The sky above the Irish Sea on the last genuinely Siberian afternoon of February's icy snap was suffused with summery light.

My Aer Lingus 737 had transitted a freezing, cloud-bound England but now, over the water, flew through sunshine, the Wicklow Mountains beyond the port wing a serene prospect of snowy peaks and fog-puddled valleys; Ireland looked like a country drowning in milk.My neighbor, the owner of a Dublin dry-cleaning shop, told this was my first visit, said: "It's the cultural aspect that interests you, is it? All the writers we spawned? Our famous old architecture?"

"More or less."

He nodded. "Books and bricks. Well, I suppose it's what most come for, but personally I leave all that to the wife. She went to university and knows about the those literary men."

Gloomily he added: "Avid reader, she is. I once even heard her call herself a Joycean. A Joycean! In my bloody shop!"

From 20,000 feet Dublin was just a small area of discoloration, a bruise between snowy white shoulders. Down on the ground, though, I found a mix of sublime Georgian terraces and awful commercial developments, a city containing some of the best and worst architecture in Europe.

- - -

The Shelbourne Hotel, "a respectable old edifice," according to Thackeray, who stayed in 1842, has a bar said to stand at the very epicenter of Dublin social life. The Horseshoe possesses a resonance like the inside of cello, the air almost vibrating with the sound of honeyed Dublin voices indulging their passion for talk.

And how they talked! Yacking away 10 to the dozen, they still polished their words like spoons, trailed ideas as delicately as anglers casting for trout and paused only to shove cigarettes or glasses into their mouths, even when the topic is - as it was now, on the eve of the Ireland-Wales match - rugby.

I chatted to a County Clare taxi driver named P.J. King who had brought a customer from Shannon airport. He told me he played the accordion in a traditional Irish band which, after a successful North American tour, was preparing to issue its first record.

"What's the band called?" I asked.

"It isn't called anything," said P.J.

Nearby, a sleek-looking man in a handmade suit was telling an Australian that in 1922 the Constitution of the Irish Free State had been drafted at the Shelbourne. "There's an awful lot of history swimming around this building," he said.

The Australian observed that an awful lot of Guinness was swimming around it as well.

I remarked to P.J. King that I foresaw problems for anyone wanting his record and he admitted that, yes, at some point they would probably have to think about a name.

The sleek-looking man raised a full glass of Guinness to his lips. He murmured, "The wine of the country," and drank the lot in a single, unhurried swallow.

The Shelbourne stands on St. Stephen's Green, a spacious park laid out by the Guinness family in the 1880s and containing, today, a sweet-smelling garden for the blind.

Before going to bed I looked out over the streets that had produced Shaw, Yeats, Beckett - all winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature - Swift, Bishop Berkeley, Edmund Burke, Thomas Moore, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde, Joyce, O'Casey, Brendan Behan and Flann O'Brien.

It was a "soft night," with a gentle rain filtering and blurring the lights. Then, scarcely able to believe my eyes, I saw a small, lean animal emerge from the darkness of the Green and go loping purposefully off into the city. It was a fox.

- - -

In the morning women were coming down to breakfast carrying red roses. A waitress reminded me it was St. Valentine's Day. "He's actually here in Dublin," she said. "Or what's left of him."

I stared at her. "Who is?"

"St. Valentine. They keep his mortal remains in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street. This afternoon there's a special Valentine's Day Mass. They do it every year. Rings are blessed and special prayers said for those contemplating marriage."

When I arrived at the church, Irish television was filming the casket under bright lights. As a guitar-strumming lady entertained the waiting congregation, I glanced through a booklet which explained that Valentine, a young Italian priest, had been martyred (beaten with clubs then beheaded) by the Emperor Claudius on Feb. 14, 290 A.D. Since Feb. 14 was also the day on which, traditionally, birds began mating, his name came to be asociated with fertility.

But it didn't explain why Pope Gregory XV1, wishing to pay tribute in 1835 to the Very Reverend Father Spratt, Prior of the Whitefriar Street church, elected to send him Valentine's remains.

The Mass was well-attended, with latecomers standing at the back. One, a tall whiskery man smelling of whisky, said to me, "In Japan on Valentine's Day the women all give their husbands chocolates. What I got from my missus this morning was a fearful wallop with a hairbrush. Then she walked out on me - not for the first time - and I have come to ask old Valentine to make sure she doesn't come back."

He took out his pipe then, remembering where he was, put it away again. "But by God he'll need to keep his wits about him, and that's a fact."

- - -

Colum Quilligan is a young, personable actor who, each summer, runs the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. During "an evening of song, crack and performance," Quilligan and a fellow actor assume the personae and speak the lines of Dublin's literary giants, performing in their favorite watering holes.

I met Quilligan at the Bailey pub in Duke Street, where the Crawl starts and, over an orange juice, he told me that pubs began featuring in the Dublin literary scene after the death of Yeats.

"That's when literature came out of the drawing rooms and into the streets. Dublin pub culture is largely anecdotal and, of course, the literary tradition remains strong; certain pubs still get reputations as places where writers meet. Word gets about that so-and-so's is having a mighty crack on writing, and suddenly that's the place to go. But the people turning up tend not to be real writers at all. They're mostly drinkers with writing problems who sit around all night banging on about the ideas they'll never actually get down on paper."

Quilligan has narrowed Dublin's 600 pubs down to five.

Appropriately, they visit Mulligans in Poolbeg Street, where James Joyce drank - and where, according to Quilligan, the Society for the Protection of the Dublin Accent still meets.

The tour starts and finishes at the Bailey, where they keep Michael Collins' revolver and the door of Number 7 Eccles Street, Leopold Bloom's fictional home.

"Some years ago the building was being restored by an order of nuns, " said Quilligan. "They tore down the door and threw it on a skip, but some literary-minded men rescued it and installed it here. A great ceremony was held, presided over by Patrick Kavanagh, who declared the door open by declaring it closed."

- - -

Later, passing Mulligans, I popped in for a quick one myself. It was a small, airless place with institutional yellow ceilings and green walls bearing a venerable, conker-colored patina of tobacco smoke. Six or seven silent men sitting over their Guinnesses watched the barman draw my pint with the solemnity of communicants observing their priest. I knew it would not be seemly to speak just then but, when I reached for the glass, someone unexpectedly spoke to me.

"Let it stand for five minutes," whispered a portly, strawberry-nosed drinking man. "Let it settle, or you'll not get the eatin' and the drinkin' in it."

The reverential silence resumed. I wanted to ask the barman why he didn't give the place a lick of paint but knew in advance what the answer would be. Tarting up Mulligans would be tantamount to deconsecrating it. The regular congregation would walk out and never darken its doorway again.

- - -

David Norris lives in a beautiful Georgian house in North Great Georges Street. He's a member of the Irish Senate, a lecturer in 20th-century English at Trinity, an articulate campaigner for gay rights and the scourge of developers threatening Dublin's incomparable Georgian architecture.

He's also the most committed Joycean in town. Norris fills theatres with his one-man James Joyce show, is patron and founder of the James Joyce Cultural Centre and organizer of the 1991 James Joyce Summer School. In his garden he keeps a handsome wooden door frame salvaged from the house of one of James Joyce's brothers; Mr Norris found it abandoned by renovators and wheeled it home in a pram.

An engaging, bearded man fizzing with jokes and ideas, he bought the Georgian house because it stood in a Georgian row with all its fanlights intact. Also, because Joyce attended the Belvedere School at the end of the street. "It's still run by the Jesuits, and Joyce remains its most illustrious old boy. Joyce walked down this street on his very last day in Dublin."

The James Joyce Cultural Centre will occupy a similar Georgian house opposite. "It will have lecture rooms, study rooms, a coffee bar and a Sean O'Casey room. Some years ago a pub in the next street proposed calling itself the Sean O'Casey - apparently unembarrassed by the fact that the old boy had been a strict teetotaller.

"His widow Eileen came to see me and said he'd be spinning in his grave at 78 rpm, so we got the notion quashed. As a gesture of thanks, she gave me the very typewriter on which he'd written his three Dublin plays, and some of those bobbly woollen hats he wore. They'll be kept at the Cultural Centre, and O'Casey will be one of the writers studied there."

I wondered whether there were any Joyces left in Dublin who might also possess memorabilia. "Any Joyces left in Dublin?" he whooped. "The place is bloody crawling with them! I'm drowning in bloody Joyces!"

His crusade to keep Georgian Dublin intact has made him deeply unpopular with the city's autocratic and secretive authorities. "Dublin has been absolutely devastated in the last 25 years, but now there is a dawning realization that cultural tourism has enormous growth potential; profits can be made from our great buildings, and the active ill-will of the '60s has been replaced by passive good will. Mind you, there are still plenty of subversives keen to rip down the Georgian stuff but, if your response is fast and ruthless enough, they can be stopped."

- - -

I went to the Abbey Theatre to see Brian Friel's marvelously funny and poignant play, "Dancing at Lughnasa."

In the interval I chatted to a lean, amused man who said: "The thing you must understand about Dubliners is that we are totally absorbed by Dublin - more so than the citizens of most cities.

"In the womb some essential Dublin essence seems to come to us through the umbilical cord. It's not surprising that so many of those writers who went away continued to write, almost obsessively, about the place they left behind."

On my last day it was not the big-city murmur of early traffic that woke me before dawn. Dublin was as silent as a forest, and the sound seemed so agricultural that at first I paid it little heed.

Only when it became insistent did I realize I had been roused, that morning in Dublin, by the crowing of a cock.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)