Sunday 23 November 2014

My favourite room: It's fit for a president

Thirty-two years ago, David Norris discovered an almost intact 18th-century street in the heart of Dublin and fell in love with it. Mary O'Sullivan sifts through the flamboyant senator's cluttered pile. Photography by Tony Gavin

Published 29/08/2010 | 05:00

David Norris in the main drawing room of his 18th-century townhouse in North Great George’s Street.

Ireland's heads of state are known for many things, including their patriotism and learning, but none to date have been noted for their flamboyance, wit, or sexuality. That could soon change if Senator David Norris -- gay-rights activist, human-rights campaigner, Joyce scholar and entertainer extraordinaire -- wins his bid for the Park.

"I didn't come up with the idea myself, but I would certainly do my best to deserve it and to fulfill it in the best possible way," he promises, adding that he hadn't thought of running until a newspaper reporter rang to ask him if he was interested, telling him that a website had been created with 879 people spontaneously proclaiming Norris should run.

"I'm the kind of person who, if a ball comes flying in my direction, I take a wind at it, see if I can score a goal," David explains in his trademark theatrical tones. "In the piece the journalist published, he said the odds on me were 50 to one. I thought 'good odds' and went down two days later to Paddy Power, where I found I was 20 to one. Now I'm five to two and there are nearly 27,000 on the combined websites in favour of me," he chortles.

David is the first to say the odds are stacked against him, mainly because the whole presidency is tied up in legislation involving the political parties and the county councils. "You need 20 Oireachtas members or four councils. Out of decency, the parties should take the whip off the councils and let me have the opportunity to run and the people have their say," he notes.

He cites many persuasive reasons why he thinks he'd make a good president, not least that the world would sit up and take notice. "Virtually anyone else being elected would not be news internationally. My election would be a global news item. I would be the first head of state to be openly gay. When I was elected to the Senate, I was the first gay person ever in the world to be elected to the national parliament. As an openly gay person, I never emphasised it. That would make me into a freak," he notes.

"I wanted to be able to deliver not just for the 10 per cent who are gay, but for the 90 per cent as well. People have known I'm gay for 40 years; they've had time to get over it. On the other hand, every channel in North America would cover it and I'm a sufficiently wily old bird to deal with the questions, park them and sell Ireland like no one's business." Did I say he could talk for Ireland, literally?

The international news channels will be disappointed in one area -- there will be no partner paraded as part of the campaign; though the 66-year-old enjoyed a 30-year relationship with Israel-based activist Ezra Nawi, they are now just good friends. "There will be no consort in the Park," David says, with a deliberately camp laugh.

If he is elected, the Aras's gain will be a big loss for another part of Dublin. The former Trinity lecturer's name has been synonymous with North Great George's Street for more than 30 years; not only is his own elegant home on the street, but so, too, is the James Joyce Centre, which probably would not be there but for David's fund-raising and campaigning. In fact, Joyce himself would not be held in such regard were it not for the way David made him such a prominent part of his course when he started lecturing in Trinity.

David was born in the Congo -- his father was an English war hero and inventor who died when David was a small boy, and his mother was from Co Laois -- according to David, she could trace her roots back to the time of St Patrick. He was brought up in Dublin and attended Trinity. "I was an undergraduate one day, a graduate the next and on the teaching staff there the day after," he says. "I taught 20th-century prose fiction with a large element of Joyce. I initiated the Joyce course. When I started, Joyce wasn't particularly popular. The same with Bloomsday; I was very much involved with its origins as a national festival and people laughed at me, but it's taken off and it's done a lot of good for the country economically," he says, in somewhat presidential-campaign mode. To be fair to him, he has also raised a huge amount of money for the James Joyce Centre and for many charities with his one-man Joyce show. He's performed it all over the world, including in America, Australia, Argentina, Beijing, Beirut and Brazil.

It was fund-raising of a different kind which first led him to North Great George's Street. "I was running a disco around the corner in Parnell Square to raise money for the various organisations I was involved in. It was successful, but someone got in on the act and started doing the same thing around here but for commercial gain. So I came round to see where this rival operation was functioning from, and, for the first time, I realised there was an almost intact 18th-century street in the heart of Dublin, and people appeared to be living in it. I fell in love with it the minute I saw it and decided, 'I am going to live there.'"

He bought his house 32 years ago -- only to discover that the first occupant was a man called Roland Norris. "I've no idea who he was, but my father was English, it was my mother who was Irish. It's a possibility there might be some terribly vague genetic connection, not anything that I know of," he explains.

When David bought the four-storey-over-basement terraced house, which dates from 1787, it was full of tenants and it was divided up into some 25 rooms. Tenants have included Booker prizewinner Anne Enright at the top of the house, and Costa prizewinner Sebastian Barry in the basement, bookending all the others in between, if you will.

As the tenants left, David took down partitions and restored the rooms to their original states. One family, however, stayed on for about 15 years -- they lived in the ground-floor dining room, which, at that time, was sectioned off into a kitchen, living room, bedrooms and bathroom.

"They were a very nice family. I said to the mother, 'Don't get worried when you see the tenants leaving, this is just a flat for them; for you it's home.' When her husband died I was asked to carry the coffin, and when she died I was asked to read at the Mass," he recalls.

"Mrs McGurk fell in love with Ezra. One day I was going off to catch the flight to meet him and Mrs McGurk opened her door to say, 'I've made a Novena of Grace to the Sacred Heart with the intention that Ezra will come and live with you permanently, because I think you're a gorgeous couple.' I think that was real Christianity, wasn't it?" David muses -- it's obvious he's a real romantic. And you'd want to be to take on a house like his.

Restoring the house has been an ongoing process -- in the last five years he repointed and reroofed it with 18th-century slates bought from old buildings. He's restored ceilings and staircases and added his own touches too -- including the mural on the wall going up the stairs. It's a copy by painter Lol Hardiman of a famous painting in the Louvre called Jeune Homme Nu Assis au Bord de la Mer by Hippolyte Flandrin. "It's in the room next to the Mona Lisa," notes David.

Even more recently, he decorated the ground-level front room. It had been full of all sorts of documents relating to his work with gay rights, human rights, the Joyce Centre and the North Great George's Street Preservation Society -- he founded it 31 years ago and was chairman for 25 years -- and the National Library approached him to buy the papers. "'No,' I said, 'I'm not selling them.' I said, 'I don't think you should be wasting your money buying old rubbish from people like me. You can have them for nothing, but there is a snag. You have to take the whole bloody lot,'" he hoots.

He unloaded the entire contents and decorated it as a sitting room. "I can now sit at ground level and look out and see what's going on in the street -- it makes you feel you're involved in life," he remarks. This room now contains an upright piano bought by his mother "on the never-never" when he was a child. He plays Chopin's Waltz in A Minor and, as he does so, he notes: "I learned the piano from a wonderful woman called Lily Huban. She was the demonstration pupil of Alfred Cortot in the Conservatoire in Paris in the Twenties. Cortot was a pupil of Leschititsky, who was a pupil of Chopin, so I was taught the nocturnes of Chopin as a teenager by a pupil of a pupil of a pupil of the composer," he marvels with his signature picturesque precision.

The house also includes the piano nobile, which has an antique grand piano. In addition, the property has two dining rooms, the master bedroom complete with kitchenette and, next to it, the gym and a bathroom. There's also a library which has an organ -- "don't say I showed you my organ or the readers will be writing in to you," he can't resist saying -- a little Arabic temple and the guest bedroom with an en suite toilet and a bath in the middle of the bedroom floor -- "What more does anyone want but a bed, a bath and a bog?" David asks rhetorically. For such a huge house it's unusual that there is only one guest room, but he has his reasons. "One guest room is quite enough. I don't want to encourage an infestation," he explains.

The rooms are decorated in period colours with the emphasis on yellows, reds and greens. The furniture is all in keeping with the period, while books, paintings of ancestors, posters of his jazz heroes, erotic art, sacred icons, and china heirlooms intermingle with family photos -- his relations include a chaplain to the British royal family, the Stokers of Bram Stoker fame, and the Fitzpatricks who held the title of Mac Giolla Phadraigh. It makes for an eclectic decor.

"I have to tell you I have naturally occurring bad taste," he insists -- inaccurately -- "but I'm not responsible for all of it." To back this up, he points out various vases and such like which he was presented with over the years and which he hasn't the heart to throw out. He admits he throws nothing out -- "I'm a hoarder" -- and everything is hung, including the plaques he got for the three times he completed the Dublin City Marathon; these can be found on the wall of the gym. "People talk about breaking the three-hour barrier and the four-hour barrier. I never succeeded in breaking the five-hour barrier," he admits.

His wall displays include his medals from Trinity and a gold medal he received from the Brazilian Academy of Letters. "I was convinced it was a case of mistaken identity, but I went anyway. A fellow in knickerbockers presented it to me on a velvet cushion. I thought they were taking the piss out of me and that it was plastic, but it's gold alright," he says.

He's even hung his father's war honours. "He was a kind of professional war hero, he was a sailor and an inventor and an engineer. He whisked my mother from the bogs of Laois to Central Africa, stopping only to get married in St Anne's church in Dawson Street," he notes.

Possibly the most clutter of all can be found in the kitchen, his favourite room. "The room I love most is the kitchen because I'm a skivvy at heart," he jokes. At one end can be found the practical, utilitarian side -- with nice, sage-green painted units and all the appliances. The other end contains a table, some armchairs, ethnic rugs and dozens of souvenirs from various trips, including cushions embroidered with the coat of arms of 'Mad' King Ludwig of Bavaria. There are newspaper cuttings of cartoons which appealed to David, fridge magnets on the fridge, and countless other artefacts on the walls. "I hang everything 'cause I like seeing things," he reasons.

There's also a huge pile of suitcases which belonged to his mother, father and grandfather. "That's the way they travelled in those days. They had lots of people to carry them around for them," he notes. At least it means he's equipped for another area of the presidency -- the endless travelling.

This man is made to be president. Vote number one David Norris.



www.senatordavidnorris.ie

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