Thursday 5 December 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Should we welcome further flogging of Joyce - a man more merchandised than actually read?'


Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

A new museum opened in Dublin in September this year, MoLI, at Newman House, 86 St Stephen's Green. If MoLI brings to mind lusty Molly Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses, that's the whole idea: Joyce dominates the publicity and even content at the new Museum of Literature Ireland, and the MoLI-Molly word association is intentional.

I first paid a visit to MoLI in October and didn't really warm to it. Granted, James Joyce was a genius, but commercially, he's flogged to death, so to speak. (He'd like that word-play.) I felt that MoLI's pitch was a cynical bid to merchandise Joyce all the more - a man more merchandised, arguably, than actually read. And the museum is awash with arty installations. Literature, to me, is about reading, not about huge illuminated photographs of Paris, just because JJ cadged his drinks at Fouquet's.

However, when I put up a rather cranky opinion about MoLI on Twitter, I was reprimanded for being so negative. It was a fabulous space, said others. It was full of light and, indeed, highly illuminating. Fair is fair. So I decided to pay another visit and look at MoLI museum.

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It is surely an impressive space - those Georgian houses with their huge rooms and fabulous dimensions. You enter the portals of this world to be greeted by some very nice and helpful staff - several of them students working part-time, which is appropriate, as Newman House was originally associated with UCD. The first room of the museum itself is a contextual explanation of UCD and John Henry Newman's role in founding the university. It helps that Joyce greatly admired the prose of Newman, otherwise he might have been occluded altogether, as UCD emphasises its secularism these days.

The next room is a smaller, modern space dedicated to a panel of numerous Irish writers. To justify the Joyce connection, it's explained that the 20th-century flowering of Irish literature was really inspired by Joyce. What? I don't think Oscar Wilde or WB Yeats, let alone the prudish AE (George Russell), would have thanked MoLI for that. Wilde and Yeats didn't draw on Joyce, and besides, they have their own 'brand', thank you.

The display of writers consists of photographs of these many and illustrious Irish scribes, from Patrick Kavanagh to Roddy Doyle, from Nuala O'Faolain to Derek Mahon, from Bram Stoker to Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Emma Donoghue, Frank McGuinness, Clare Boylan, Kate Cruise O'Brien, Dermot Bolger and many more. That's all fine (and the roll-call will be rotated, so writers who seem to be omitted may get their chance). There are some nice quotes from these authors also erected alongside their pics: "I was born into change", from Anne Haverty, and from Padraic Colum: "Have nothing now to show or to sell. Old bones to carry, old stories to tell."

My criticism of this space is that there should be more context given to the lives and backgrounds of the writers. Younger people, and especially tourists, may not necessarily know everything about these authors' works and lives, and this cramped space doesn't tell them anything either.

A most important - omitted - point is to link Irish writers with place. This is a deeply significant theme in the lives and works of Irish writers: John McGahern - surely one of the greatest in the 20th century - is inextricably linked with Leitrim. Frank O'Connor is embedded in Cork. Kavanagh and Monaghan are of one soul. Sean O'Casey is Dublin through and through. Ben Kiely is Omagh to the heart. Edna O'Brien's Clare roots are key. The place connection is not true of every Irish writer, but it is true of many, and it's frequently an essential way of explaining and exploring their work.

A subsequent large room is, indeed, dedicated entirely to Kate O'Brien and there the Limerick connection is mentioned. This is a kind of art display, adorned with artefacts about O'Brien, featuring old suitcases, a classroom desk, ancient photographs, and some "holy pictures" as once featured in Irish convent life.

Bigger, spacious, light-filled rooms follow on, with a focus on arty installations - a room with "themes" ("conflict", "the body", etc.) highlighted, accompanied by sounds of water and seashore birds. The visual effects will appeal to younger people, I think, for whom conceptual art is their medium. There is another great Ulysses display, with a long panel exploring the book and its links, a room with those gigantic pictures of Paris, with contemporary novels, mostly by women, placed in niches. And an archive of RTÉ writers' interviews shown on a loop. On upstairs levels there is more Joyceana, and spaces dedicated to various forms of creativity and participation. There's a beautiful garden on ground level, and a plan to fill it with birds and bees in summer.

MoLI is imaginatively designed, overall. It adds to Dublin's attractions and isn't expensive by the measure of things (€8 adults, €6 concession, special family tickets). I, personally, think it should have more narrative and context about all Irish writers featured, a little less flashy art installation, and a smidgen less Joyce. But that's just me. Go and see for yourself.

Irish Independent

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