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The Ark is a purpose-built cultural centre for children based in the city’s creative quarter, Temple Bar. Expect a busy schedule of theatre, music, exhibitions and workshop catering for ages 2 to 14.
The Ark has been high on my hitlist of toddler friendly things to do in Dublin since we arrived here in late March. As the events are aimed at children aged two and above, I’ve had to hold off until Pea came of age. I couldn’t quite wait until his second birthday though, I just don’t have that kind of willpower. When I started writing this post, it was going to just be about our experience of Grass, a dance production back in September. But I’ve been so behind with my blogging that we’ve been again since, so I’m going to write about our second visit too. Kind of a Buy One, Get One Free type of deal.
Grass, 27th September
I took a chance and booked this for a then almost 22-month-old Pea in disregard of the age guidance. I don’t make a habit of ignoring age guidance for this type of thing but there’s a dearth of these opportunities in Dublin and I’ve taken Pea to enough shows for young children now to know that he can stay focused in the right conditions.
Grass features dancing, puppetry and projections in a performance that explores the ground beneath our feet and the creatures that inhabit it. I thought Grass was a beautifully conceived an executed show. Like the best performances for young children, the concept is a simple one with a little bit of educational content (interesting facts about various insects) a playful approach and a lot of surreal fun – the ant dance-off being the highlight for both me and Pea.
What didn’t really work for us was the seating. We were seated on the floor right in front of the stage. Cute little fake grass mats were provided which I thought might keep Pea distracted. Wrong. What caught his interest was a ceramic plant pot. It looked like just part of the set but in fact was just a clever way of concealing some of the lighting. We were warned not to touch it as it would get hot. So, that was the one and only thing that Pea wanted to get his hands on. I kept trying to prise him away from it and trying to distract him with other things but he just kept going back, as did several of the other children.
So that was annoying for him and stressful for me. He did eventually settle down and were able to enjoy the rest of the show. I don’t mention this to sound nitpicky – I’m not a theatre professional and don’t pretend to understand the challenges of staging any kind of production, let alone one for such a niche audience. I just think it’s interesting that a neat solution to a staging issue had the potential to derail the performance simply due to the tendencies of the target audience. Since we attended Grass Pea has reached the recommended age threshold and I can confidently say that he’s no more capable now of not touching something he wants to touch than he was two months ago.
Seedlings Early Years Workshop – Slime Symposium, 30th November
Seedlings Early Years Workshops are hands-on, creative workshops for children aged 2-4 and are held monthly at The Ark. When I went to book this a few weeks in advance I discovered it was sold out. I added my name to the waiting list not really expecting anything to come of it. When I didn’t hear anything by the day before, I assumed that was it and made other plans to for my day with Pea.
As it turned out, Pea had a rough night with teething and barely slept. So I barely slept, and then we both did sleep, late into the morning and we missed our window for my planned activity for the day. I couldn’t fire up my burned out brain to devise an alternative plan so resigned myself to
the day becoming a write-off. Then we got a call from The Ark advising that a spot had become available for the 2pm workshop and did we want it? Hell yes, we did.
The Seedlings workshops are designed and delivered by Artist in Residence Lucy Hill and take a different format each month. The ‘slime symposium’ promised messy play and our own slime to take home. Nice. Lucy started things off by introducing the children to two crates one filled with ‘mud’ (If I recall correctly it was actually chia seeds but looked very convincing) and one filled with seaweed. Pea ignored the mud but happily got into the seaweed, running it through his hands and studying it closely.
After the seaweed fondling, the kids donned cute little smocks and were set to work at their slime making stations. The slime actually was cornflower more chia seeds and food colouring, with various accessories to embellish it with. We had googly eyes and purple glitter, neither of which Pea was all that interested in. He mostly just wanted to stir the slime ingredients around in the bowl and that was fine. Lucy and her team of assistants made the effort to engage with us and demonstrate the wonders of slime but did so in a relaxed, unobtrusive way. The consistency of the slime, by the way, was more doughy and sticky than slimy but it looked pretty and it felt great so no complaints here.
As well as the slime making, there was a lightbox covered with dyed tapioca balls (the ‘bubbles’ in bubble tea) on top of it that Pea loved playing with. They are satisfyingly squishy to flatten underneath the palm of your hand. Around 10 minutes before the end of the session Pea abandoned messy play altogether in favour of barrelling around the studio. No one said a word or made us feel awkward, which isn’t always the case with similar activities we’ve participated in.
The Ark is at 11a Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2. Tickets for Grass costs EUR 12.50 each. Tickets for Seedlings cost EUR 11.50 per child/adult pair. The Ark building has step free access, accessible toilet and baby change facility. No cafe on site, but there are numerous options around Temple Bar and Dame Street.
EPIC the Irish Immigration Museum tells the stories of the 10 million people who left Ireland.
EPIC is one of Dublin’s newest museums, opened in 2016 in the historic CHG building. With it’s modern facilities and highly interactive displays the museum is very appealing to families with young children. As a recent returning immigrant I was interested in reflecting on the experiences of Irish immigrants and their contribution to the countries they settled in. When Pea’s Dad had a job interview nearby, we decided to make a day of it.
For the first hour or so it was just me and Pea, while Pea’s Dad went to his interview. We asked about parking the Pea mobile when we booked tickets and were advised to fold it up and put it in one of the lockers. I don’t think any of us expected it to fit. It didn’t. I felt obliged to push it around one-handed while attempting to control Pea with my free hand. In the end, an obliging staff member agreed to store the buggy in a locked room, giving me both hands free for optimum toddler wrangling.
Upon arrival, visitors are given ‘passports’ with a space inside to stamp each of the sections as you move through the museum. This is such a nice idea. It’s practical, as it serves as a map of the museum and I found this much easier to navigate my way around than a traditional floor plan. It doubles up as an activity trail, as visitors stamp their own passports in the stamping machines in each room. This would be a great way to keep little people focused.
The first few rooms focus on individual stories of immigrants, the reasons they may have left (famine, political strife, employment opportunities, missionary work). Later rooms cover the social, political and cultural impact of Irish immigrants worldwide. There were some really nice little touches throughout the museum. In one section, there’s a selection of old fashioned school tables with crayons, which kept Pea busy for a blissful twenty minutes or so. We had the most success, funnily enough, in a room decked out like a traditional Irish pub with little tables, traditional music and pub quizzes. The touch screen quizzes proved to be a great distraction for Pea, and gave me a much needed rest. I also really liked the ‘Achieving Infamy’ section with a myth-busting quiz about notorious Irish criminals.
When Pea’s Dad returned, we were all hungry and Pea was looking tired, so we stopped for lunch. Once Pea fell asleep in his pram we were able to go back for a second walk through and this time I was able to take my time to read the bits that interested me. There is a lot to take in, and even though we spent most of the day here there were still sections that I didn’t get to fully appreciate during Pea’s napping window.
I really liked the fact that the museum shines light on the positive impact immigrants have had in the world and not just on the tragic reasons for leaving the homeland. I had expected it all to be a bit heavy on famine and strife but it was much more balanced than that. The exhibits are interactive and innovative, making some subjects, such as sports, much more appealing to me than they generally would. While there’s nothing here to directly engage with very young children it’s overall very family friendly and Pea certainly found enough to keep himself occupied.
EPIC The Irish Immigration Museum is at the CHQ building Custom House Quay, Dublin 1. Open daily, 10-5. Admission is EUR 15 adults, EUR 7.50 for children 6-12, under 5’s go free. Step free access, accessible toilets, baby changing and lockers are available. The CHQ building has a gift shop and several food and beverage outlets for refuelling.
Dublinia is a heritage centre located in Christchurch Dublin. Visitors can learn all about Dublin’s Viking and Medieval past through interactive exhibits.
I’ve been meaning to visit Dublinia ever since I can remember and certainly long before Pea’s arrival in the world. Somehow, despite my numerous visits to Dublin before we moved to the city I’d never gotten around to it. I’d earmarked this one as something to do with Pea on a rainy Autumnal day, but in the end, after weeks of baking hot weather I just wanted to do something indoors and relatively cool.
There are four exhibitions to explore – Viking Dublin, Medieval Dublin, History Hunters and St Michael’s Tower. Viking Dublin provides some context into the Viking way of life. You can step inside a poky Viking house, learn the runic alphabet (we didn’t) or wield some Viking weaponry (we tried). This part of the experience was the least successful for us, it was difficult to engage Pea with many of the exhibits and I couldn’t read any of the information because I was too busy trying to prevent him from getting trampled by other visitors.
Medieval Dublin was much more successful for us. Here, you can explore Dublin’s docklands, call into a merchant’s home for dinner, play games from the time and, best of all, do some shopping at the market. The highlight of this was the spice trader’s stall with its selection of spices stored in drawers within Pea’s reach.
History Hunters focuses on archaeological techniques and the process of piecing together the city’s past. This exhibition included more information to read than the others and I mostly had to skim these as Pea isn’t capable of remaining still for long enough for me to read anything. Still, there were some nice hands-on features that Pea loved. Namely, trying on hard hats and attempting to get his little bubba feet into an adult sized pair of wellies. This section also included some archaeological finds for handling, an opportunity to create a trace drawing and interactive quizzes at the end.
At the end of the History Hunters exhibition is the gift shop, coffee shop and an exit and I nearly missed the final part of the Dublinia package – St. Michael’s Tower. This recently renovated medieval tower offers stunning views over the city. I wasn’t sure how Pea’s little legs would cope with the 96 steps to the top, but to his credit, he got almost all the way up before he threw up his arms to be carried. The views from the top really are gorgeous and it was very quiet and peaceful there. The best bit? All that climbing tired Pea out and he slept for nearly two hours afterwards.
Dublinia is at St. Michael’s Hill, Christchurch, Dublin 8. Facilities include baby changing, step-free access, cafe and gift shop. There’s no designated buggy park but the front of house team let me store the Pea-mobile by the entrance. Admission is EUR 9.50 per adult, EUR 6 for children and under 3’s go free.
A former British Army barracks built in 1810 amid fears of a Napoleonic invasion, Richmond Barracks is significant for its connection with the events of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Following Irish Independence in 1922, the barracks took on various uses but was eventually reopened as a Museum in 2016. The Museum also incorporates the historic Goldenbridge Cemetary. I was keen to visit the Barracks for my own interest not because there was anything that seemed especially enticing for Pea. But you know, you can’t book a babysitter for everything, so this was a case of dragging him along and hoping for the best.
Visitors to the Barracks can either take a guided or self-guided tour. The guided tour includes to Goldenbridge Cemetary so we chose the guided option. The Museum closes for lunch between 12.45 and 13.45 and we arrived at around 13.40. The next guided tour was due to begin at 14.00, so we headed towards the cafe to kill time before then.
As we walked down the corridor, I had a peek through the window of one of the locked rooms which is set up to resemble a school classroom. I involuntarily shuddered – the colour of the walls, the heavy wooden desks with the inkwells – it took me straight back to primary school. Irish classrooms haven’t really changed much over the years.
We gathered for our tour with our guide Niall. The tour began in the gymnasium – a nice open space for Pea to run around in with minimal risk of injury to himself or disturbance of others. We learned that every person in the country arrested for involvement in the 1916 rebellion – more than 3,000 – was brought to this very gymnasium where they learned of their fate. It was either prison in England or Wales or execution. The gymnasium is used as an exhibition space and the current exhibition, 77 Women, focuses on the women who were detained at Richmond barracks for their involvement in 1916. You can read more about them here, and the background to the centrepiece of the exhibition, a commemorative quilt celebrating the lives of all 77 women. I would have liked to have spent a bit more time looking at the quilt and reading about the women but Pea was being…well, just Pea.
Pea tearing around the gymnasium
The tour then moved into the main part of the barracks, or at least what remains of the original barracks building. There’s the classroom, which we didn’t access as it was being used for filming purposes the following day. One room is a re-creation of a soldier’s quarters and the remaining two rooms are re-creations of the residential dwellings that became of the site during two different periods.
The final part of the tour was of Goldenbridge Cemetary. The cemetery is only accessed through these tours or pre-booked appointments so it felt very special to gain access. Pea just wanted to play with the gravel on the ground so he stayed with his Dad near the entrance to the cemetery while I did my best to catch up with Niall’s tour.
Goldenbridge was the first Catholic Cemetary in Ireland since the Reformation. The most notable burials are W.T Cosgrave, the first president of the Irish Free State, and his son, Liam Cosgrave, a former Taoiseach. The thing that struck me most about seeing the grave (Liam is buried in the same plot as his father) is how modest it is.
The story that will stay with me the longest though is that of 8-year-old Eugene Lynch. Eugene was killed while playing outside the Barracks. His death wasn’t instantaneous. He was taken to his grandmother’s pub and laid on a table where he bled out. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Goldenbridge, only recently discovered and given a headstone after more than 100 years.
I really enjoyed our visit to Richmond Barracks but most likely wouldn’t go back here with Pea until he is a few years older. The museum cafe, The Mess, is very child-friendly and has outdoor seating and a garden which Pea loved running around in so we would definitely come back for that.
Richmond Barracks, off Bulfin Road, Inchicore Dublin 8. Open Monday – Friday, 10.00 – 16.00, access on Saturdays and Bank Holidays is only by pre-booked tours for minimum 6 people. Guided tours take place at 11.00 and 14.00 daily and cost EUR8. Self-guided tours cost EUR6. The museum closes for lunch between 12.45 – 13.45 daily, but the cafe is open then. It’s free to access the cafe and garden.
Cat Lounge in Smithfield, Dublin is Ireland’s first cat cafe. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a cat cafe, these are spaces where cats and kittens freely roam the space, playing, licking themselves and looking aloof. Humans are permitted only if they abide by certain rules, and beverages are available. At Cat Lounge Dublin, children under 10 years old generally are not permitted. However, occasional special sessions for under 10’s have been introduced, and I was damned if I wasn’t taking Pea along to one of them.
The Under 10’s sessions start at 10.30am as this is a time when the resident kitties are at their most playful and active. When we arrived for the session the duty ‘Cat Slave’ asked us to read through the house rules before going inside to meet the kitties. In essence – you are not Donald Trumpy, do not grab a pussy. No feeding them human food either or forcing them to sit still for a selfie. The cats determine how much or how little they want to interact with you.
I was so excited about this session that I booked it as soon as I heard about it (a previous session had sold out and I could’ve cried). Almost as soon as I’d booked and paid for it I started to worry about how Pea would be with the cats and if he was really too young for this sort of thing. His only consistent experience with cats is with my mother’s cat the super fluffy, ageing and docile Myrtle. She endures his fumbling petting with a sort of resigned tolerance. I am desperately broody for a feline fur baby though so I thought this would be a nice way of getting Pea used to cats and how to treat them.
He was fine. Absolutely fine with the cats. Initially mildly curious, then mostly indifferent to their presence and only really interested in playing with their toys. There was one incident where he handled a teeny kitten more vigorously than I would have liked and on a few occasions, I had to coax him away from infiltrating the Cats Only Zone. Otherwise all was okay. Perhaps because of his general indifference towards them, the cats seemed to like Pea and it was mostly relaxing for me too, just sitting with Pea and letting the cats and kittens slink around us. The cats are wonderful, my absolute favourite being Frodo – he was lively and playful and his paws! He has an extra digit, a thumb, basically. All of the cats are adorable but Frodo was a bit special.
The fabulous Frodo
Cat Lounge is at 1 Haymarket Square, Smithfield Dublin 7. Sessions cost EUR 15. For further under 10’s sessions, check the Cat Lounge Facebook page. Tea, coffee and hot chocolate are available from a self-service machine at no extra charge. Access is step free and there’s space in the hallway to store a buggy but it is limited.
*Since drafting this post, Cat Lounge have unfortunately announced they will be closing in August this year*.
Rathfarnham Castle is an Elizabethan Castle in South Dublin. There’s a playground on the grounds, managed by Dublin City Council. I learned about Rathfarnham Castle during our tour of Drimnagh Castle – the castle at Rathfarnham was built by Archbishop Adam Loftus, who was one of the owners of Drimnagh Castle.
View of the Castle from the playground
We arrived at the Castle just before midday on a scorching hot June day after a short but sticky bus ride. I’d planned to release Pea into the Castle grounds and playground to tire him out first but we were both a bit grumpy and sweaty from the journey so we headed inside to the Castle instead. Visitors can either take a guided tour or go for a self-guided option. After briefly toying with the possibility of joining the next guided tour with a group of seven-year-old school kids (the heat was clearly getting to me) I decided self-guided might be a better option for us.
This turned out to be a good choice, as we were able to explore the Castle interior at our own – okay, Pea’s – pace. He really only has two speed settings these days – Full Throttle or Asleep. So our tour was essentially just me chasing him down long, wooden floored corridors in large ceilinged rooms, steering him away from items of furniture helpfully labelled ‘I’m an antique’ and trying hopelessly to interest him in the ornate ceiling work, glistening chandeliers and stained glass windows.
Pea attempting to climb the furniture (not an antique!)
This all probably sounds immensely stressful, and it likely would have been, but for the fact that we didn’t encounter a single other visitor or member of staff during our time. No risk of awkward looks from strangers or being told off by staff (in fairness the front desk staff seemed very relaxed). We were also both cool, Pea was happy just running around and I appreciated the beautiful environment, even if I didn’t get to finish reading a single one of the information sheets in each of the rooms.
Just as we were leaving, the seven-year-olds were beginning their tour – perfect timing! We ventured outside then to try out the playground and have a snack. When Pea started to wilt, I poured him back into the pram and we took a walk around the foresty section of the park until he drifted off to sleep.
Rathfarnham Castle, Rathfarnham Dublin 14. Open daily May – September, 09.30 – 17.30. From October – April the Castle is open Wednesday – Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays from 10.30 – 17.00. Admission is 5 EUR per adult. Free admission on the first Wednesday of every month. There’s step-free access and a tearoom with baby changing, accessible toilet and selection of kids toys. Playground, tea room and exterior grounds can all be accessed free of charge.