Travel

A wee bit of lore at Dublin's Leprechaun Museum

If President Obama brings his daughters when he visits here for business, sightseeing and family history, he probably won't have much trouble keeping Malia and Sasha interested and amused.

For the rest of us, though, it can be tough capturing our children's attention with tales of Irish history and brooding castles. The rollicking pubs are out, along with the distilleries and breweries, and the incessant rain doesn't help.

But on my visit to the Emerald Isle last summer with my wife and daughter, 19, we found some family-friendly attractions, thanks to our distant cousins.

First stop is the recently opened National Leprechaun Museum near the River Liffey. Ask any Irish person about leprechauns, and - if they can keep a straight face - they'll tell you it's all Yankee blarney. They put up with it only for the sake of keeping peace with Americans.

The point is well-made the moment we enter the museum, by a photo of Walt Disney. He beams during a 1950s visit to research "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," a musical about finding the King of the Leprechauns that stars some young actor named Sean Connery. Disney's whimsy is about as lighthearted as it gets.

"That's the trouble," says our tour guide, Seamas O'Reilly, a young graduate of nearby Trinity College. "Disney stirred up all these professors at University College Dublin about Irish folklore, and when he came over, he ignored everything they told him and made a movie that has nothing to do with the real story of leprechauns."

Instead, "Disney cooked up all this made-up Irishness about pots of gold and rainbows and little people," O'Reilly says, "and now it's imported back to Ireland."

We had the most fun in the rainbow room, where children pass through curtains of weightless filaments hanging from the ceiling, conjuring up the colors of a rainbow.

There's also a giant's room, with furniture sized for a giant to use, and a map room, with actress Ita Fitzmahony scampering about as a guide to the images of mythical characters projected on the walls and ceiling.

It's goofy and different, and when we end up at the snack bar and book shop - complete with leprechaun hand puppets for sale - docent Ellen Ryan is there to invite children to draw their versions of a leprechaun. The finished works of art are hung on the wall for all to see - and for parents to photograph.

'Is it real?'

Next stop is the National Museum of Ireland's Archaeology Museum, across the courtyard from the National Library and around the corner from Ireland's parliament, or Dail.

"What I find time and again is that young visitors can be quite sophisticated," said the museum's education director, Siobhan Pierce. "After all, even very young children these days are Web-connected, most are familiar with the hot films and television shows - much of that fantastic and, well, unbelievable in a way."

She called them "the Avatar generation," because they are wary about what can be believed in their world.

The museum, which was once part of the British Museum before Irish independence, houses artifacts dating to 7,000 B.C.

"It presents difficulty for the young especially, who often are far from understanding concepts of long periods of time," Pierce says. "The miracle here is that after seeing, say, a child's shoe from 2,000 years ago, or a 5-foot Viking sword, or gold jewelry as big as Christmas tree ornaments (that) an Irish queen may have worn, the children ask their parents, 'Is it real?'

"The power of 'yes' cannot be overestimated," Pierce explains. "Instead of receiving fantasy and myth, they discover 'yes.' Yes, the human story is powerful but as intimate as a child's slipper from the time of Julius Caesar."

The museum offers year-round guided and self-guided tours for children of all ages.

At the second-floor education resource room, children and parents or guardians - it's not day care - can drop by for quiet activities such as coloring and playing with plastic Viking armor. There's also docent-led storytelling, craft-making with local artisans, and learning how to make and play a Viking board game called hnefatafl.

Everything in the room is marked and mapped so children and parents can find the corresponding artifact in the museum.

"Talking about bringing a museum to life for children," Pierce said.

The city comes to life for children with a jam-packed calendar of summer activities and festivals through Sept. 30. Hundreds of free events are offered in parks and libraries, including fairy-tale and rap-writing workshops, dance lessons, African board games, drum circles, Polish legends, and art competitions.

The Obamas will miss all of that, but that leaves something for the rest of us.

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