First Look: Inside MoLI, Dublin's new museum and secret garden
The €10.5m Museum of Literature Ireland opens this weekend. Pól Ó Conghaile takes a preview tour...
"This is probably the most valuable modern literary artefact in the world," says Simon O'Connor, peering at a titanic blue tome in a glass case.
The director of MoLI, the €10.5m Museum of Literature Ireland which opens this weekend, has been showing me around a complex bursting with surprises - from a secret city garden to a digital radio station and priceless literary treasures.
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"This is Copy No.1 of Ulysses," he says.
"It was the first copy handed to James Joyce on February 22nd, 1922. He inscribed it to his patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, who had paid for everything - for his life - and handed it to her."
I lean in for a closer look, tickled by the chunky physicality of the thing in an age of touching screens; by the cool blue cover, which Joyce purposefully requested to evoke the Greek flag, underscoring its links with The Odyssey.
"He was really particular about how he wanted it to look," O'Connor muses. "He wanted [Ulysses] to be a real doorstopper."
MoLI, a partnership between UCD and the National Library of Ireland aiming to celebrate Ireland's literary culture and heritage, officially opens tomorrow. Entry costs €8/€6 (moli.ie), but you can also visit for free on Tuesday mornings, and from 6-9pm on the first Friday of every month, when the museum opens late.
MoLI, by the way, is pronounced 'Molly' - a nod to Molly Bloom, heroine of Ulysses, and the central place of Joyce his century in its exhibits.
It also suggests there's more to Irish writing than dead white men.
A secret garden in the city
Moving through the buildings, for example, I pass an exhibition on Limerick writer Kate O'Brien curated by her grand-nice, actress Kathy Rose O'Brien. I pause at a display on Éilís Ní Dhuibine and her book Aisling nó Iníon A.
Future exhibitions on Peig and Nuala O Faolain are also on the cards, O'Connor says.
Multimedia displays include specially-commissioned films, immersive audio recordings and exhibitions on everything from the history of Irish publishing to Irish writers in Paris. Another pleasant surprise is a display dealing with young adult fiction.
Oh, and there's a secret city garden (above) where you can sup coffee under the shade of a 200-year-old Killarney strawberry tree.
Free to enter via a gate in the Iveagh Gardens, or through The Commons - a basement café run by Domini and Peaches Kemp - it's a gorgeous little green lung in the city.
The south side of Stephen's Green is a strangely quiet strip, with an institutional air to its buildings, "but back here we're effectively a museum in a park," O'Connor quips.
The landscaped space feels free of the city, splashed with fiery banks of montbretia and David Austin roses, with whiffs of lavender and summer jasmine scents, and still containing the ash tree at which Joyce posed for a graduation photo in 1902.
"We wanted to create a garden that was really beautiful, because it is the only publicly-accessible historic house garden in the city," O'Connor says.
From Bewley's to Molly Bloom
The idea for MoLI sparked over a conversation in Bewley's in 2010, a panel in the museum explains. That was the first time the possibility of a creative alliance between Newman House and the National Library was mooted.
Threading a museum through three historic houses - UCD's original campus, before it relocated to Belfield in the 1970s - whilst also making it accessible to visitors, presented its challenges for architects Scott Tallon Walker, of course.
"Particularly the house in the middle, No.85," O'Connor grins.
"It's a Richard Cassels house. He designed Carton House and Powerscourt. The stuccowork is by the Lafranchini brothers, the best stuccodores in Europe at the time. It has probably some of the most beautiful Georgian rooms in the country."
Supported by the Naughton Foundation, Fáilte Ireland and private donors, the project "came in on budget, on a 2015 price," he says. "Which isn't bad."
One thing that strikes me on our tour is the museum's size. Fanning out over the three inter-connected buildings, it blooms like a Tardis.
Visitor journeys start with an elegant, butter-yellow room charting the story of UCD and Newman House - a former place of learning not just for Joyce, but writers like Flann O’Brien, Maeve Binchy and Mary Lavin.
From there, we move past a "constellation of Irish writers" from "Joyce's century" - a montage of portraits interspersed with quotes.
"Dublin's a grand city," runs one from Patricia Lynch. "It's almost as good as Cork."
Thankfully, regular pepperings of wit like this ("meeting of the waters," says a sign pointing to the toilets), prevent the tone from teetering too far into the ponderous.
Deeper into the building, you'll find the old exam hall - "a big, hollow Victorian shell" - re-imagined as an exhibition space with a new mezzanine level. Among its displays is one of just 25 original copies of Yeats' epic poem, Easter 1916.
Dublin already has plenty of literary attractions, of course - from the Dublin Writers' Museum to the James Joyce Centre and the National Library itself, as well as heritage gems like Trinity's Long Room and Marsh's Library.
How will MoLI differentiate itself from these?
"This is a museum that's going to explore the entire literary tradition," O'Connor says, adding that given its scale, history and exhibitions, "it's probably one of the most significant literary museums in the world."
No pulling punches, then.
There's also a big emphasis on getting locals engaged - schools programmes, late openings, the garden, café, performances and research facilities all aim to support the exhibitions in connecting people back to "a love of reading, writing and creative inspiration," he adds.
O'Connor expects 86,000 visitors in Year One, but he's under no illusion as to how hard reaching out to people with super-busy times will be.
"We need something locals will love, and come back to again and again."
By now, we're reaching the end of our tour, entering the third floor room in which Copy No.1 of Ulysses glows like a light blue beacon.
Next door, we peer into a case full of Joyce's original notebooks for the work - copies densely packed with his handwriting and colourful crayon strokes used to cross passages out. History feels a hair's breadth away.
O'Connor points out one page, where the line 'I said I would yes' is corrected to read 'I said I will yes'. It's the very last line of Ulysses, of Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy, an electric edit frozen in time before our eyes.
"If he wrote 'would', she would have been remembering. Whereas 'will' puts her right back in the moment when Bloom proposes to her," O'Connor muses.
"It's an amazing thing."
Next to these magnificent, messy treasures are several ear pieces in which you can listen to writers like Anne Enright describing their creative process, and a table full of notepaper where visitors are encouraged to write the first line of their own story.
A museum about writers, in other words, ends up asking you to write.
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