Secret Ireland: Literary Dublin
Pól Ó Conghaile discovers novel ways to do Dublin by the book. Pictures by Ronan Lang.
Beyond the hall door
Joyce prided himself on his accurate portrayal of Dublin in ‘Ulysses’, but much of the city he documented has long since disappeared. There’s no starker illustration of that than the doorway to No 7 Eccles Street, standing mournfully in the James Joyce Centre.
No 7 Eccles Street was the fictional address of Leopold and Molly Bloom. Its doorway, rescued from wrecking balls by Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien, spent several decades in the Bailey pub before being donated to the Centre.
Today, its rusty knocker, distressed-stone frame and cracking wood are a symbol for the decay of Joycean Dublin, and the loss of many of its landmarks. The Joyce Centre itself I find hit and miss. There’s some interesting memorabilia, such as the writer’s death mask and an impression of one of his studies, but little to distract the casual visitor for long.
Details: €5/€4. 35 North Great George’s Street. Tel: 01-878 8547; jamesjoyce.ie.
The bookish bike tour
Last summer, Dublin became only the fourth UNESCO City of Literature on the planet, alongside Edinburgh, Melbourne and Iowa city.
Next month, the One City, One Book festival is encouraging its citizens to read the same book — Joseph O’Connor’s ‘Ghost Light’ — at the same time. No better time, then, for the city’s first literary cycling tour.
Leaving at 2.30pm every Thursday in April, the Dublin by Bike tour takes in several sites related to Synge. It also pulls up at bookish nuggets such as McDaids pub, John Coll’s sculpture of Patrick Kavanagh on the Grand Canal, and Danny Osborne’s saucy statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square.
You’ ll be amazed at how bike-friendly the city has become. It’s no Copenhagen, but the speed and relative ease with which it’s possible to float through the traffic is sometimes exhilarating. Behan, Wilde, Shaw and Joyce crop up as we pedal through the pages of this blockbuster city.
Details: €25. Tel: 086 837 5955; dublinbybike.ie.
The overnight option
It’s well known that the Martello Tower at Sandycove is the location for the opening chapter of ‘Ulysses’, and today houses a museum dedicated to Joyce’s life and work.
I had no idea, however, that you can stay in one of these Napoleonic fortifications overnight. Built in 1804, the Martello Tower at Sutton commands breathtaking views of Dublin Bay, and has recently been restored as a luxury selfcatering bolthole.
Laid out over three stories linked with a scarily thin spiral staircase, the tower cossets away two bedrooms, a living room with barrel ceiling and a modern kitchen with 360° views over the bay (a pair of binoculars is perched on a purpose- built shelf ). Little luxuries such as Jacuzzi tubs and rainshowers raise the comfort level, and the iPod dock has an audio version of ‘Ulysses’.
Details: From €420 for two nights. Tel: 086 164 2671; martellotowersutton.com.
The bar of lemon soap
Dressed in a blue bow-tie and white chemist’s coat, PJ Murphy opens an old dispensary drawer and plucks out several brownpaper parcels. “They’re uncollected prescriptions,” he says, holding them up like museum pieces. And so he should — they’ve been here since 1903.
PJ is one of a group of volunteers who have been running Sweny’s Chemist since it closed in 2009. Sweny’s features in ‘Ulysses’ (Leopold Bloom calls in to collect a compound for his wife, and raises a cake of lemon soap to his nostrils), and today, a weekly rent of €400 is raised though the sale of second-hand books and donations at readings.
Stepping inside is like entering a portal to the past. Ancient mahogany shelves are spotted with old ointments and jars, and you can even buy a sweetly whiffy bar of lemon soap (€3.50). I arrive as PJ is pouring mugs of tea, about to begin a lunchtime reading from Dubliners.
Details: Free. 1 Lincoln Place. See sweny.ie.
The voice for a verse
Deep in the basement of the National Library on Kildare Street, you’ ll find a WB Yeats exhibition based on thousands of notebooks, manuscripts and artefacts donated by the poet’s late wife and son. Dimly lit and purpose built, it’s the largest exhibition ever dedicated to Yeats in Ireland.
In our social media age, it’s enchanting to stumble upon poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ with annotations in the poet’s own, flowery hand. Yeats’s spectacles, letters and books are laid out in cabinets too, and several audio-visual booths explore themes ranging from his sex life to senatorial career.
The highlight for me is Sineád O’ Connor’s reading of ‘No Second Troy’. Playing on a loop among several other recitations, O’Connor’s voice is lived-in, curt and Dublin-tinged as it evokes Maud Gonne’s “beauty like a tightened bow”, but also vulnerable.
It’s a brilliant match of voice and verse — simple as a fire, as Yeats himself might put it.
Details: Free. Kildare Street. Tel: 01-603 0200; nli.ie/yeats; discover ireland.ie/dublin.
The pub crawl
Lord knows, there’s no shortage of pubs in Dublin. Seeing as the most marketable of Irish writers spent so much time in them too (“I’m a drinker with a writing problem,” as Brendan Behan confessed), the concept of a literary pub crawl in the city must have been a no-brainer.
The surprise is just how good it is. From the moment Colm Quilligan and Derek Reid launch into ‘Waxies’ Dargle’ and an excerpt from ‘Waiting for Godot’, complete with black bowler hats, it’s clear the actors have a genuine grá for literature. Still fresh and funny after 22 years, their hearts are in it.
Kicking off at the Duke, the Vladimir and Estragon of Irish tourism lead us via Trinity College to pit-stops at O’Neill’s, the Old Stand and Davy Byrne’s.
Along the way, they sing songs, crack wise and mash-up poems, history and drinking lore with stories such as Joyce’s first encounter with Norah Barnacle, or Oscar Wilde’s delivery of a lecture down a coal mine in Colorado.
It’s not all dead guys, either. Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney and Brendan Kennelly are quoted as we go, dragging the city’s literary tradition into the present day and leaving a very international audience not only with an itch to order another drink, but perhaps to pick up a book, too.
Details: €12/€10. Tel: 087 263 0270; dublinpubcrawl.com.
The baked beans on toast
Judge the Winding Stair on Ormond Quay by its deep-green façade, plastered as it is with posters for gigs and plays, and you’d be forgiven for walking past. Step into the ground-floor bookshop or climb the staircase to the restaurant, however, and you’re in for a big surprise.
I order a two-course lunch special (€17.95) from an Irish menu that puts contemporary twists on dishes like corned beef, spring lamb and Kilkeel hake.
I can’t resist the homemade beans on toast, which come with a slice of ciabatta, a tomato sauce with a sprinkle of celery, and Mount Callan Cheddar melted on top. The beans have a little too much dryness and bite for my taste, but it’s a yummy dish, as is the fillet of Mourne blossom, a fishmonger’s name for white pollock, that follows.
The room is splashed with daylight, with views over the Ha’penny Bridge framed by chalkboards, bookshelves and an old wine bar. Around me, a lady reads her book, a cabal of barristers chat and a toddler tells her parents she is still hungry after demolishing her ice cream.
Downstairs, the hob-nobby bookshop fits new and secondhand volumes around old typewriters, tasselled lamps and a vintage leather armchair. You can also grab a cuppa and a slice of carrot cake, watching the world go by from sunny window seats.
Details: 40 Lower Ormond Quay. Tel: 01-872 7320; windingstair. com.
The letter home
The Dublin Writers’ Museum, along with Trinity College, is a compulsory stop for tourists looking to immerse themselves in Dublin’s literary heritage.
Its portraits, death masks and memorabilia are all very fine, but a rambunctious letter by Brendan Behan steals the show.
“It’s a screwy kind of place,” Behan says of Los Angeles, in a letter sent to his half-brother, Rory Furlong in 1961.
Hollywood has “nothing to recommend it except the sunshine”, he continues, describing Sunset Boulevard as “in its own reprehensible way not unlike [Crumlin’s] Sundrive Road”.
We also hear of singalongs in Sinatra’s club and a night out on Broadway (“a great place for a quiet piss-up”) with Harpo Marx and a police escort. “Tell Seán I said f **k Gagarin and Shepard,” he signs off. ”Hollywood and Broadway are space enough for your (and his) loving brother, Brendan.”
Details: €7.50/€4.70. 18 Parnell Square. Tel: 01-872 2077; writersmuseum.com.