Better with a bagel or three

15th August 1997 at 01:00
Walk around Dublin Geraldine Brennan.

My family may have invented the expression "a pork pie at a Jewish wedding". My mother is descended from Catholic pork butchers and Jewish French polishers in Dundalk, Co Louth. From my Jewish grandfather, whom I never knew, I have inherited not only a fine mahogany sideboard but a desire to find out more.

Dublin has been a focus of family reunions, honeymoons and shopping trips for several generations but none of us has explored Portobello before. This formerly working-class area on the north bank of the Grand Canal is now upwardly mobile and humming with happy estate agents and electric sanders. It has an intimate, cosy air - by Dublin standards, the Georgian houses are scaled down and the streets fairly narrow - and offers a respite before or after tackling the busier tourist haunts nearby, including Trinity College, Grafton Street and St Stephen's Green.

Portobello and the surrounding South Circular Road area absorbed most of the Ashkenazy Jews who arrived from Russia and Lithuania in the 1880s, fleeing persecution. The influx pushed the number of Jews in Ireland up to 3,000 by 1900 and almost 4,000 by 1946.

The newcomers were at odds with the existing small, mainly Anglo-Irish, Hebrew congregation in north Dublin and set up their own synagogues in their homes - seven in the Portobello neighbourhood at one point. One of these, once called "the rebels' synagogue", for a reason that nobody can agree on, is now the Irish Jewish Museum in Walworth Road. The museum and a visit to Ballybough cemetery in a north Dublin suburb are good starting points for tapping this seam of Dublin life.

The two most famous Dublin Jews in the world, one real and one imaginary, must have crossed paths near here. The late Chaim Herzog, son of the first chief rabbi of Ireland and former president of Israel, opened the museum in 1985. A stone's throw away, at 52 Clanbrassil Street Upper, is the fictional birthplace of Leopold Bloom, anti-hero of James Joyce's Ulysses. (No trip to Dublin is complete without a blast of guilt for not having read Ulysses - or not enough of it. I carried Danis Rose's new reader's edition throughout the walk in penance.) The museum traces the history of Irish Jewry back to the 1079 Annals of Inishfallen, in which the King of Munster banished five Jews who had brought him gifts. The first arrivals in Dublin - traders from the Canary Islands - are dated around 1660. The last census in 1991 showed the Jewish population of the Republic of Ireland had shrunk to 1,581. However, the museum, with its synagogue upstairs and memorabilia downstairs, feels more of a lively community resource than a memorial to a marginal culture. It is buzzing on Sunday mornings, which is also peak trading time for Bretzel's in Lennox Street, now Dublin's only kosher bakery and famous for its bagels, poppy seed cake and - er - foccacia. Most of the traditional Jewish businesses in this area have given way to the renovation industry - junk and antique dealers, salvage yards and wood-stripping shops.

Richmond Row, just before Bretzel's, leads to Portobello Harbour and the Grand Canal towpath. Turn left to follow the canal. The water is murky but this section is tranquil and tree-lined, there are attractive pubs on the towpath and you can see swans. One of the four synagogues still functioning in the city is in Adelaide Road, north of the canal as you approach Leeson Street. A little further on, in front of Wilton Place, is the poet Patrick Kavanagh's statue. You can share a bench with him as you flick through Ulysses and break open the Bretzel's bag.

At Macartney Bridge turn left up Baggot Street Lower. The grander-scale Georgian houses here are now mostly businesses, but 29 Fitzwilliam Street Lower (third street on the right), built for Pounds 320 in 1794, has been restored as a family house and is open to visitors (closed on Mondays).

Pick your way round, or across, the resplendent Merrion Square, where artists sell their wares at weekends, to walk down Clare Street towards Trinity College. You are dangerously near the Ulysses trail at this point - Sweny's chemist shop (where Bloom bought his bar of lemon soap) is in Lincoln Place, or you can make a break for Tara Street station, for trains to Sandycove and the Martello Tower.

Trinity College and the Book of Kells is a must, but check the queue first. The exhibition that keeps you sane while waiting is worth the entrance fee on its own. Follow Dame Street away from the college to find the site of the first synagogue in Dublin, in Crane Lane opposite City Hall. You have to guess at the exact location.

Turn left at the far end of Crane Lane if you fancy a reviving detour into the Temple Bar area. Besides the cafes, street performers and Saturday farmers' market, you'll find The Ark, the impressive cultural centre for children, in Eustace Street. It's not geared to drop-in visitors but try booking in advance for a workshop or performance.

Several capuccinos later, cut behind Christ Church cathedral. If you've taken all possible detours, you may be too late for the markets in Francis Street (or Back Lane on Sunday). Catch a southbound bus to Clanbrassil Street and your starting point - if you hurry Bretzel's might still be open. Ulysses schmulysses.

Irish Jewish Museum, 3-4 Walworth Road, off Victoria Street, Dublin 8. Tel: 003531 453 1797 Open 11am-3.30pm Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday

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