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More Than Tea and Sympathy

DUBLIN -- Steeped in history and buzzing with activity, Ireland's capital city is in the midst of a massive makeover.<BR><BR>Fueled by what locals call "the Celtic tiger economy" and a backlash to "the brain drain," the undercurrent in the late...

DUBLIN — Steeped in history and buzzing with activity, Ireland’s capital city is in the midst of a massive makeover.

Fueled by what locals call “the Celtic tiger economy” and a backlash to “the brain drain,” the undercurrent in the late Eighties and Nineties that lured Ireland’s well-educated young adults overseas, Dublin is doing what it can to present a more polished image.

With about 35,000 people relocating or returning to Ireland annually, restaurants, bars, galleries, hotels, stores and American businesses are moving in to try to cash in. This year, 6.5 million people visited Ireland and poured $4 billion into the local economy. The number of visitors is expected to double in the next five to nine years.

Out-of-towners generally head to Dublin Castle and Powerscourt for castle tours, but many usually miss Luttrellstown Castle, a Gothic estate with 560 acres that dates back to the 12th century. Used mostly for private parties, secluded getaways and corporate events, the site has 14 bedrooms and a 25-person staff — one quarter of the help once used to run the estate in its heyday.

Over the years, the castle has seen Queen Victoria and Princess Grace dine there, Fred Astaire dance, Mel Gibson film “Braveheart” and Ronald Reagan and friends re-enact scenes from films on horseback complete with period costumes. It’s the kind of place where R.E.M., Van Morrison and the Glen Miller Orchestra play, provided the party is private and closed to the media.

Madonna grabbed recent headlines by exchanging vows in a Scottish castle, but not before Posh Spice and Manchester United soccer star David Beckham tied the knot last year at Luttrellstown Castle.

Located about 15 minutes outside of Dublin, the 60-room estate is undergoing major renovations. Its 18th century four-poster beds, paintings, antique claw-foot bathtubs, tapestries and white marble chimney pieces aren’t going anywhere, but a limited number of $1 million homes are in the works, and a 160-bedroom hotel, a new clubhouse and nine-hole golf course are also being planned near the 18-hole course just outside the castle’s massive gates, according to Eamonn Coghlan, a three-time Olympic runner who is a consultant for the castle.

More traditional accommodations are available in Dublin. The Shelbourne poured $3.5 million into renovations last year and a wing of bedrooms will be restored in 2001. The 190-room hotel’s well-appointed rooms with a bounty of antiques doesn’t hint at its dualistic popularity with out-of-towners for afternoon tea and locals for after-work drinks.

The Westin Dublin, a 163-room hotel overlooking Trinity College with such nontraditional Irish amenities as air conditioning and a fitness center, will be unveiled this spring. The Clarence, owned by U2’s Bono and The Edge, continues to draw crowds, especially at night, to its Octagon Bar and study. Indicative of Dublin’s current culture clash of old and new, the 50-room hotel offers baby-sitting services to guests.

Designer John Rocha has also made a pass at hospitality. He helped with the decor of the Morrison Hotel, which opened two years ago. Like fellow designer Louise Kennedy, who recently opened a new townhouse near Merrion Square, Roche has a signature line of crystal. Another Irish designer, Darryl Kerrigan, is looking to stake a claim in the local market by opening a store here.

The city’s art scene is also getting a new look. Next year, the Hugh Lane Municipal Art Gallery in Parnell Square, the site of a major retrospective for Irish-born Francis Bacon last summer, will branch out to include the building next door.

Even grafitti is spreading as an art form, with the annual “Bridge Over Trouble Waters Aerosol Art Fest” attracting masses.

On another front, several civic theaters are opening in the greater Dublin area as part of the Cultural Development Incentive Scheme, approved by former arts minister Michael D. Higgins.

As Dublin’s Temple Bar area — once a haven of warehouses for artists — has become more commercialized with chains like Urban Outfitters moving in, artists and gallery owners are moving out.

Earlier this year, the Visual Arts Centre, the country’s oldest group studio, moved from there to a temporary space on St. Michan’s Street.

One of the newest art galleries, 51 Grafton Street, set up shop on what is one of the busiest shopping areas. The 1,000-square-foot space displays paintings, sculptures and prints from nearly 100 artists who reside in Ireland.

Sinead O’Connor and Ronan Keating of “The Boys Zone” were among the 800 people who turned out to celebrate the gallery’s opening at a party last month at Lillies Bordello.

With the Irish economy continuing to gain steam and the unemployment rate hovering below 4 percent, more Irish-born artists are returning to their homeland and the country’s appetite for art is increasing, said Neil Fraser, co-owner of 51 Grafton Street. “Traditionally, we had thousands of people emigrating, but now many are coming back, and a lot of professionals are staying in Ireland,” he said.

They’re also more selective about what they’ll eat.

Given that, new restaurants are cropping up and catering their menus to more defined palates.

In June, John Shanahan, an American executive who developed “Hooked on Phonics” and later syndicated Dr. Laura’s radio talk show, got into the restaurant business with Shanahan’s on the Green, a 120-seat American style steakhouse that rests on Stephen’s Green, a lush park donated by a member of the Guinness family.

For his restaurant, Shanahan invested $4 million in the Georgian building to restore it to its 1741 heritage. The fact that Shanahan’s “grows its own beef” has made its certified Irish angus beef steaks a favorite with diners, including many who are concerned about Mad Cow disease, he said. Unlike most Irish restaurants, Shanahan’s makes everything — bread, ice cream and pastries — on its premises and has a wine cellar with 232 different types of wine — which are not offered in single serving size bottles.

The Oval Office, Shanahan’s downstairs lounge that showcases memorabilia from 16 American presidents with Irish roots, including William McKinley and Harry Truman, has also been a hit. John F. Kennedy’s rocking chair from Air Force One and an Abraham Lincoln signed document pull in the tourists, but the bartenders’ “free pouring” — instead of measuring the standard seventh-eighths of an ounce shot of liquor — reels in the crowds, Shanahan said.

Another newcomer on the restaurant scene, Moe’s, a cozy 40-seat spot on Lower Baggott Street, has also been received well for its international contemporary menu, with duck with caramelized chicory and spring roll, and grilled halibut with Portugese sausage being among the most popular dishes, according to Elaine Connolly, owner.

“This is certainly not fusion. A lot of food became very architecty,” she said. Interestingly, as sushi bars, Indian restaurants and noodle bars like Wagamamma open throughout the city, nonethnic restaurant owners are more concerned about supporting local cheesemakers and organic farmers, Connolly said.

“People are interested in more down-to-earth food that doesn’t involve chef vanity,” she said.

Afternoon tea remains an occasion in area hotels like The Shelbourne, the Merrion and the Fitzwilliam, but takeout coffee and food is catching on. The Barge Cafe, Nude Food and Cafe Sol have opened to help keep the city caffeinated.

Some say the need for caffeine has been triggered by city’s influx of executives from Dell, Intel, Hewlett Packard and other companies investing in the country. They need something to keep them going.