'Our contribution to literature has been huge - it's logical we'd be the first country to do this'
Today sees the launch of MoLI (Museum of Literature Ireland), an ambitious €10m project that plans to breathe life into the nation's literary history. Director Simon O'Connor tells our reporter why the world will be watching this unique literary project
Arather glum-looking lion sits above the doorway of Newman House on Dublin's St Stephen's Green South. You may not have noticed him before because this is the "unknown" side of the Green, a thoroughfare lined with offices that largely shuts down at the weekend.
But Newman House and its surly lion might receive more limelight come spring 2019 if Simon O'Connor has his way. A composer and founding curator of the nearby Little Museum (along with Trevor White), O'Connor has been over this side of the park since October, overseeing the finishing touches to what is revealed today - one day after Joyce's birthday and the publication date of Ulysses - as the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI).
MoLI is being billed as "a landmark institution", an immersive visitor attraction that will look to celebrate Ireland's literary footprint from medieval times right up to present day, while also behaving like a nursery for writers of the future. Its cornerstone will be the National Library of Ireland's prestigious collection of Joycean artefacts as well as snazzy interactive exhibits designed by New York museum company Ralph Appelbaum Associates.
A €10m price tag has been attached to the project. The lion's share of this is taken up with the significant construction work that began last October on what many consider a jewel of Dublin's Georgian heritage. The site consists of three buildings - Nos 85 and 86 and a huge Victorian assembly hall perpendicular to the street called the Aula Maxima. O'Connor arrives seven years into a collaborative project between the National Library of Ireland and UCD, the site's owners. It was 2010 when the two parties began to explore a possible hub that would wed the former's Joycean collection (including notebooks and the first printing of the first edition of Ulysses) while at last finding a fitting role for the latter's original base on Stephen's Green.
A working group chaired by Eamonn Ceannt was established in 2012 but it was a huge donation of €5m from philanthropists Martin and Carmel Naughton that really got things moving by opening doors with Scott Tallon Walker Architects and Ralph Appelbaum. A business case study led to Fáilte Ireland coming on board with a further €2.5m. The remaining €2.5m is being raised through donors and more philanthropic support.
"And we're nearly there with that," O'Connor beams. "That's to do all the building work and put the exhibitions in. My job now is to set up all the systems, get all the programming in place, hire all the staff (between 25 and 30), open it up and then make it work financially."
Like any big challenge, he continues, something of MoLI's scale has many component parts that can be dealt with one at a time. O'Connor is reluctant to give a figure for projected annual running costs, but says it could be anywhere between €750,000 and €2 to €3m.
"The way this kind of financial engine works is that the more commercially successful you are, the more ambitious you can be about your programming," he explains. "So you're balancing those two things. I always felt that we were very lucky in the Little Museum in that there was a sweet spot we'd arrived at where there was support from the Government, philanthropic support, and then we married it with commercial revenue from visitors. It created just enough money to be as ambitious as we wanted to be, but at the same time we had to be very focused on the quality of the project because that commercial revenue was crucial to it. You start taking things like TripAdvisor really seriously."
Given the working title up until very recently was The Ulysses Centre - with early reports distancing the project from the word "museum" - the assumption is that Ceannt and co have settled upon a snappy name to slot in alongside the MoMAs, IMMAs and Tates of the world.
But this is literature. In the museum format, the written word is often confined to musty displays inside the historic abode of a particular writer. How do you bring Finnegans Wake, or indeed, John Banville's The Sea, to life for school children and weary tourists?
O'Connor is unshakeably confident, telling me about visitors being met on arrival by a large-scale installation inspired by Joyce's "riverrun" of language that will react to movement, as well as mooted film works, visual-art installations and "a significant commissioning programme". Multidisciplinary seems to be the mantra.
"We want it to be a museum that's hyperactive, that has lots of really unusual approaches to programming, that is very forward-looking, and that is a really fun place to visit. When you think of a museum of literature, you might think it'll be very quiet and reverent with lots of old books. And when you think of a science museum, you think it's going to be really snazzy and alive and experimental and full of activity. But literature itself is very alive and very experimental so I don't know why we can't create a museum of literature that is like a science museum."
While it is always domestic visitors that keep the lights on, overseas business, enticed via both the museum's outward look (a digital broadcasting centre will operate within it) and the marketing clout of project partners Fáilte Ireland, will hopefully be significant. The target ratio of the two will be 40pc to 60pc, O'Connor tells me as we climb the building's stunning stairwell.
We walk to the rear of the rooftop and place our hands against the railing. The location's trump card reflects mossy green back at us on a dishwater January afternoon. The Iveagh Gardens. Not only does it border Newman House's peaceful, south-facing rear, the plan is to have full access to and from the park to boot. The completion of a landscaped garden and café (where the old Commons Restaurant once stood) will mean even those for whom Ulysses is an 1980s cartoon character are likely to be lured in during their lunch break.
Is there any reason why nothing of this scale - the Dublin Writer's Museum on Parnell Square is a more self-contained affair - has been attempted in this Unesco City of Literature?
O'Connor can see my point, listing off the "amazing" work done by the James Joyce Centre and Irish Writers Centre (the latter more a resource than an attraction) across the river, Poetry Ireland (its own centre is currently at planning and development stage), the literary festivals and Dublin City Council's €100,000 literary award, and all despite the absence of a "visitable" keystone in the network.
"Looking around, it struck me there wasn't really anything of this scope solely looking at the literature of a nation. The only other comparable institution is the American Writers Museum in Chicago, which only opened last year.
"Ireland has made this totally outsized contribution to the literary landscape so why shouldn't we be the first ones to create a great big museum of literature in the middle of our capital in one of our most beautiful buildings? It's logical. But it also means we have to be really ambitious with what we're doing because the world will be watching."
MoLI will open its doors in spring 2019. See www.moli.ie for further details