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Childhood memories and the old masters

Several years ago, I had a date with a guy at the National Gallery. As we wandered through the building, he became increasingly animated. "Look at this wonderful space," he exclaimed. "I know every inch of it. Wasn't it a great place to spend your childhood, sketching Jack B Yeats!"

I said nothing. Days out during my childhood consisted of buying fish off the pier in Howth or being whipped by Marram grass on Dollymount beach. And once, we went to see a new bridge.

So, it was only in my 20s, that I discovered our lovely National Gallery, which dates back to the mid-19th century.



collection

In 1852, a special committee was formed to promote the establishment of a National Gallery in Dublin and on January 30, 1864, the Earl of Carlisle officially opened the National Gallery of Ireland to the public on a site adjacent to Leinster Lawn.

The collection comprised just 112 pictures, including 39 purchased in Rome in 1856 and 30 that were on loan from the National Gallery, London, and elsewhere.

In 1901, the Countess of Milltown gave over 200 pictures to the gallery from her house at Russborough as well as a collection of silver, furniture and books from her library. The gift was so substantial that a new extension was constructed to accommodate it.

In 1968, the gallery was extended again with designs by Frank DuBerry, senior architect with the Office of Public Works. This new extension is today named the Beit Wing in acknowledgement of the exceptional generosity of Sir Alfred and Lady Beit who gave 17 outstanding old master pictures to the institution in 1987.

The most recent addition to the Gallery complex was the Millennium Wing opened in January 2002. The new wing introduced a new, second public entrance to the gallery from the busy thoroughfare of Clare Street in Dublin.

The best place to start is the Irish Paintings Gallery, which contains works by Walter Osborne -- The Dublin Streets: A Vendor of Books (1889) is still recognisable as the Dublin of today -- William John Leech and Roderic O'Connor.

Don't miss Mary Swanzy's Pattern of Rooftops, Czechoslovakia or Sir John Lavery's portrait of Lady Lavery as Kathleen ni Houlihan, which graced bank notes for many years.

Jack B Yeats' paintings are also here, including the wonderful The Liffey Swim and The Singing Horseman. The European paintings section is in the older part and displays works by Pieter Brueghal The Younger, the famous Village School by Jan Havicksz Steen, and Vermeer.

There are two temporary exhibitions on at the moment -- Art Surpassing Nature: Dutch Landscapes in the Age of Rembrandt and Ruisdael (until January 20) and Turner's Watercolours in the Print Gallery (until January 31). The former has some beautiful winter landscapes and, as you'd expect, Turner's use of colour is a joy.



bright

I love gift shops and this one is a cracker with prints and postcards of many paintings, a terrific selection of art books and some fabulous round tower candles. One of the most popular paintings in the Gallery is Detail of Hellelil and Hildebrand or The Meeting on the Turret Stairs and if you're a fan you can buy notebooks, fridge magnets and even a CD. Be warned, if you want to see the actual painting, it's only on show to the public for three hours a week -- 11am-12pm, Monday and Wednesday and 3pm-4pm on Saturday.

The gallery cafe is a bright and welcoming place and serves hot dishes such as salmon, quiche, lamb hot pot and the usual assortment of cakes, including an impressive rhubarb and berry crumble topped with a cream and pistachio topping (a work of art in itself).

Currently, the gallery is preparing for a major refurbishment of the Dargan and Milltown Wings. There are plans to create an additional atrium space, new galleries to display more of the permanent collection and an extensive multi-purpose education centre.

The work will take about three years -- but no doubt it will be worth the wait.