Dah Duit (Hi) and welcome

Discover the landmarks of Dublin's literary history

This stretch of Dublin's Grand Canal was loved by poet Patrick Kavanagh. Picture: Andrew Montgomery Source: National Features

AT THAT time of day when the light is fading and the streets are filled with homebound commuters, a spectral Dublin emerges.

For an hour or so it becomes haunted by dead rebels and forgotten kings - the most melancholy and seductive city in which to walk through the twilight.

The poet Louis MacNeice, a northern Irish Protestant, came to Dublin as a visitor. He did not - could not - love the city. Yet he was unable to resist the power of her past.

"But yet she holds my mind

With her seedy elegance,

With her gentle veils of rain

And all her ghosts that walk

And all that hide behind

Her Georgian facades"

- Extract from Dublin (1939)

Poems, plays, novels and stories inhabit the personality of Dublin in a way that I have never encountered in another city. Literary outpourings were first documented in the 6th century, with the Gaelic bards who wrote praise songs for the Irish chieftains: poetry was prized as, unlike earthly treasures, it was considered immortal. After the native poets came the Vikings in the 9th century, with traditions of sagas, and the Normans in the 12th century, bringing with them an English tongue that the Irish would make their own.

As a child, writers and actors came to our home in the genteel suburb of Terenure to talk and declaim. My father, an Abbey Theatre actor, recited WB Yeats and shared stories of the writers he knew. He drank with Brendan Behan and the poet Paddy Kavanagh, sipping pints of stout and "balls of malt" - small whiskeys. And on a long, lost night he met a future Booker Prize-winner, Roddy Doyle, at a party held at Doyle's parents' house.

My earliest remembered Dublin landmarks are associated with writers: when my mother took my brother and sister and I into town, she would point out St Patrick's Cathedral where its then-dean Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels or, bringing us to swim at Sandycove, would show us the Martello Tower, where James Joyce opened Ulysses.

In homage to memory and the power of Dublin's literary heritage, I offer my own pilgrimage through the worlds of some favourite Dublin writers.

Patrick Kavanagh

Kavanagh's poetry evokes the city beautifully. In his 1953 poem If Ever You Go to Dublin Town, he asked the reader to seek out his presence after his death:

"On Pembroke Road

look out for my ghost,

Dishevelled with shoes untied,

Playing through the railings with

little children

Whose children have long since died."

I begin my search for Kavanagh on Grafton St, a busy pedestrianised thoroughfare that thrums to the sounds of itinerant musicians. Here too is one of the great coffee emporiums of the literary world, Bewley's Grafton Street Cafe, preserved in its old-world glory. Joyce mentioned it in his short-story collection Dubliners, and he, WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Kavanagh, were all regulars. Nearby, Kavanagh immortalised a brief meeting with the great unrequited love of his life, Hilda Moriarty (later O'Malley). A dark-haired beauty whom he met in 1944, she was, alas for Kavanagh, to marry a future government minister in 1947. He wrote her the poem On Raglan Road, later made famous as a ballad by the Dubliners:

"On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge

Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion's pledge."

From Grafton St I head south through Fusiliers' Arch, into lovely St Stephen's Green. There is a bust of James Joyce here facing his old university college, Newman House. With about 9ha in the middle of the city, it is the largest of inner Dublin's parks. Here, during the Easter Rising rebellion of 1916, Constance Markievicz, scion of Anglo-Irish high society and friend of Yeats, commanded a small rebel force until British sniping from the nearby Shelbourne Hotel forced her and other rebels to retreat. During the fighting, both sides observed a truce to allow the groundskeeper to feed the ducks in the park's ornamental lake.

A 10-minute stroll takes me out towards the Grand Canal at Baggot St Bridge. This was Kavanagh's favourite spot - a place "leafy-with-love banks and the green water of the canal pouring redemption for me", as he wrote in 1958. The council erected a statue of the poet, seated on a park bench in eternal admiration of the passing swans.

Annie Enright

Enright is a very modern Irish novelist. She once said that, unlike other cities where clever people make money: "In Dublin, clever people go home and write their books." Anne did both: her haunting novel The Gathering won the 2007 Man Booker prize and became a bestseller. Although set in the kind of genteel Dublin suburb in which I grew up, her novel reaches beyond Ireland towards a universal terrain of loss:

"We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love any more. And there is no logic or use to any of this, that I can see."

In her previous, debut novel, The Wig My Father Wore, the narrator Grace uses the wig as a symbol of what is false in her own life and the Ireland which has shaped and distorted her: "For years my father's wig felt like an answer. I could say, 'I am the way I am because my father wears a wig.' " To sample something of the intellectual world that shaped Anne Enright I step into the calm, cobblestoned quad of Trinity College, where she was a student in the 1970s.

Founded in 1592, Trinity was for centuries a bastion of Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. The first Catholics were not admitted until the late 18th century. The Catholic Church viewed the institution with grave suspicion: until 1970, Catholics needed permission from their bishop to attend Trinity. The college is home to the Book of Kells, an 8th-century set of gospels created by the monks of the Abbey of Kells in County Meath. A work of incredible beauty, the book helps to attract close to half-a-million visitors to Trinity College each year. Other bibliophiles come to spend a contemplative hour or two in the Long Room of the old Library Building - where the atmosphere is heavy with the grace of knowledge.

Emerging from the hush of the library and finding myself suddenly hungry, I make a beeline for Leo Burdock's chipper. For nearly a century, Burdock and his descendants have served what Molly Bloom in Ulysses called "a nice piece of cod" in crisp batter, with equally tasty chips. My favourite is the smoked cod, a Dublin staple, to be eaten across the road at the site of the old fish market on Fishamble St, which entered musical history as the place where Handel's Messiah was first performed at Neal's Music Hall on April 13, 1742. Sat here in the open, I catch the scent of roasting barley blown down river from the Guinness brewery at St James's Gate. That is the smell of Dublin.

Walking east along the banks of the River Liffey and then turning north takes me to the greatest of Dublin's five Georgian squares. Mountjoy Square was named after an Anglo-Irish peer who promoted the development of Georgian Dublin but died fighting against Irish rebels in 1798.

Roddy Doyle

Although his narratives often follow a tragic arc, Roddy Doyle is above all a very funny writer. His wit taps into a richly ironic Dublin tradition. It is a world in which a notorious hardman might hear someone shout, from a safe distance: "Come on ya coward and fight the nine of us!"

His 1987 novel The Commitments tells the story of an aspiring rhythm and blues band on the city's northside:

"They'd been in the folk mass choir when they were in school but that, they knew now, hadn't really been singing. Jimmy said that real music was sex. And there wasn't much sex in Morning Has Broken or The Lord Is My Shepherd."

Passing the council estates on my left - the fictional Barrytown of his novels - and the glowering sea on my right, some of Doyle's words about his native city come to mind: "It's a big con job. We have sold the myth of Dublin as a sexy place incredibly well; because it is a dreary little dump most of the time," he told a journalist in 2004. Only a man known to love his home town with a deep passion could get away with a remark like that.

Doyle is a champion of the Dublin that stretches, physically and psychologically, beyond the concerns of the metropolitan elite. He lives near the DART line now, on the way to the busy fishing port of Howth. Along its busy quayside, trawlers unload their catch. Some of these fruits of the Irish coast go straight on ice at Wrights of Howth, a seafood store where smoked salmon is a speciality. Salmon has a special place in the folklore of Ireland. In the Fenian Cycle, a body of mythological poems and stories first written down in the 7th century, it was said that the great warrior hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill tasted the flesh of the Salmon of Knowledge as a boy and, in doing so, gained all the wisdom of the world. On this basis, a side of Wrights' smoked salmon seems a bargain.

Before catching the DART back to Dublin, I make a foray up along Howth Head - the "Himp of Holth" in Joyce's Finnegan's Wake - as a pale sun emerges to light the sweep of the bay. East lies the little island of Ireland's Eye, to the west the Wicklow Mountains. Beneath them in the valley of the Liffey, the great city awaits twilight. Across the bay are the tall chimneys of the power station in Ringsend, home of Paul Durcan, Ireland's most exquisitely tender, richly comic and ferociously political poet.

Fergal Keane grew up in Dublin but now lives in London. He is a BBC foreign correspondent, author, broadcaster and historian.