Onn and Notable Dublin Exhibitions

  1. Up in the Zoological Gardens
  2. Picture Perfect Panic Places
  3. Try Not to Smile
  4. Dublin's Wooden Saint
  5. Tribal Dublin - The First Irish
  6. The Greatest Painter You Never Heard Of
  7. The High Art of Bric-a-Brac
  8. Francis Bacon's Studio Meets the World's Glass Window Masterpiece

1. Up In The Zoological Gardens

Dublin Zoo

Name, if you can, any zoo which has inspired a popular song. Here’s a clue: it’s located in Dublin.

Start with the song’s seriously excellent advice – “if you’ve any money, go up to the park and view the Zoological Gardens.”

“We went out there to see the zoo.

We saw the lion and the kangaroo.
There was he-males and she-males of every hue,
Up in the Zoological Gardens.”

Dublin Zoo is one of the one of the world’s most delightful collections of he-males and she-males. The animals are kept in natural enclosures amidst what it is probably the most beautifully planted and compelling 66 acres in Ireland.

So desirable is the location that every seven years the people of Ireland vote to see who gets to be the nearest neighbour. The winner of this ballot takes up residence next door in Áras an Uachtaráin, the home of the President of Ireland.

Kids and zoos are a natural fit, but as the tune makes clear, grownups find the place even more intriguing.

♫ “We went up there on our honeymoon.

Says she to me ‘If you don't come soon
I'll have to get in with the hairy baboon’
Up in the Zoological Gardens.” 

What are you waiting for? Dump the kids, grab your partner, and view the Zoological Gardens.

♫ “Says she to me ‘It's seven o'clock

And time for me to be changin' me frock
For I long to see the old cockatoo’
Up in the Zoological Gardens.”

“Says she to me ‘Me lovely Jack
Sure I'd love a ride on the elephant's back
If you don't get out of that I'll give you such a crack’
Up in the Zoological Gardens.”

“Oh, thunder and lightning is no lark
When Dublin City is in the dark.
So if you've any money go up to the park
And view the Zoological Gardens.” 

Listen to a clip of the Dubliners singing this song.

By Scott Simons


2. Picture Perfect Panic Places

Glendalough Monastery - Wicklow Mountains National Park

Quick. Sixty howling mad men are waving swords and axes and running at you.

What to do? What to do?

Hmmm, let’s see. You have a wee knife for cutting cheese and bread. You’re well trained in the art of illuminating manuscripts and singing prayers, but your self-defense skills are a mite weak.


When the Vikings stormed Irish shores during the eighth and ninth centuries, their primary targets were the dozens of monastic settlements where the wealth of Ireland was concentrated. For generations, donors had filled these churches with gold and silver crosses, chalices, patens, saints’ reliquaries and goblets. Also food, iron and captives who could be sold into slavery.

The great monastery at Clonmacnoise was raided and sacked six times.

A prayer: "From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord."

A monk’s poem:

Since tonight the wind is high,
The sea’s white mane a fury,
I need not fear the hordes of Hell
Coursing the Irish Channel.

The problem, if you were a monk, was where to run. You needed some place close and impregnable.

The ingenious solution was to build round towers which served as bell towers between attacks. Very, very tall towers. The single door was usually a dozen feet off the ground. You got inside by climbing a rope ladder. And then pulled the rope up when the marauding horde got too close.

The bursars were happy because the money was spent on churchly adornment. The monks were happy – at least the agile ones – because they knew that the Vikings wouldn’t dare stick around for a siege. Within a few hours, the madly ringing bell would alert the local king and a vengeful army of locals.

Eventually, the Vikings settled in Ireland, lording it over large segments of the countryside. The round towers remained, used now only for storage and bell ringing.

You can visit the scenic monastic community of Glendalough in the Wicklow National Park near Dublin. Walk the quiet glade. Tilt your head skyward and admire the picturesque spire. Lovely.

But, remember, you’re looking at an ancient response to terrorists.

... by Scott Simons

Number 31 is happy to arrange sightseeing tours of Glendalough and the National Park.


3. Try Not To Smile

Merrion Square Park - Next to the National Gallery of Art Public Art

"I can resist everything except temptation."
"Experience is one thing you can't get for nothing."
"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

The Dubs love their famous wits and two of the greatest are remembered with ingeniously appropriate public works of art. Both tributes are found in the same lovely place, Merrion Square Park directly across from the main entrance to the National Gallery of Ireland.

Merrion Square is one of those handsome Georgian residential areas which are the glory of Dublin. Fine brick facades, ornate doorways, graceful and balanced windows and climbing ivy define the look. The dozens of houses surrounding the square overlook the central park.

Two of these fine houses are today museums. There is a Merchant’s House which retains the amenities and furniture of an eighteenth century dwelling. The second is the Oscar Wilde House Museum which allows tours that must be booked in advance.

Young Oscar Wilde played in the Merrion Square Park and attended school in Trinity College around the corner. The wonderful statue of him in the park recalls perfectly the author’s sardonic view of the world. Wilde is shown reclining against a rock, a leering grin lighting up his double-chinned face. A couple of black marble plinths are inscribed with some of his droll pronouncements.

"Cynicism is knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing."
"Arguments are to be avoided: they are always vulgar and often convincing."
"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

Like few public statues, this one captures not only the look but also the very essence of its subject. It really is like spending a few minutes in the company of Oscar. It’s no wonder that students often recline beside the statue and even give the man a peck on the cheeks when having their photos taken.

Keep wandering the pathways and you’ll spy an oversized, weirdly proportioned throne. Welcome to the perfectly designed tribute to Dermot Morgan, Ireland’s comic king and star of the infamous Father Ted TV series.

Go on. Sit on the throne. You’re sitting in the seat of a giant. And, legs dangling ridiculously, you’ll feel silly.

Try not to smile!

By Scott Simons


4. Dublin’s Wooden Saint

National Museum of Ireland - Collins Barracks
Permanent Exhibition - Curator's Choice

Ireland wants to be wood.

Clear the Irish from the land and in a few short centuries the whole of Dublin will disappear beneath a wooden canopy.

As it was in the beginning…

Pollen studies of undisturbed bogs indicate that the last glaciers receded about 10,500 years ago. From that point on, trees returned to Ireland. First came birch, then hazel and pine. Oak and Elm followed.

The characteristic tool of the first farmers were stone axes which were used to clear large swaths of the primeval forest. The National Museum – Kildare Street has several display cases filled with these indispensable tools.

From the first farming communities some 6,000 years ago, Ireland remained a patchwork quilt of clearings interspersed with bogs and forests, fens and mountains. Well into the 20th century, wood remained an indispensable resource. Endlessly malleable, it was sawn into planking, carved into churns and barrels, spoons and spokes, wagon wheels and posts.

It’s appropriate, then, that the most impressive statue in Dublin is carved from wood. There’s no great tradition of marble or stone sculpture in Ireland since the early medieval period. But wood was a material beloved of Irish artists and craftsmen.

Now ensconsed in the National Museum – Collins Barracks you will find Dublin’s sculptural masterpiece in “The Curator’s Choice” exhibit. It is a statue of Saint Molaise. The statue was found on a stone slab in the oldest church on Inishmurray Island off the coast of Sligo in the west of Ireland.

The artist has captured that “peace that passeth understanding” in the Saint’s features. Yet somehow the sculptor retained the strength and presence of the native oak.

In Ireland, even the saints want to be wood.

By Scott Simons


5. Tribal Dublin - The First Irish

National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology

The first Irish arrived here about 10,000 years ago. These people were hunter-gatherers and their way of life endured for more than 3,000 years.

From studies of similar societies and the carrying capacity of the land, scholars can estimate Ireland's human population when these hunter gatherers roamed the island. Best guess: about 7,000 people. Dublin’s population, then, would have been about 220 people spread in small tribal groups.

This was the Mesolithic period, the Middle Stone Age. Tools were fashioned from wood, bone and tiny chips of flint called microliths. Woven baskets and bags and snares were used to gather plant foods and small game. Mesolithic groups would have moved about within large territories, visiting the sea shore during the winter, rivers during the salmon run and the hills and mountains during hazel nut gathering and hunting seasons.

The traces left by these people are few. Several carefully excavated fire pits, piles of clam shells, post holes and similar detritus are all that remain. But, you can see some of their tools at the National Museum Kildare Street.

Enter the museum and your eye is immediately drawn to the fabulous gold objects, the largest prehistoric gold collection in Europe. Ignore these bright and beckoning artifacts. Instead, examine the case of teenchy flints you’ll find on your left. These are the microliths, or "tiny stones", with which the early Irish successfully conquered Ireland.

They’re not very impressive, but they are a triumph of human ingenuity. If you need to move around a lot from one small forest clearing to the next, what better tools to carry than nearly weightless collections of flint that could be fashioned into whatever tool you’d need? Harpoons for visits to the sea and rivers, arrow heads for small game, drills for piercing animal skins.

As you wander through the wonders created by later generations of Irish artisans, take a head count of your fellow museum visitors. Odds are, you’re sharing this one building with more people than lived in all of Dublin and vicinity some 10 millennia ago.

By Scott Simons


6. The Greatest Painter You Never Heard Of

The National Gallery of Ireland

What French painter of the mid-1800’s commanded the highest prices for his paintings? Which creative genius was named “the most renowned artist of our time” and “the incontestable master of our epoch”?

Wrong. You probably guessed Monet or Renoir, Manet or Van Gogh. But, at a time when Manet was publicly ridiculed for his impressionist style, this artist’s creations were subject to furious bidding wars between Princes and titans of industry.

Of course, now you know. It was Ernest Meissonier.

Who? Just goes to show that there’s no predicting the tastes of future generations.

Meissonier lavished exquisite attention on his relatively small canvases. His favourite subjects were horses and stirring recreations of Napoleonic battle scenes. Admirers such as the art critic Ruskin studied his paintings with a magnifying glass.

You aren’t able to properly appreciate Messonier’s microscopic control unless you can find one of his paintings and stick your face about two inches from the canvas. His minitiaturist genius cannot be seen in a reproduction.

So, where can you find a Meissonier?

Of all places, the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin has one of his masterpieces.

And that’s the strange glory of this wonderful collection. You’ll find one of just about any famous artist you can name in Ireland’s premier art museum.

There’s one Rembrandt – and a great one, a nocturnal scene considered the definitive example of the genre. There’s one Vermeer, the best of his many paintings showing a girl writing a letter. Gabriel Metsu’s lifetime masterpiece on the same subject is here.

El Greco, Picasso, Rubens, Fra Angelico, Goya, Gerome, Brueghel – the role call of famous artists stretches on and on. One or two paintings each. And, naturally, there’s an unparalleled collection of Irish artists.

And one Meissonier.


7. The High Art of Bric-a-Brac

National Museum of Ireland - Collins Barracks
Permanent Exhibition - What's In Storage

Remember how you could amuse yourself for hours by poking through Grandma's old bits of jewelry? Or the fun of rummaging through old dressers and sheds for the odds and ends of other days?

Some genius of a curator at the National Museum must be reliving his second childhood because the experience has been recreated at the Museum's Collins Barracks site. Hidden among mazy passages in this immense eighteenth century military building packed with old furniture and silverware and tanks are two long, low rooms stuffed top to bottom with display cases containing the odds and ends of treasures past.

Picture an old fashioned library with shelves of books reaching from the floor to ceiling. Put glass fronts on the book cases, replace the books with hundreds and hundreds of bits and bobs and you've got the feeling. Delft and Iznik tiles, Japanese swords, Roman glass, dozens of old decanter stoppers, french porcelain, ancient bronze votive statues, Egyptian amulets, medallions - anything and everything is tossed together.

It's a secret world, quiet and little visited. It's the nation's attic, the stuff that didn't make it onto the fireplace mantle. The hushed closeness, the stacks and stacks of jumbled treasures, the whiff of olden days.... you'll recognize the feeling.


By Scott Simons


8. Francis Bacon’s Studio Meets the World’s Glass Window Masterpiece

Permanent Exhibitions - The Dublin City Gallery (Hugh Lane)

Recently labeled one of the 1,000 Must-See works of art before you die, the painter's studio is a study in creativity.

Or a junk pile.

It really is an unbelievable mess - layers upon years of doodles and ripped magazine photos and buckets of brushes all topped with splashes of paint. The studio was willed to the fabulous Hugh Lane gallery along with several of the master's portraits. Archaeologists carefully numbered and photographed every one of the thousands of bits of detritus accumulated by this messiest of painters. Lovingly, the whole kit and kaboodle was reassembled in the Hugh Lane. Bacon could walk right in and feel free to add more layers of stuff.

Before you get to Bacon's studio, you have to pass another of those 1,000 must-see artworks. This time it's Harry Clarke's fantasy in glass, the most amazing and wondrous glass window you will ever see in your life. The studio is a curiosity, the Harry Clarke window is one of the transcendent creations of mankind.

The third (and last) of the 3 guidebook recommended Irish works of not-to-die-before art is the Book of Kells. Happily, this is also located in Dublin at the special museum in Trinity College in the heart of the city. Without a doubt, this is the pinnacle of Irish art and like the book says, you will die a regretful death if you don't take a look-see.

A lovely stay at Number 31 completes the must-see works of art.

By Scott Simons

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