We arrived in Enniskerry, a two-shilling bus ride from Dublin. This seemed rural enough to us townies. We lived on packet Minestrone and Tato crisps (a great Irish product), and inadvertently slept on cowpats. We shivered on the seafront at Bray and dodged the crow-like nuns who, we were convinced, eyed us with disapproval. One week of the rustic life was enough though; we conceded and raced back to Dublin, to its feathery beds, pubs full of fiddle players and raucous family singalongs.
Twenty years on, Dublin is smart and fashionable, flush with EU money and a film industry making waves across the West. But nothing diminishes for me the thrill of that first glimpse of O'Connell Bridge, unnaturally broad squatting over the khaki-brown river Liffey. Or the chaos of Temple Bar. Or the handsome faces of Dubliners, rapt in poetic contemplation, as they stroll along St Stephen's Green.
"Romantic Ireland's dead and gone," said the poet WB Yeats in September 1913. Not to the advertising industry, which uses evocative names such as Kilkenny and McCaffrey's to flog dark beers. Or Hollywood, making mawkish movies larded over with Celtic pipes. Dublin's romantic all right, a city of writers and thinkers, where even the road signs are lyrical, and you're not told to Give Way, but Yield.
Dublin is mostly about the people. As the actor Gabriel Byrne says, "[Dubliners] are friendly, hospitable, passionate, melancholy, witty, curious, introverted people ... the people are what make the country, and the people are unique."
When I go for the weekend, with a girlfriend, Carol, who once lived there, it's to renew old acquaintances. And to make a few more...
Grafton Street, Friday, 1pm: You must do a few touristy things, and what you can't miss in Dublin is a visit to Trinity College, to see the Book of Kells. This illuminated eighth century manuscript of the four Gospels is found in the Thomas Burghe library. Also see the National Museum, stuffed with Irish antiquities such as the Tara Brooch, and the Writers' Museum in Parnell Square, named for the Home Rule party leader who lost it all for the love of Kitty O'Shea.
My excellent Aer Lingus pocket guide (pounds 5.99) lists Dublin Castle and the Guinness Brewery and Hop Store as essential touristy things to do, and the General Post Office in O'Connell Street, where the bullet holes are still visible from the 1916 Easter Rising. The guide lists a Walking Tour of Dublin in the 18th century, when the aristocracy was on a high - prior to the low when London attained direct rule in 1800.
Once you've done these, you need never do them again. Leaving all subsequent trips to Dublin free for the unadulterated pleasures of shopping and clubbing. Grafton Street is a fast fix for shopaholics, the trendy department store Brown Thomas is akin to Harvey Nichols. Powerscourt Townhouse centre, or Clergy's store on O'Connell Street are lower-rent. Always worth seeking out are Irish linen and woollen garments. The Dublin Woollen Mills on Ormond Quay has jumpers like Joseph Tricot, but one third of the price. Claddagh friendship rings, as worn by Daniel Day Lewis and Sinead O'Connor, can be had at jewellers on Pearse Street. Art buyers go to St Stephen's Green to find works so fresh the canvases are still wet.
The Horseshoe Bar, the Shelbourne Hotel, Friday, 7pm: The crucial part of a Dublin weekend - the people part - begins here. The Shelbourne Hotel is the haunt of the beautiful people. Johnny Depp, Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson and, without a doubt, Gabriel Byrne have propped up its noble solid- oak bar. It has a haunted atmosphere, like the bar scene in The Shining when the ghouls come out to play.
It's heaving with hard drinkers and poseurs. Suits clutching pints of whiskey, and a woman with a cleavage running down to her navel. A man called Fergal with bad breath and a sweet smile asks us to mind his box. "Please shout if it begins ticking," he says, rapping it hard before driving off into the swirling sea of bodies.
We meet Michael, a native Dubliner and a film producer, who's an old friend of Carol's. Michael knows the actor, John Lynch, and he probably knows Gabriel Byrne. But I'm more impressed that he knows Declan, who produces Father Ted: anyone connected in any way to the irascible gobshite blasphemer Father Jack can do no wrong in my book.
Carol suddenly thinks she heard Fergal's box tick and we realise he's disappeared. We remove its wrapping with the dexterity of bomb disposal experts - to unveil a golfing mug of horrifically bad taste. No wonder he abandoned it.
Dublin's nightclubs seem to remain popular for longer than London's. So for at least three years the places to go have been Lillie's Bordello, or The Kitchen at The Clarence Hotel, owned by U2, the Pod or Ri-Ra. Michael wants to go to Renards, a private members' club; where we dance until 4am, by which time it was all such a blur ...
The Morning After, Saturday, 2pm: There's one reason for more shopping - to buy sunglasses to prevent the light from slitting open your eyeballs. You have one mother of a hangover, but Dublin would not be Dublin without post-partying pain. Now one appreciates the good sense of rooming out of
the city, with its rickety, thin walls. Ballsbridge, Donnybrook or Sandymount are quiet, leafy suburbs and offer good value Bed and Breakfasts, and are only a pounds 3 cab fare from the centre of the city.
If you miss breakfast you can get the full Irish monty at Bewley's 24- hour Oriental Cafe, on Grafton Street or Westmoreland Street. Eating it is another matter. As I gaze bug-eyed into my dish, replete with black and white pudding, I recall some immortal lines by Oscar Wilde.
The bracking water that we drink
Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
Is full of chalk and lime,
And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
Wild-eyed, and cries to Time.
No reflection on Bewley's breakfasts: this gaol is of my own making. Wilde, who had a proper sense of noblesse oblige towards drinkers and hedonists, spent his formative years in splendid Merrion Square, an area awash with blue plaques. Dublin's Temple Bar was once a poverty-stricken slum area. Its regeneration has been stunning, and the builders' skips have finally disappeared to reveal a little Notting Hill: artists' lofts, stylish boutiques and a film centre showing more challenging stuff than Home Alone 3.
Temple Bar, which runs from Fishamble Street, site of the world premiere of Handel's Messiah, to Westmoreland Street is also home to wonderful historic pubs, such as Flannery's, and eccentric restaurants such as The Chameleon in Fownes St Lower. We hadn't booked and we had to beg for a table; found the Indonesian food generous, inventive, cheap and worth prostrating ourselves for.
The Duke pub, Duke Street, Saturday, 7.30pm: The social habits of Dubliners must be the obverse of Californians. No one goes to bed early, and drinking and smoking too much is a fact of life. Daylight hours funnel towards a single truth: you'll end up in the pub. Tonight we're in the pub for a literary pub crawl, thus absolving ourselves of guilt. Derek and Donagh are demolishing a scene from Waiting for Godot at The Duke. Del and Don, who are professional actors, also reel off a stream of Irish literary anecdotes as we stop at ale houses and landmarks on the way.
Our favourite is the one about Brendan Behan, who wrote Borstal Boy and A Quare Fellow. Behan was struggling with his second sad attempt to give up alcohol. He arrived in Montreal and was confronted by a sign saying: Drink Canada Dry." "Which," concludes Del, "he proceeded to do with aplomb."
Davy Byrne's pub, Duke Street, 10pm: Samuel Beckett lived in a bedsit above Davy Byrne's. One presumes Beckett's den boasted the lovely original Georgian decor, like the front half of the pub, as opposed to the nasty faux nouveau decor installed in the back half. Not that the gangs of English stag and hen parties roaming Dublin's fair city could give a damn. From nowhere they came: these men in identical shirts and women in dayglo wigs and Ronald McDonald make-up, lured by the news that Dublin had overtaken Barcelona as the happening Euro capital. We met a stag party from Wakefield who had the identical-shirt look down to a tee. They had worked a colour coding to denote the pecking order. There was Mr Black, Mr Phlegm Green, Mr Pink, Mr Mauve, Mr Pus Yellow and Mr White.
Mr White was the ring leader. He'd modelled himself on the character Begbie from Trainspotting, although his lobotomised expression was all his own.
"I'm from Wakefield, me," said Mr White, looping his thumbs under his braces.
"That's nice for you," said I.
"Where you bloody from, then?"
"Where's that when it's at home?"
"Blackheath ain't in London."
"Yes it is."
"Well, my postcode says it is."
"That heath's a gay area ain't it?"
"Why you asking me? I'm not fucking gay. Do I look gay? No, didn't think I did. So, d'you fancy a night out wimme then, then?"
I would rather spend the evening washing Father Jack's soiled underpants, thanks very much. "No ta," I say, "Got to be off."
Dublin fact file
Flight to Dublin courtesy of Aer Lingus, which operates daily flights to Ireland from Heathrow and eight other UK airports. Heathrow to Dublin, from pounds 82 return (excluding departure tax). Aer Lingus also offers exclusive deals on car hire and accommodation. Reservations and further information on 01645 737 747.
Where to stay
Accommodation courtesy of Lansdowne Manor, 46-48 Lansdowne Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4. Tel: 00353 1668 8848; fax: 003531 668 8873.Reuse content