Dublin Tour Guide and Historian: Meet Alan Byrne
How long have you been working as a Dublin tour guide and how did you find yourself in the tour guide business?
I started guiding a little over three years ago. I was studying for a master’s degree in history and struggling to balance that with work in retail.
I figured since I recently qualified with a history undergrad degree, why not put that to use?
I reached out to a friend who had been guiding for many years and I was taken on as a city guide and loved it immediately.
I ended up doing freelance tour work for several operators, but recently have been putting my energy into going private on my own.
I originally planned to progress straight to a Ph.D. after my master's, but tour guiding has taken over. I hope the Ph.D. is something I can do part-time in the future. I’m also in the process of establishing a company with some other like-minded guides.
Are you a native of Dublin?
Yes, I grew up in the suburbs and have spent most of the last decade living just on the outskirts of the city. For the past three years, I have been living right in the city center in Temple Bar.
Most tours of Dublin take visitors to the usual places like Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Guinness Brewery, just to name a few. Do you offer anything different from that?
I have guided in all of those places many times, but there are a few lesser-used spots I like to visit.
Often times there is a hidden history right under your nose. I try to incorporate parts of Cook Street and Audoen’s Gate as few people seem to go down there, but it’s the largest preserved section of the old city walls.
I often go into City Hall when available, as they have a great series of paintings in the rotunda depicting scenes from Irish history and legend.
By that time, my guests have heard about St. Patrick, Strongbow, Lambert Simnel, and Brian Boru, so it’s nice to put a face on them, even if the paintings are mostly apocryphal.
Where appropriate, with a small group, I can often take people up to the roof of my building in Temple Bar, where we get a great view of Dublin, from Howth to the Dublin mountains.
What are tourists usually expecting from a tour of Dublin?
It depends on the traveler really, though most people want a mixture of orientation, stories, and history.
The common denominator seems to be where to find bars with live music, particularly Temple Bar. Irish food is usually high on the list too.
I usually show them the main spots in Temple Bar but warn that they can often be more expensive and populated with other tourists. I try to recommend some lesser-known spots that are more authentic and better value for money.
On the history side of things, some people have a good idea of the broad outline of Irish history i.e. that the south was a former British colony, and they want to see sites related to the rebellion.
Americans seem to really appreciate anything over 300 years old and are particularly interested to see old churches, walls, and castles. Many have Irish heritage and want to explore that.
Quite a lot of people are amazed at the mixture of architecture around the city, where you can see the evolution of the town – Viking street layouts, Medieval churches, Georgian architecture, and modern architecture – all on the same street in some cases.
Others are unaware of this and expect a “Hollywood” version of Ireland: quaint villages and drunken locals dressed in green.
What sets you apart from other tour guides working in Dublin?
I have the benefit of qualifications in history which is usually appreciated by guests booking a private tour.
I also work as a research assistant for a former TV presenter and journalist, Vincent Browne, who is writing a biography of Charles Haughey, former leader of Ireland.
When I’m not touring, I naturally spend quite a lot of time in various archives and libraries. I think people appreciate that I’m working actively with real historical sources in archives day-to-day and that touring is not a means to an end.
Research can be a solitary and often lonely line of work, so I love to balance that by talking to people through tours, bringing the history alive.
Although I have to say I think that a background in history is not necessary to be a great guide.
Indeed some of the qualified guides I’ve seen have been quite wooden, and some of the best have been the ones who are passionate and experienced. I endeavor to mix the best features of both.
Do you confine your tours to the city center area or are there other attractions outside of the city that you bring tourists to?
About 95% of the tour work I do is around Dublin city. I’ve also done tours of other places – day trips to Galway or the Cliffs of Moher etc.
Sometimes I’ll get a request to do a particular tour, say, the Docklands area or the Irish Financial Services Centre, for people interested in the contrast between old and modern Dublin.
I’ve also done tailored tours for people interested in social history – going to places off the beaten track, say the birthplace of a particular person.
What is it about being a tour guide that you enjoy most?
Meeting people who are genuinely interested in learning about Ireland. Part of the reason I’ve tried to establish working for myself rather than freelancing for a tour company is to get to know individuals and establish friendships.
I’m still in touch with a lot of people I’ve met over the years. Some of them have come back to visit a second time. It’s particularly rewarding if you meet someone with an Irish connection and you’re able to elaborate on that.
One time I had guests from Australia who were direct descendants of Jim Larkin (Union Leader), so it was a real treat for me to show them his statue and the sites of O’Connell Street relating to the strikes he led.
They really seemed to appreciate that too and I was able to stay in touch and connect them with someone local to them who is studying that field. It’s nice to be able to stay in touch with people and forward things you hope they will like later on down the line.
Do you have a favorite Dublin attraction that you like to tell people about?
One of my favorites is the plaque to commemorate the “death” of Fr. Pat Noise.
I won’t spoil the story, but I love the way it represents Dubliners embracing a legend and putting a lot of thought into a mischievous prank. I think it sums up the attitude of the city perfectly – we don’t take things too seriously and we embrace a good story.
How does your academic background in history impact your success as a tour guide?
I think people put a value on me having degrees in history, as well as my research work, in general, but I think the main benefit has been for my private tours where people want to spend the entire day with me talking about every conceivable aspect of Irish history we encounter.
For those tours, I incorporate a meal at the end so we can really get into the details of what we’ve just seen and then talk about it all in-depth. These people tend to know a little already, so they will seek me out based on my qualifications and experience.
Sometimes I’ll get a specific request for a particular type of tour. Once I was asked to show a group of Dutch students around. They were doing a project on how Ireland has modernized and arguably broken away from the Catholic Church in many respects.
My master’s thesis focused heavily on the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin (John Charles McQuaid) and church power structures in the 20th century, so I was able to apply that knowledge directly.
I also focused on union laws and had an interest in revolutionary movements, so I got involved in a project with some young people from Ireland who were interested in Limerick and its role in the Irish revolution. We went on a tour of Dublin and I took them up to see the birthplace of Robert Byrnes, a former hunger striker and first IRA casualty of the War of Independence.
Having a background in history also gives me the skills to analyze sources at short notice to tailor tours like that for anyone with specific interests. Most people just want a good story though, and I’d say I learned just as much from the questions people asked me over the years.
What countries do your guests generally come from?
For big group tours, they tend to come from all over the globe, from Milan to Minsk. For my private bookings, it tends to be people from the U.S.
What, in your opinion, makes Dublin a great city to take a tour in?
It’s the perfect size to walk around, particularly with a small group.
We can see the transformation from Viking settlement, through the Norman, Georgian and Victorian periods, the Revolutionary era, to a major financial hub in just over 2 miles.
There’s also a major body of literature that has its origin in Dublin, and the genesis of many famous stories are woven into the fabric of the town – Dracula and Gulliver’s Travels for example.
But I think it’s also the friendly atmosphere of Dublin that makes it great – people often comment on how approachable everyone is (though locals may disagree!).
The things people really love are the stories about bizarre incidents or local characters like Bang Bang and the Diceman who have passed into almost legendary status.
As I tell my guests, we don’t dress in green and dance on the tables in bars – we sit in the semi-dark, drinking Guinness and just talking – mostly tall tales of our own. This is the real Dublin experience, and it’s to be found all within walking distance of the city center.
How can people sign up for a tour of Dublin with you?
People can contact me directly on Instagram (@abtoursdublin) or by email ([email protected]) and I’ll try to accommodate a tour to suit any budget, from a quick walking orientation to a premium regional tour with a chauffeur.
If people are interested in an all-day, in-depth walking tour of Dublin city, with a dinner at the end, they can book that through Airbnb experiences, even if they are not Airbnb guests.