the same coin; without one, you won’t have the other. Like sin and repentance, or joy and sorrow, they are the faces of Ireland. In my visit to Kilmainham I was accompanied by Gino, and though neither of us was born or brought up in Ireland, we both have long-standing ties to the country and deep sympathies with it; we were both impressed and moved by the experience. The prison has iconic and metaphorical value. We are just passers-by, but we are also a part of the fabric. The economy may thrive, but not in a vacuum. The history is remembered, but not by chance.

The last prisoner to walk free from Kilmainham Jail, was.....

The last prisoner to walk free from Kilmainham Jail was Eamon de Valera, who vacated his cell in 1924. Later in his life he became Prime Minister and then President of the Republic of Ireland. The Ireland he helped to create is a land of opportunity, and a land that welcomes an Italian Osteria in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar: “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” Like a soup made from leeks and potatoes, food can be universal or particular. Call it “zuppa di porri e patate” and serve it with a little olive oil and a good glass of fresh Pinot Grigio and it will seem ever so Italian. Even in Dublin. It may not be quite what the youth of Europe flock to Temple Bar for, but it will do me fine. As William Butler Yeats also said, as well as the above quotation, “I have prepared my peace with learned Italian things.”

Il Baccaro
Meeting House Square
Telephone: 671 4597


1 comment:

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