Throw a stone in Dublin and you’ll hit either a scholar or a saint, they tell me as I stroll along the cobbled alleys of a city whose native sons include Shaw, Yeats, Joyce and St. Patrick. Turns out they are right. At every corner between castle and art gallery, museum and pub, there are reminders of personalities intrinsic to the character of the place. Oscar Wilde strikes a pose on Merrion Square. Patrick Kavanagh is seated on the banks of the Grand Canal. Little wonder that the critic Kenneth Tynan once said, “English drama is a procession of glittering Irishmen.”
But whoever suggested that only middle-aged folk would enjoy the charms of literary Dublin mustn’t have visited in recent years. In front of W.B. Yeats’s house, a gaggle of excited girls preen for a photograph. Naomi Campbell strikes a pose not too far from the Writers’ Museum.
In a city where the pub, the poet and the pint seem to be inseparably intertwined, and the public house the place where many budding writers sharpened their wit, Trinity College — the oldest university in Ireland which houses the 1,200-year old Book of Kells — stands in sharp contrast. Especially since I’ve grown up in an era where writing largely means the muffled percussion of keys on my Mac, the lavishly decorated copy of medieval gospel manuscripts handwritten on vellum takes the wind out of my sails. Just as a traipse through the Long Room in the Trinity College Library, which houses over 2,00,000 of the college’s oldest books lovingly gazed upon by marble busts and a 15th century harp leaves me breathless.
“Dubliners are so friendly, once they start talking, it is hard to get them to stop,” one Dubliner informs me with a wink. He goes on to tell me that Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker, the creator of the famous Dracula, all studied right here in Trinity College. As we walk out of the college towards the National Library of Ireland, he mutters proudly that Dublin is arguably where most of the greatest works of James Joyce were set.
Scholars are not the only abundant entity in Dublin. Saints too are plenty. John Byrne — friend, guide and walking-encyclopaedia on the subject of Ireland — provides ample evidence of this fact. Between the Guinness Storehouse and The Casino, we find here a church, there a church, everywhere a church, church … Christ Church Cathedral is one of Dublin’s oldest and most recognisable landmarks. Little wonder then that in the Viking exhibition held in a neo-Gothic building adjoining the church, a man dressed in a monk’s robe welcomes us in.
The icing on this sacred cake however is a visit to the nearby Glendalough, renowned for its medieval monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century. If you are visiting not just to record and tick things off in an anecdote journal but with the curiosity and pounding heart of a peeping Tom, this can be a most rewarding trip. The monasteries now house an information centre that is run by contemporary saints, who mix commerce and spirituality exceedingly well.
As you listen to the guide talk you through the monastic remains which includes areas for manuscript writing, save the urge to fire off enough camera film to garland an entire amphitheatre for later, and listen to her speak instead. In her words were insights into the cogs and wheels that make the monastery work. For instance, she tells us, the round tower built 30 meters high served as bell tower, landmark for approaching visitors, and on occasion as places of refuge in times of attack.
However what I enjoy most about Dublin is the way it shuffles my deck of ideas about the world, rearranges my cerebral furniture. A man sits in a pub in the Temple Bar area reading plays by Samuel Beckett and George Bernard Shaw all day. A taxi driver tells me he spends most of the money he makes watching plays, sometimes an Oscar Wilde play at the Gate Theatre, at other times an A. J. M. Synge at Abbey.
One Dubliner plans his honeymoon in a monastery, as living in monasteries that preserve age-old ambience although now converted into luxury hotels appears quite popular. Another goes on a pilgrimage not to the grave of a saint but rather to the grave of W.B. Yeats. So when I enter a souvenir stall and see Irish seagull poo made of chocolate on sale, I take it in my stride with an easy grin. I guess the creative spirit of James Joyce will always hover over this city.
Sonia Nazareth is a lecturer at St Xaviers College, Mumbai.