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 more recent times, films such as In the Name of the Father have been made on location.
To stand in the rockbreakers yard, hemmed in by high stone walls on the spot where, in early May 1916, 14 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 is booming, or at least Dublin is.
If you go to the south of Dublin and walk up Killiney Hill, a viewpoint of spectacular beauty surveying the coast from Howth to Bray, you can peer into the gardens of the likes of Bono, George Michael and Tom Cruise. Admire the sweep of the growing suburbs; look out to sea and breathe the spume from the yachts that gleam across the waves.
Theres 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.
Dublin is now truly cosmopolitan, and the tiny area known as Temple Bar has become an international byword for a good time. Almost bulldozed for a new bus terminal in the 1980s, Temple Bar was saved from one kind of oblivion and 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 vibrant wholefood market attracts attention in the daytime and open-air film screenings, concerts and theatre productions draw the crowds at night.
Tucked into a corner of the square, in what was until five years ago a disused and dingy 18th-century cellar, is Il Baccaro, one of the most natural Italian restaurants you will find outside 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, which are traditionally simple in their fare. The mastermind behind this enticing venture is Gino Bottigliero, an Italian originally from Naples, whose long, greying hair, walrus moustache and dark flashing eyes give him a piratical air. Bottigliero met and married Mary Pyne, a Dublin girl from the top of OConnell 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; the Fiddlers Elbow in Via dellOlmata is just one of Bottiglieros series of very successful bars in Rome, Florence, Venice and now Dublin.
Bottiglieros success comes partly from a no-nonsense approach to business, where he recognises the need for efficiency and quality, but it also derives from a fertile imagination and the ability to create a friendly ambience. His partner, Dubliner Tiernan Maguire, spent several years working with Bottigliero 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 Bottiglieros 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 who alternate behind the bar and Marina who waits tables, 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 delicious 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. Bottigliero contributes to the ideas as well, and he found a butcher in Dun Laoghaire capable of recreating traditional Italian porchetta romana, pork stuffed with herbs and spices and cooked slowly in a huge oven. There is also an interesting pasta dish called penne allarrabbiaciana, 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 Abruzzo mountains. If you can manage a dessert, the home-made tiramis is excellent, and then, in true Italian style, an evening can be rounded off with Vin Santo and cantuccini or amaretti, traditional biscuits that go ever so well with sweet wine.
Temple Bar and Kilmainham Jail may not have much in common, nor do, superficially at least, the Irish and the Italians, but there are connections in the spiders web of culture and history that hold them together. The origin of Celtic culture actually lies in the Po Valley of northern Italy, from where 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 strong link 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 wont 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 Bottiglieri, 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 part of the fabric. The economy thrives, but not in a vacuum. The history is remembered, but not by chance.
Il Baccaro, Meeting House Square, Dublin.
00353/6714597, Mon-Fri 18.00-23.00, Sat 14.30-23.30.