Sunday 11 December 2016

Review: Dublin City of Literature by Muriel Bolger

O'Brien Press, €12.99
Authors such as Shaw and Doyle serve as guides in this pocket-sized book on the capital, says Eamon Delaney

Published 20/02/2012 | 06:00

Given the way the State has been bailing out our banks, there is a feeling that the country should be getting something back, and apparently the latest proposal for the old Bank of Ireland building on College Green (former seat of Grattan's parliament) is that the neo-classical building be turned into a literary museum, a grander version of the Dublin Writers Museum on Parnell Square and one that would draw in the tourists from the city's busy centre.

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This is a laudable and understandable ambition, and illustrates just how much our literary heritage is tied up with the country's image and its spirit. Which is ironic really, given how many of our writers were antagonistic to the country's prevailing mythology and official ethos.

Urban Dublin supplied most of these rebellious authors, and this highly informative pocket-sized book is an excellent starting guide to almost all of them and where they came from.

If you've any doubts about Ireland's continuing success in the world of literature, just look at how regularly Irish writers appear on the long, and short, lists for international book awards such as the Man Booker, or the Costa -- more recently Paul Murray and Emma Donoghue.

As it is, dirty old Dublin is the birthplace of Beckett, Behan, Joyce, Shaw, Swift, Wilde, Yeats and the adopted home of Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh and many others, including overseas writers attracted here by our tax-exempt status, amongst other things (Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner).

In recent decades, the city has continued to produce highly successful authors such as Maeve Binchy, Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, and crime writer John Connolly, as well as playwright Conor McPherson and many names in the more popular genre often unfairly tagged as chick-lit.

But listing these names is superfluous. Better to think of the city's outer suburbs providing the likes of Colum McCann, from my own Deansgrange area, or Joseph O'Connor, from the equally unheralded Glenageary.

This guide is divided into sections on writers, listed alphabetically, but there are also features on walks such as one that goes from George Bernard Shaw's birthplace on Synge Street to Camden Street and the likes of the Bleeding Horse pub, namechecked by Joyce. Or a walk from the National Gallery to Lower Baggot Street, although it is good to see a focus away from the usual dominance of Behan and Kavanagh. This is also a city famous, after all, for Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, and other supernatural writers such as Sheridan Le Fanu.

The book also illustrates the many interesting sculptural and glass works with literary associations around the city, such as Brendan Behan's statue and seat on the Royal Canal and Robin Buick's pavement plaques marking the Ulysses trail as well as hidden gems such as the Setanta, or Tain, wall mosaic just off Nassau Street. The list is long.

There are also extracts from works such as poems by Thomas Kinsella and Seamus Heaney. But the real value of this guide lies in alerting us to once feted but now less well known talents such as poet and novelist Aidan Carl Mathews, although curiously there is no reference to novelist Ronan Sheehan, who emerged as one of the most original chroniclers of Dublin middle-class life in the Seventies and Eighties.

Strange, too, to think of the huge impact once made by Aran Islander (and Dublin resident) Liam O'Flaherty, but whose prolific output is rarely spoken of now. Is it the same with Sean O Faolain. How often are they read these days?

Dublin is, of course, a capital of very divergent social classes and how refreshing to have Lee Dunne, author of Goodbye to the Hill, who hails from old Mount Pleasant in Ranelagh, express it so bluntly: "I used to deliver milk in my bare feet to the posh houses in Rathgar. Only a mile divided our neighbourhoods, but it could have been a different continent. They had flowers and trees and grass; there were seven of us in two rooms and the family who lived above us had 18 children in the same space."

There are no extracts from Joyce, alas, probably because of copyright reasons, a legal situation which should improve from hereon. This is a pity since Joyce is the quintessential Dublin writer and one that an entire tourist industry could be built around, such is the way the city informed every sinew of his work. But let's have the real meat, and psychological mess, of Joyce's work, and get away from all that tiresome Edwardian nonsense of Bloomsday and straw boaters and dietary reproductions. This guide, diligently produced by Muriel Bolger, would be an excellent place to start, both on Joyce and on all the other writers who have come from, and of course to, our literary capital.

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