Dublin is a fairly large and spread-out city, so it’s hard to explore the whole of it even over the course of a month. On top of that, the downtown area is packed with places to eat, drink, and visit, so you’ll find your schedule full daily just trying to get a grip on the center. But it’s worth taking a little trip beyond the hustle and bustle to explore some of north Dublin’s little gems: the massive Glasnevin Cemetery, the lovely National Botanic Gardens, and the quirky and surprising John Kavanagh’s (better known as the Gravedigger’s) pub.
You can hop on the number 83 (or 83a) bus at the Smithfield Law stop and ride the double-decker just 10-15 minutes north through some interesting and lively areas of the city (check out the Broadstone neighborhood). You’ll pass many large stone churches, their spires peeking out through slanted rooftops, and even more pubs and restaurants. To begin your little northern adventure, hop off at the Botanic gardens stop, pass through the wrought-iron gates, and enjoy a nice stroll around the manicured lawns punctuated with large, 19th century greenhouses.
The National Botanic Gardens
The gardens were founded in 1795 for the purpose of scientifically studying agriculture. By the 1830s, however, as more rare plants arrived and the field of botany became more important, the focus shifted to the pursuit of botanical knowledge. The several large greenhouses – meant to house impressive collections of palms, orchids, and other tropical plants – were built in the late 19th century and established the gardens as a national treasure. They’re free to visit, and are definitely worth a trip. It doesn’t hurt that the employees are incredibly friendly.
Even in the depths of winter, when we explored the grounds, the grass was bright green and many flowers (even outside the greenhouses) were in bloom. Inside the large glass and painted-iron structures, multitudes of plants blossomed and thrived. We saw plants indigenous to Ireland and Europe along with those that hailed from the South Pacific to South America and everywhere in between. Small brick-paved paths wound through the greenhouses themselves, and an occasional fountain burbled among huge, lush, green leaves. The soft warmth inside provided a welcome reprieve from the brisk winds tugging at our coats outside.
Just to the side of the Botanic Gardens, you’ll fid a tree-lined stone wall snaking along the edge. On the other side of it, accessible through a small gate behind the garden’s visitor center, you’ll find Glasnevin Cemetery. Founded in 1832 as a place where both Protestants and Catholics could be interred, more than 1.5 million people are buried inside its boundaries. Up until that point, the city’s Catholic residents had no legal place to bury their dead. So a local man named Daniel O’Connell fought for that right and won, and Glasnevin was established.
Today, tombstones stretch almost as far as the eye can see – at least as far as the walls and various large trees allow. Many are simple stone monoliths, others are highly decorative Celtic-style crosses, and a few comprise whole buildings. Joe and I were surprised by how many relatively new monuments were scattered in with the old. Numerous graves from the 1990s and 2000s stood right next to worn and almost unreadable headstones from the late 19th century. The juxtaposition was somewhat jarring and unexpected, but made us realize that the cemetery was not just a relic of the past – it’s still very much in use.
There is a fancy new-ish museum on site (along with a cafe and gift shop), and they offer tours of the cemetery if you wish to find the graves of some of its more famous residents. We chose to wander on our own, and there’s no charge for that.
In the middle of our wandering, the sun burst out from behind a large, dark grey cloud, and an almost magical beam of light illuminated all the markers and stretched out their long, thin shadows towards us. Everything glowed, the grass turned a brilliant green, and all was quiet except for an occasional bird call. Eerie, yet peaceful.
The Gravedigger’s Pub
Exploring an extensive botanical garden and weaving between seemingly innumerable tombstones can leave a person feeling a bit wrung out and exhausted. Fortunately, a solution lies just outside the wall of the cemetery down a sort of sketchy, nondescript dirt road: John Kavanagh’s infamous pub. Called the Gravedigger’s Pub by anyone who knows anything, this little establishment had a window from the bar into the cemetery so the grave diggers could drink on the job if they needed a break.
Today, nestled at the end of a cul-de-sac, it’s perpetually bustling and overwhelmingly friendly to locals and outsiders alike. After exploring, Joe and I ventured in for a pint of Guinness – said to be one of the best in Dublin – and a bite to eat. Although we were expecting basic pub food, we were pleasantly surprised to find several local Dublin specialties (like “Coddle,” a clear-broth stew of pork ribs, small sausages, and potatoes topped with herbs) on offer. Our server was cheerful and incredibly friendly, groups of locals chatted over long lunches, and the Guinness was indeed smooth and satisfying.
We passed by numerous other spots we’d love to explore, and I’d encourage any visitor to Dublin to make some time for the northern neighborhoods. They’re full of lovely little surprises and aren’t as crowded with tourists. You might just find your new favorite pint – and some new friends – while you’re at it.