A barrel of holy water, a fragment of Nelson’s Pillar in O’Connell Street after the 1966 IRA bomb, a wooden toilet… The Little Museum of Dublin should be the first place any family goes on coming to town. Spilling out over four floors of a ramshackle Georgian townhouse on St Stephen’s Green, it magically conjures up the city through ordinary objects and their tales.
This fantastic people’s museum covers the history of the city from Queen Victoria to the Celtic Tiger. All the stuff inside – spilling over the shelves, piling up on the floor, creeping out in to the hallways – was donated by local people. John Hughes gave a note he wrote in 1976 as a 12-year-old boy: ‘Dear Samuel Beckett. I live in your home. Or rather, you used to live in my bedroom. Can you tell me a little about yourself?’ And there’s the famous playwright’s reply. ‘As a boy I slept with my brother in the room at the top of the house next to where the water tank is – or was then... If you ever meet my ghost in the house or grounds, give it my regards.’ More than 5000 similar objects have been donated so far, and they’re still pouring in.
The museum is immensely proud of its hometown. Free ‘I Love Dublin’ classes are run for local kids. The aim is that everyone discover something about themselves inside. There’s even an old phone directory with a note asking, ‘Can you find yourself or someone you know?’ The 12-year-old twins pored through it for their name, their aunt’s name, anyone they could think of…
There’s an old child-sized tricycle on display but not in a glass cabinet; my son rode it around the museum. An old fairground Test Your Grip machine proved I am still stronger than the twins.
It’s altogether a very unusual museum. A sign says, 'Make Yourself at Home’. There’s not a room without several soft sofas and fresh flowers, and help-yourself jars of sweets to keep your energy up – something every museum should have. But if the fruitdrops aren’t enough, there’s Hatch & Sons Irish Kitchen café in the basement, home to the Waterford blaas – Ireland’s soft, a little too squishy, answer to the panini.
Just around the corner from the museum is the marvellous, handsome Merrion Hotel, also a series of Georgian townhouses. It’s hushed and elegant, but not stuffy, with special Miss and Master menus for kids and mini-bathrobes. There’s also a big Italianate garden courtyard to run around – unusual for such a central hotel. It’s an oasis of calm from the busy streets outside. The only sound is the chink of the china as tourists stir in their sugar and butter their scones. Many of the latter are on the free City of a Thousand Welcomes scheme run by the Little Museum, where tourists can sign up to be taken for tea by a Dubliner who chats to them about their home town.
A free cup of tea and cake goes down well in Dublin, as eating out can be expensive. Chez Max is an exception. Snuggled up against the gate of Dublin Castle, it serves classic French bistro fare and Orangina in squat glass bottles. So much better than an overpriced cup of Irish stew in a dingy bar.
Dublin has many far more famous sights than the Little Museum, but if you’re a family it’s by far the best place – along with the Merrion's Italianate garden – to hang out.
Read more about Dublin family breaks.