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Why turning Joyce's 'House of the Dead' into a hostel is cultural vandalism


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Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann starred in 1987 film The Dead which was adapted from the James Joyce masterpiece

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann starred in 1987 film The Dead which was adapted from the James Joyce masterpiece

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann starred in 1987 film The Dead which was adapted from the James Joyce masterpiece

The Georgian house where the Dubliner set his short story is to be turned into a hostel. It’s a move that wouldn’t have surprised Joyce himself, but many view it as cultural vandalism.

Why is James Joyce still dividing opinion in Dublin nearly 80 years after his death?

The city centre building where he set his most famous short story may soon be getting a controversial facelift.

Last Friday, Dublin City Council granted planning permission for the four-storey Georgian townhouse at 15 Usher's Island to be turned into a tourist hostel.

The developers insist they'll respect its Joycean history, but many writers and artists have publicly condemned the move as an act of cultural vandalism.

"It's a wake-up call to the nation to say we have a piece of treasure," says the novelist Colm Tóibín. "Please let's not regret it in 50 years' time when people ask how we let this happen."

What's so special about the place?

Built around 1775 for a grain merchant, 15 Usher's Island was where Joyce's great-aunts ran a music school in the 1890s.

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The house was owned by James Joyce’s family members. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins Photos

The house was owned by James Joyce’s family members. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins Photos

The house was owned by James Joyce’s family members. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins Photos

They also hosted dinner parties there, which inspired him to write what some literary critics think is the greatest short story of all time.

Published in Joyce's first major work Dubliners in 1914, The Dead concerns a teacher named Gabriel Conroy who attends a Christmas gathering at the house and makes a shocking discovery about his wife.

"It's a story in which Joyce makes his peace with Dublin," says the scholar John McCourt.

"So I think, once again, Ireland is in a sense failing him by failing to recognise this building.

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"This, in a way, is the heart of his Dublin and what he wanted to question and celebrate about the city."

What's the history of the house since then?

A troubled one. Throughout the past century, it has fallen into disrepair and was often used by squatters.

In 1987, the director John Huston made a film version of The Dead, which itself is regarded as a classic.

That prompted Dublin City Council to put 15 Usher's Island on its "protected structures" list, but the house was nearly destroyed by fire a few years later.

When barrister and Joyce fan Brendan Kilty bought what locals call the House of the Dead in 2000, he filled two buckets with heroin syringes from its rooms.

Kilty lovingly restored it and staged literary events there, but he eventually went bankrupt and sold the property in 2017.

Dublin City Council showed no interest in acquiring 15 Usher's Island, so it went for €650,000 to private investors Fergus McCabe and Brian Stynes.

What do they plan to do with it?

Basically, create a 56-room hostel with a cafe in the basement. Co-owner McCabe has said they would also turn part of it into "a cultural facility" dedicated to Joyce.

This, he claims, is the only "financially viable" way to preserve the building.

When McCabe and Stynes's project was first mooted last year, Dublin City Council asked for revised plans because it had concerns about a proposed extension at the back. That has now been abandoned and the developers are free to go ahead.

According to an Architectural Heritage Assessment lodged by McCabe and Stynes, the new 15 Usher's Island will still offer a unique experience to visitors "who wish to become immersed in Joycean Dublin".

Clearly, some of Joyce's modern-day admirers aren't so convinced?

That's right. Last November, a group of 99 renowned Irish and international writers signed an open letter calling for the house to be saved. The signatories included Edna O'Brien, John Banville, Sally Rooney, Salman Rushdie and Ian Mc- Ewan.

"In the decades since Joyce's death, too many of the places that are rendered immortal in his writing have been lost to the city," they said. "Let us not repeat this mistake today."

The Department of Culture, An Taisce and various heritage groups are also against the development, and a formal appeal will soon be lodged with An Bord Pleanála.

Wasn't Dublin City Council recently trying to bring Joyce back home?

Yes, but that idea has been quietly abandoned. At a meeting of the council's South East Area Committee last October, Labour's Dermot Lacey and Fine Gael's Paddy McCar- tan tabled a motion calling for Joyce's body to be exhumed from Zurich where he died in 1941 and reburied here.

As they saw it, giving him a proper home- coming could be seen as an unofficial apology from the country that rejected him during his lifetime.

However, it soon became clear that Joyce's descendants were less than thrilled by the prospect.

"I put the motion down in good faith, believing that it is something the family wanted," Lacey has said. "I now understand that's not quite the case."

For now, Joyce is staying where he is.

What might Joyce himself have made of these controversies?

He would probably not be surprised. The author of Ulysses is now a major tourist attraction, with 25,000 people attending the Bloomsday Festival every June 16 and around the same number visiting the James Joyce Centre on North Great George's Street in a normal year.

While Joyce famously said, "When I die, Dublin will be written in my heart", he resented not being able to make a living here and dubbed it "the city of failure, of rancour and of unhappiness".

His fictional alter-ego Stephen Dedalus called Ireland "the old sow that eats her farrow" - in other words, a country that destroys its own people.

Finally, does the row over 15 Usher's Island have any wider meaning?

Yes, it's symbolic of a much bigger issue. In recent years, many writers, musicians and actors have left Dublin due to sky-high rents and a lack of community spaces.

They complain about entertainment venues coming under threat from commercial ventures such as technology giants and chain hotels. Whatever happens to Joyce's House of the Dead, the real danger is that a new generation of Irish artists are being driven into exile - just like he was.

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