Dublin, beyond the Blooms
Times' critics and columnists review the best places on Earth to pursue their passions.
THE notion of a holiday built around literature is a contradiction, which makes Dublin the right destination for those inclined toward the literary life.
Travel, after all, is about going and doing. The consolations of reading are solitary; even the experience of dramatic literature is sedentary. Although serious reading — even of the purely recreational sort — is a diversion that admits no distraction, it can be made richer still when complemented by experience.
For my money — and, these days, be prepared to bring a lot of that — Dublin is the city where that experience is almost too easily obtained.
Start with the fact that this city is not simply the backdrop but a subject of the great modernist novel “Ulysses,” whose author, James Joyce, intended to “give a picture of Dublin so complete” that the city “could be reconstructed out of my book.” (So you could, if the Dublin you wished to rebuild was the now vanished Edwardian city that existed between dawn and midnight on June 16, 1904.)
“Ulysses” may have made Leopold and Molly Bloom’s house at 7 Eccles St. one of the most famous addresses in literature, but why stop there? Dublin was home to three of Ireland’s Nobel literature laureates — George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats and Samuel Beckett. The fourth, Seamus Heaney, has long made the city his base, though he lives south of town in the Wicklow Hills. Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Flann O’Brien didn’t simply work in Dublin but inhabited it in a way that still resonates.
If you’re inclined toward the Gothic, this was the home not only of Dracula’s creator, Bram Stoker, but also of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, whose story “Carmilla” made a genre of vampires.
Dublin is the city of the Abbey Theatre, where Sean O’Casey found drama in the lives of the urban poor and John Millington Synge a culture in the country people’s traditions and speech. Oscar Wilde was born and educated here, as was our tongue’s protean satirist and social critic, Jonathan Swift, who also began the still thriving local tradition of denigrating the place when he described himself as “dropped in wretched Dublin.”
Today, it is home to such internationally acclaimed novelists as John Banville, Colm Toibin and Roddy Doyle, scores of interesting poets, as well as Maeve Binchy, who virtually invented what’s come to be called “chick-lit.”
None of this has been lost on the Irish, who nowadays are a people with both eyes firmly fixed on the main chance. There are nightly pub crawls conducted by actors who declaim from the works of writers associated with the various establishments. The artifacts of literary tourism are sprinkled around the way statues of Our Lady of Lourdes used to be.
Joyce left Dublin for Continental exile because he found it a “city of failure, of rancor and unhappiness.” For generations, respectable local opinion reciprocated with the conviction that he was a libertine, apostate and pornographer. No more. Today, airport souvenir shops peddle Joyce prints, mugs and T-shirts, and his image is a ubiquitous bronze presence from one end of the city to the other. A life-sized statue surrounded by incised quotations from his works decorates the fountain of a courtyard garden inside one of the city’s best hotels.
“St. Joyce has replaced St. Patrick in the new, post-Catholic Ireland,” Fintan O’Toole, the Irish Times’ drama critic, told me over a recent lunch at Chapter One, one of Dublin’s fashionable and excellent newer restaurants. “Literature is now strongly commoditized,” explained O’Toole, who is also a columnist, a prolific author, sometime television and radio host and one of the country’s leading public intellectuals.
More on the “new Ireland” — post Catholic and other things — in a moment. Suffice to say, that O’Toole, as usual, puts the matter squarely and correctly. These days, it’s all too easy for well-intentioned but unwary visiting book-lovers to find themselves drifting unsatisfactorily in the shallow waters between those twin poles of contemporary tourism — kitsch and cliché.
To avoid them, I’d suggest a different sort of itinerary — idiosyncratic, but not eccentric — one that doesn’t avoid every point on the beaten path but takes some new ways into them.
A vibrant and fashionable cityDON’T expect to find either Joyce’s “dear, dirty Dublin” or Yeats’ “blind and ignorant town.”
Roman rule, the Reformation, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution may have passed Ireland by — which accounts, in part, for the country’s distinctive literary sensibility — but membership in the European Union, successive governments’ adroit economic policies, a well-educated English-speaking population and a tradition of openness born of the long post-famine diaspora prepared the Irish for the Information Age and a globalized economy.
They’ve made the most of the opportunity, transforming a nation that a little more than a decade ago was essentially traditional and agrarian. Today, Ireland and, in particular, Dublin are booming with a growth rate that is Europe’s envy.
Shrewd visitors — once they’ve steeled themselves to the prices of everything — will avail themselves of this new Dublin’s advantages, while avoiding its ills. To that end, stay in the city center.
I prefer the Merrion, the heart of Georgian Dublin, directly across the street from the Dail (parliament), the office of the Taoiseach (prime minister) and the National Museum. The site and atmosphere are well aligned with the intentions of this trip; the hotel’s main section was created by uniting a series of 18th century townhouses, one of which was the Duke of Wellington’s birthplace. A discreet door to the right of the front desk opens onto one of Ireland’s most highly regarded restaurants, Patrick Guilbaud. The hotel’s Cellar Bar attracts an interesting political crowd from across the street and has enough nooks and crannies to make conversation possible even when crowded.
Begin by walking across the way to the National Museum and spending some time with its incomparable collection of Celtic artifacts. Theirs is a strange and compelling beauty that somehow prefigures certain elements of the Irish aesthetic, particularly a love of astonishingly intricate ornament that both embellishes and conceals. Note particularly the care lavished on the “book shrines,” which were meant to hold illuminated early medieval copies of the Gospels, because the greatest of them should be your next stop.
It’s worth recalling that the language that first described these pieces was all but lost in the terrible upheaval that followed the famine of the 1840s. As Banville — whose latest work, “The Sea,” is long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize — pointed out to me recently, “Irish [as Gaelic is called] was essentially lost to us all in one decade, in an avalanche of change. We took on English and made something new of it because the memory of the older tongue was still there. Irish is full of evasion. You can’t, for example, say ‘I’m a man’ in it. We’re still unquiet in our own language. English writing is clear as glass. We love the ambiguities and pile on as many meanings as a sentence will bear.”
Extraordinary Book of KellsYOUR next stop, then, is a book that is the visual apotheosis of that tendency. From the hotel, head north along Merrion Square to Clare Street. Turn left and, a bit farther on, it will become Nassau Street. Soon, you’ll be walking along the southern side of Trinity College. The southern entrance to the 40-acre campus leads through the arts building. Follow the signs across Fellows Square to the Old Library, where the Book of Kells is kept.
The Old Library opens at 9:30 a.m., except on winter Sundays, when it opens at noon. Get there as early as possible. In spring or fall, there’s a fair chance of having the place nearly to yourself, particularly in midweek. In summer it’s your only fighting chance of surviving the organized bands of German tourists.
The introductory exhibit is compact and smart, and the viewing room is dim with the Book of Kells under glass at a convenient height. Spend some time with it. An 11th century commentator called it “the most precious object of the Western World.” It is a folio-sized copy of the four Gospels, decorated not simply with lavishly illuminated script, but also with page-sized portraits and so-called carpet pages of geometric pattern. It is thought to have been executed in the great monastery on Iona off Scotland around 800 and subsequently taken to Kells for safety. Never before or since has so much creative reverence been lavished on a text. Note particularly, if you can, the special care and ornament the scribes gave to the word dicebat (“he said”) whenever it was used. To this day, Irish writers accord a special authority to the spoken word.
Spend a bit of time with the other illuminated manuscripts on display. I’m particularly fond of the 7th century Book of Durrow, which has a less sophisticated but austere beauty. There’s also an 8th century work, the Book of Dimma, and the 9th century Book of Armagh.
Once you’re done — or overwhelmed, as I usually am — proceed up the stairs to the Long Room, a 209-foot, two-tiered, barrel-vaulted gallery that is every bibliophile’s fantasy of what a library should be. This is where Trinity houses and conserves the 200,000 oldest volumes of its vast research collection. Breathe in the atmosphere and study the marble busts placed on wooden pedestals in front of the columns that line either side of the room. Before the pillar marked “I” is Louis-François Roubiliac’s portrait of Swift, which many believe to be the finest ever made.
Exit Trinity through the main gate and turn left along College Green, which a few blocks on becomes Dame Street. As you pass Dublin Castle, it will become Lord Edward Street. When you see Christ Church Cathedral on your right, make the next left on Nicholas Street, which will become Patrick Street. You’re now in the old city, founded by the Vikings and which later became the Liberties, one of Europe’s worst slums, a place whose infant mortality rate exceeded Moscow’s at the turn of the last century.
These were the streets that Swift, author of “A Modest Proposal” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” walked, seething over the mistreatment of the poor and London’s neglect of his genius. Follow the signs to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a medieval building restored almost beyond recognition. Swift was dean here from 1713 until he died in 1745. He left his estate to fund a hospital for the insane. During his own last illness, when he was bedridden and incoherent, his manservant charged the curious for admission to the dying dean’s bedroom.
Swift’s chair and pulpit are preserved inside St. Patrick’s, along with his tomb and famous epitaph: “He is laid where bitter indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go traveler and imitate if you can one who was, to the best of his powers, a defender of liberty.” At his side is buried the enigmatic Esther Johnson, daughter to the housekeeper of his one-time patron Sir William Temple and, depending on your interpreter, Swift’s lover, platonic companion or secret wife. She was the “Stella” to whom his great cycle of letters on public issues was addressed.
St. Patrick’s was once the spiritual center of Protestant Anglo-Ireland, and some of its relics are preserved there still. Among them are the flags of the great Irish fighting regiments that were part of the British army before the establishment of the Free State. Try to pick out the banners of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, whose enlisted ranks were recruited from among the poor in the surrounding Liberties. Recall that they, like the Australians and New Zealanders, were sacrificed to Winston Churchill’s folly at Gallipoli, and you’ll have a sense of why Swift speaks to us still.
The next stop is 82 Merrion Square, which is a leisurely, two-minute walk from the Merrion Hotel. The townhouse at No. 82 was the home of Yeats from 1921 to 1928, when the poet served in the new Irish Senate and was awarded the Nobel Prize. After years as a dilapidated office warren, the building was purchased in 1996 by people who planned to demolish the interior and turn it into a guest house. When they were denied permits, the house was bought and restored as the headquarters of the Merrion Property Group.
The house now is open to visitors by appointment. Go early, take a volume of Yeats and find a quiet seat in the intimate gardens of the square. Read a few of your favorite poems, then stroll to No. 82 for your guided tour. The house is as it was when it was alive with the Yeats family. The poet’s sisters, Lily and Elizabeth, set up their habitually unprofitable Cuala Industries on the lower floors, press in the basement, needlework in the dining room. There’s a fine and rare example of that embroidery now hanging in the entry hallway.
The upper drawing room, where Yeats worked and entertained, has been restored right down to its elaborate ceiling frieze and marble fireplace. Ask to descend the worn granite steps to the basement kitchen. On a November night in 1923, Bertie Smyllie, editor of the Irish Times, phoned to tell Yeats he’d won the Nobel Prize.
“How much, man, how much is it worth?” the poet demanded. The next morning, the great man purchased a new carpet runner for the stairs.
Your next stop should be the James Joyce Centre at 35 N. Great George’s St., another restored Georgian home. This was once the Earl of Kenmare’s Dublin townhouse, but by the early 20th century, it and the surrounding area had fallen on hard times and the lower floor was occupied by the dancing academy of “Prof. Denis J. Maginni,” whose sartorial splendor earned him a walk-on appearance in “Ulysses’ ” 10th chapter.
Admission to the center is about $6, and the tiny bookstore has an excellent selection of unusual guides to Joyce’s Dublin. The plum-colored drawing room has a welcoming coal fire beside which you can watch a thoughtful film on the author’s connections to the city. Upstairs are reading rooms and a library. Three times a week, there are Joycean walking tours that are worth the hour and the $12 charge. The Joyce Centre is also headquarters to one of Dublin’s most interesting and useful contemporary literary magazines, the Stinging Fly, which is edited by Declan Meade, who also publishes a small press of the same name. Meade is a virtual encyclopedia of young literary Dublin, which makes the center a good place to check for information and notices on readings while you’re in town.
Devoted Joyceans might also want to take the DART rail eight miles south to Sandycove. There, beside what Joyce called “the snot-green, scrotum-tightening sea,” the Martello tower made famous in “Ulysses’ ” opening scene houses the Joyce Museum (open March through October).
At the top of North Great George’s Street is Belvedere College, the Jesuit secondary school from which Joyce graduated. When you reach it, turn left along Denmark Street and carry on until you reach Parnell Square and the Dublin Writers Museum. It has a particularly good bookstore, and you might want to take advantage of it; Dublin is rich in writers, but it’s suddenly poor in bookstores. The last of the wonderful old booksellers whose shops used to dot the quays along the Liffey River closed its doors in April.
The museum hosts interesting changing exhibits and a permanent collection from which it’s fun to pick out memorabilia connected to your favorite Irish writers —"Oh, look, there’s Frank O’Connor’s pipe and spectacles.” Make sure you seek out the Brendan Behan section in Room 2, and take the time to read the handwritten letter he sent his half-brother Rory from Hollywood in 1961. “It is a screwy kind of place,” he wrote, “full of good kindly famous people.” Behan was particularly impressed with Frank Sinatra, whom he called “a tenement aristocrat like myself.”
Before and after the playTHE Writers Museum has a decent cafe, but the real culinary gem is in the basement: the Chapter One restaurant.
Savvy Dubliners on their way to the nearby Abbey and Gate theaters book tables at Chapter One for the pre-theater menu that gets them out in time for the curtain, then lets them return after the play for dessert and coffee. The Abbey is Ireland’s national theater — the first state-subsidized theater in the English-speaking world — and was founded 101 years ago by Yeats and Augusta Gregory to stage new Irish plays. The Gate was opened in 1928 by actor Micheal MacLiammoir and his lover, Hilton Edwards, as a venue for imported drama. Dublin wags promptly dubbed the competing houses Sodom and Begorrah.
The Abbey retains its reputation as a “writer’s theater,” but both it and the Gate have fallen on hard times financially and artistically. The best Irish theater now is in Galway, where the Druid Theatre Company’s “Synge Cycle” has been knocking audiences dead this summer and now appears headed for New York. The most interesting Dublin theater, according to the Irish Times’ O’Toole — a former literary advisor to the Abbey — usually is found at the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, just south of the Liffey.
“Our theater is in a state of expectation because nobody really understands contemporary Dublin,” O’Toole told me. Declan Meade, on the other hand, sees a new wave of young Irish writers who take as their subject those left out of the new prosperity. He cites as an example young Derry-born novelist Sean O’Reilly, whose fourth book, “Watermark,” was published by Stinging Fly in May.
“The question is not whether there are Irish writers around to look at what’s going on,” Meade told me recently. “It’s whether there are Irish readers willing to listen.”
Complexity and contradiction, change and continuity — that and something more define what’s crucial in the Dublin sensibility.
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A bookish look at Ireland’s capital
From LAX,Aer Lingus offers nonstops to Dublin. American, US Airways, Continental, Delta, Lufthansa and British have connecting flights. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $770.
To callthe numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 353 (country code for Ireland), 1 (the city code for Dublin) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:Merrion Hotel, Upper Merrion Street, Dublin 2; 603-0600, fax 603-0700, https://www.merrionhotel.com . Good location, good hotel, if a bit pricey. But there sometimes are deals to be had if you book online and well in advance (as low as $260). Doubles from $450.
The Westbury, Grafton Street, Dublin 2; 679-1122, fax 679-7078, is also a fine business hotel. Doubles from $341.
The Clarence, 6-8 Wellington Quay, Dublin 2; 407-0800, fax 407-0820, https://www.theclarence.ie . It fronts on the Liffey River and backs up to Temple Bar — think Greenwich Village — and is about as hip as hip gets: U2’s Bono and the Edge own major interests in the place. Its Tea Room is one of the city’s places to be seen. Doubles from $400.
WHERE TO EAT:
Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, in the Merrion hotel; 676-4192, https://www.restaurantpatrickguilbaud.ie . Lunch menu changes daily. Two-course lunch $40, three-course $50. Dinner menu changes seasonally. Main dishes $44-$114.
Chapter One, in the basement of the Dublin Writers Museum, 18-19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1; 873-2266, https://www.chapteronerestaurant.com . A pre-theater three-course dinner is $38. Main dishes $34-$49.
TO LEARN MORE:
Dublin Tourism, Suffolk Street, Dublin 2; 605-7700, https://www.visitdublin.com .
— Tim Rutten
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