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No answer at 'The House of the Dead', but party goes on

James Joyce fans will sit down for a meal in honour of the writer's cherished short story, 'The Dead', writes Liam Collins


Sweny’s chemist on Lincoln Place. Picture: Steve Humphreys

Sweny’s chemist on Lincoln Place. Picture: Steve Humphreys

Sweny’s chemist on Lincoln Place. Picture: Steve Humphreys

As he walked up the steps of the "dark gaunt house" on Usher's Island on the night of Little Christmas, January 6, "a light fringe of snow" on the shoulders of his overcoat, Gabriel Conroy was walking into a party that - 115 years later -will be recreated in Dublin again tonight.

The James Joyce story The Dead is set at a soiree given by Gabriel's aunts, the elderly Julia and Kate Morkan on the night of the Epiphany - then an important Catholic feast day, almost as important as Christmas Day, which has now subsumed almost everything to itself.

Tonight a group of Joycean enthusiasts will gather in Victorian dress in Wynn's Hotel in central Dublin to recreate that meal, the singing of Thomas Moore's The Lass of Aughrim and talk convivially about Joyce's most famous short story and the title of his first collection of published writings.

"We've been hosting this dinner for a number of years, the last few in Wynn's," says PJ Murphy sitting behind the counter of Sweny's chemists in Dublin's Lincoln Place - probably the only authentic private building to survive intact from the Joyce era, although it features in Ulysses rather than The Dead. "People dress up in period costume and everybody looks absolutely gorgeous."

Recreating the setting of Joyce's story is also a way of raising money for their imperilled and living monument to the writer who immortalised the city of Dublin in his writings.

People from all over Ireland, from Spain and Argentina, Britain and the United States will dine at two long tables groaning with the food that was served that night in 1904 at No 15 Usher's Island and described in such colourful precise detail by Joyce:

"A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill around its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef."

There were 'ministers' of jelly, 'blocks' of blancmange, 'a solid rectangle' of Smyrna figs and a 'pyramid' of American apples.

"On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes."

The event was presided over by Gabriel Conroy's two elderly aunts, who lived in the upper floors of the house on Usher's Island, which they rented from a 'Corn Factor' who had his offices on the ground floor.

"His aunts were two small plainly dressed old women. Aunt Julia was an inch or so the taller. Her hair, drawn low over the tops of her ears, was grey; and grey also, with darker shadows, was her large flaccid face. Though she was stout in build and stood erect her slow eyes and parted lips gave her the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going. Aunt Kate was more vivacious. Her face, healthier than her sister's, was all puckers and creases, like a shrivelled red apple, and her hair, braided in the same old-fashioned way, had not lost its ripe nut colour."

Now known as 'The House of the Dead', No 15 Usher's Island miraculously stands on the bank of the river Liffey on the south side of the Calatrava-designed bridge near Heuston Station. Its history is almost as interesting as the torturous publishing sagas of James Joyce's various books.

When a Dublin barrister, Brendan Kilty, first entered the building on Bloomsday in 1979 (at the invitation of a friend who had obtained the key by a Joyceanly circuitous route), the fanlights and fireplaces had been pulled out and sold, the house was a derelict blackened shell and the back wall falling in. He said later that as he stood at the bottom of the staircase after an illicit meal, listening to the strains of the Moore song, "I got a warm sensation that one day I'd own this house."

And one day he did - after seeing John Huston's film of The Dead, starring Huston's daughter Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann, Kilty took a keener interest in Joyce - and eventually bought the ruins of the house identified by David Norris as the setting for the story.

He later described himself as a structural Joycean "obsessed by bricks and mortar" as he began slowly breathing new life into the building and reviving the famous sixth of January dinners, down to hiring a snow machine to blanket the front steps of the building just as it was in the story.

"Brendan Kilty invites you to an evening of wonder. Bathroom facilities are limited, so go before you come", read the first invitation to the recreated Little Christmas dinners.

Despite his work to save the house for himself and posterity, Brendan Kilty had to move on - and No 15 was sold in December, 2017 for €650,000.

Last Friday, the bell and knocker went unanswered, as has been the custom for a number of years. The house was shuttered and once again gaunt, the windows grimy with the dust of passing traffic, the basement littered with the detritus of rubbish and passing litter louts, the stone steps sprouting grass and weeds and the discarded beer bottle of a tipsy New Year reveller.

"There is no reason to believe that things are any better on the inside," Terence Killeen, one of the foremost interpreters of Joyce said in a pessimistic letter to the Irish Times last week. The few pedestrians pass by, unaware of its history and origins, save for two enigmatic dates painted each side of the doorway - 1760, when it was built, and 2014 when, presumably, Brendan Kilty vacated it.

Yet for all that it retains a Georgian grandeur as it stands with its neighbour, almost like the two aunts from The Dead, a throwback to a forgotten era.

Back at Sweny's chemist shop at the confluence of Lincoln Place and Westland Row, things are far brighter; although the spectre of Dublin's soaring property prices also throws a long shadow over its future. Brendan Kilty was also instrumental in keeping this piece of Joyceana intact and it is now run by PJ Murphy and a group of volunteers who sell soaps, cards and books to cover the weekly rent, which started at €500, went to €355 during the recession and is now €673.

John Mahon, who owns Kennedy's Victorian pub across the road, which was Conroy's when Joyce was writing Ulysses, paid for the restoration of the ceiling and hosts a popular Ulysses breakfast in his pub. But worryingly for those who keep Sweny's as a going concern, the property, which was advertised as containing two cafes and three residential units, is for sale for €3.25m.

With no public funding and depending on donations, Sweny's will be at the mercy of a multi-millionaire buyer sometime in the near future.

One of the volunteers, Tadgh, opens a drawer to reveal brown paper parcels of prescriptions that were uncollected when the chemists closed - and PJ tells me that although tonight's Epiphany dinner in Wynn's Hotel is well subscribed, they would still be able to fit in a few more diners willing to fork out €60 for the privilege of enjoying a recreation of Julia and Kate Morkan's feast.

It is unlikely this year, as snowdrops and daffodils already begin to sprout, that anyone leaving Wynn's Hotel tonight will be able to watch the snow, "falling upon all the living and the dead" as Gabriel Conroy did that night in 1904. But hopefully they will get a warm feeling that they have participated in something historic and unique to Dublin and in their own way have done something to preserve Sweny's and No 15 Usher's Island, just as James Joyce has immortalised them in his writings.

Sunday Independent