Dublin: home of the world’s greatest storytellers - Hindustan Times
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Dublin: home of the world’s greatest storytellers

ByTeja Lele
May 21, 2024 04:08 PM IST

Apart from James Joyce, who famously never won the prize, Ireland’s capital has produced four Nobel laureates of literature including poets William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney, dramatist George Bernard Shaw and novelist Samuel Beckett. Some tips on what to check out if you intend to undertake a literary pilgrimage to the city

James Joyce may have spent most of his adult life abroad, but he was a true-blue Dubliner at heart. “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal,” he wrote.

People celebrating Bloomsday outside The Bailey pub in Dublin on 16th June 2023. Bloomsday celebrates the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Derick P Hudson/Shutterstock)
People celebrating Bloomsday outside The Bailey pub in Dublin on 16th June 2023. Bloomsday celebrates the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Derick P Hudson/Shutterstock)

The written word is deeply entwined with Dublin’s past and present. It can be seen in the gorgeous architecture, rich culture, witty conversations and intellectual discussions in the many pubs, and in the roll call of the many writers who have called this island nation home.

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James Joyce photographed in 1918 in Zurich (C Ruf/Wikimedia Commons)
James Joyce photographed in 1918 in Zurich (C Ruf/Wikimedia Commons)

Apart from Joyce, Ireland’s capital has produced four Nobel laureates of literature: renowned poets William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney, dramatist George Bernard Shaw and novelist Samuel Beckett.

Located on a bay at the mouth of the Liffey River, Dublin dates back to the 7th century when the Gaels established a settlement. The city draws its name from the Irish word Duibhlinn, meaning “black, dark”, and “pool”, and refers to a dark tidal pool located where the River Poddle entered the Liffey. It was Ireland’s main settlement by the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century.

Samuel Beckett on an Irish postage stamp (Catwalker/Shutterstock)
Samuel Beckett on an Irish postage stamp (Catwalker/Shutterstock)

The historical city’s Georgian squares and wide streets are chock-a-block with famous cultural institutions, including the National Library, Dublin Writer’s Museum, National Print Museum, Archbishop Marsh’s Library, Trinity College, and Abbey Theatre. The city’s love for literature is reflected in the names it has bestowed upon its public spaces - three of the bridges over the Liffey are named after Joyce, Beckett and Sean O’Casey.

The capital of Ireland now boasts a flourishing literary scene: busy universities and libraries, numerous book festivals, a booming publishing industry, literary pubs, and a brand generation of new authors. Dublin’s craic, pronounced “crack” and a somewhat undefinable Irish word that indicates humour, repartee, fun, good times and more, also has a role to play – the lively conversation, sparkling humour and good company draw writers, intellectuals and creative types to Ireland every year.

Since 1995, Dublin City Council sponsors the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award, which draws entries from libraries in over 160 countries worldwide.

The city - designated the 4th UNESCO City of Literature in 2010 - also hosts the International Literature Festival Dublin (ILFD), Ireland’s leading literary event to celebrate stories and storytelling. This year, the festival, which has been held from 1998 onwards, is featuring literary stars such as Emma Dabiri, Colm Tóibín, Marian Keyes, Kevin Barry and many more. The 2024 ILFD which began on May 17 will go on until May 26.

You might not make it to Dublin in time for the festival this year but if you ever do undertake a pilgrimage to this literary town, here’s what you must do:

Visit the National Library of Ireland

The National Library of Ireland houses a whopping eight million items, including books, manuscripts, newspapers, periodicals, maps, photographs, and music. Open to all, it showcases impressive archival collections, including personal letters and notebooks of writers like Joyce, Yeats, Toibin, Roddy Doyle, and Seamus Heaney.

Current exhibitions at the reference library designed by Thomas Newenham Deane include World War Ireland: Exploring the Irish Experience, YEATS: The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats, People & Places: Ireland in 19th & 20th Centuries and the award-winning Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again.

Explore Museum of Literature Ireland

Opened in September 2019 as a partnership between National Library of Ireland and University College Dublin, Museum of Literature Ireland is said to be “a museum of literature for the world’s greatest storytellers”.

Located in the historic UCD Newman House, where James Joyce once studied, the interactive celebration of Irish poets, novelists, and playwrights showcases immersive multimedia exhibitions and precious literary artefacts. The permanent collection of Joyce-related material includes “Copy No 1” of Ulysses. Sign up for the 50-minute long tour to walk in the footsteps of Joyce and revel in the sounds of Irish storytelling across centuries.

Revolving exhibitions on literary figures, events, performances, and creative workshops are sure to inspire the writer in you. Head for the nearby Courtyard and Readers Garden where you can look at the ash tree that Joyce was photographed against at his 1902 graduation.

Walk in the footsteps of James Joyce

At Sandycove point on the south coast of Dublin, the Joyce Tower Museum is sited in an unusual location: a tower. The tower is one of a network of Martello towers built by the British in the early 19th century along the coast to secure the Dublin coast against the threat of a Napoleonic invasion.

The James Joyce Tower and Museum, a Martello tower in Sandycove, Dublin. (Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock)
The James Joyce Tower and Museum, a Martello tower in Sandycove, Dublin. (Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock)

Joyce’s brief stay at the tower inspired the opening of his magnum opus, Ulysses. The living room and gun platform with its scenic view bring to mind his evocative words. The museum’s collection includes first and rare editions, letters, photographs, and personal possessions.

Not far, in a gorgeous Georgian townhouse in Dublin’s North Inner City, the James Joyce Centre promotes the life, literature, and legacy of the revered writer. Apart from biographical and historical information about Joyce, the centre offers walking tours, exhibitions, workshops, and lectures.

Head for Marsh’s Library

Located in St Patrick’s Close, Marsh’s Library is one of Dublin’s best kept secrets. The well-preserved library of the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment was Ireland’s first public library when it opened in 1707. It houses almost 30,000 rare books and pamphlets and more than 300 volumes of manuscripts. Most of these are of the early-modern period, with a focus on British and continental European history, politics, literature and culture.

Two long galleries, joined by a small reading room, comprise the library. Books are stacked on dark oak bookcases in bays on either side of the gallery. The rolling ladders and the old-world atmosphere brings to mind JK Rowling’s Hogwarts’s library. Interestingly, the library is said to be home to the ghost of an old man who goes through the shelves every night – Archbishop Narcissus Marsh, the library’s founder!

Bram Stoker, author, most famously of Dracula (Spatuletail/Shutterstock)
Bram Stoker, author, most famously of Dracula (Spatuletail/Shutterstock)

Famous readers at Marsh’s Library include Joyce, Jonathan Swift, and Bram Stoker. Don’t miss the three cages at the very back – readers were locked in to keep thievery at bay and ensure that the books remained safe.

See the Book of Kells and Gaia

One of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures, the 680-page Book of Kells is an illuminated religious manuscript from the medieval period. The book, written in Latin on vellum pages, contains the four Gospels of the New Testament. The world’s most famous manuscript is said to have been created by Celtic monks in a Columban monastery on Iona, circa 800.

A replica of the Book of Kells on display in the Long Room Library at Trinity College, Dublin. (EWY Media/Shutterstock)
A replica of the Book of Kells on display in the Long Room Library at Trinity College, Dublin. (EWY Media/Shutterstock)

The Book of Kells Exhibition, at Trinity College Dublin, displays the beautiful medieval manuscript. The book, which measures 33x25 cm, is beautifully embellished, with large and lavish illustrations and adorned text. The painted images are gorgeous, and have tiny details, including animals, birds, and Celtic knots, in a variety of pigments. The exhibition also allows access to the Long Room, one of the world’s most lovely libraries with a collection of 200,000 of the college’s oldest books.

The stunning Gaia, a one-of-a-kind illuminated artwork by Luke Jerram, is displayed in the Old Library. It features 120dpi detailed NASA imagery of the earth’s surface, and showcases the planet as it might appear from space.

Light a candle at St Patrick’s Cathedral

Founded in 1191, Saint Patrick’s has since then been at the heart of Ireland’s history and culture. Built in honour of Ireland’s patron saint, the magnificent cathedral is housed in one of the few buildings left from medieval Dublin.

St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. (POM POM/Shutterstock)
St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. (POM POM/Shutterstock)

The national cathedral is filled with rich artefacts, including the baptistry, original 12th-century floor tiles, and a medieval stone font. A cross on a stone slab marks the position of St Patrick’s original well, where the saint did baptisms. A permanent exhibition, Living Stones, showcases the cathedral’s history and its bearing on the culture of Dublin. The cathedral’s choir, established in 1432, still performs daily.

The original Swifties – fans of Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels – should know that he was dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral from 1713-1745. His tomb, along with that of Esther Johnson, his long-term companion, lies inside the cathedral. Don’t miss the Swift memorabilia, including a pulpit and a death mask. Swift wrote his own epitaph in Latin, but Yeats translated it into English: “Swift has sailed into his rest; Savage indignation there, Cannot lacerate his Breast, Imitate him if you dare, World-Besotted Traveler; He served human liberty.”

Go on a statue spotting spree

The Oscar Wilde Memorial Sculpture, a set of three statues in Merrion Square, was unveiled in 1997 by Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland. It was designed and made by English sculptor Danny Osborne using stone from three continents, including green nephrite jade from British Columbia, Canada, and pink thulite from Norway.

A statue of Oscar Wilde by Danny Osborne in Merrion Square, Dublin. (cktravels.com/Shutterstock)
A statue of Oscar Wilde by Danny Osborne in Merrion Square, Dublin. (cktravels.com/Shutterstock)

Wilde seems to be lounging on a large quartz boulder. Two pillars flank the boulder: one is mounted with a nude pregnant representation of Wilde’s wife; the other with a male torso representing Dionysus, the Greek god of drama and wine. Wilde’s statue dons a Trinity College tie made from glazed porcelain, and three rings – his wedding ring and two scarabs, one for good luck, the other for bad luck.

Dublin has more than its fair share of public art, so go on a statue hunt: Joyce, Edmund Burke, Brendan Behan, Oliver Goldsmith, Patrick Kavanagh, Thomas Moore, and a memorial to Yeats.

Apart from these literary landmarks, the many old and new bookshops that dot the city are a treat for booklovers. On the north of the Liffey River, explore the Winding Stair, named after a Yeats poem and one of the city’s oldest surviving independent bookstores. Nearby bookstores include Chapters, ideal for second-hand foraging, and Eason Bookstore. The southside has plenty of options as well: Hodges Figgis, Books Upstairs, and Gutter Bookshop.

In June, join the Bloomsday celebrations as Dubliners celebrate June 16, 1904, a day immortalised in Ulysses. The day is named after Leopold Bloom, the novel’s protagonist, from one morning to the early hours of the following morning. Bloomsday celebrations include readings, performances, dressing up in Edwardian fashion, visiting places mentioned in the novel, and eating the food of that time.

Dublin isn’t really done if you don’t complete a literary pub crawl. Available almost every night of the year and led by a team of professional actors, the crawl – a form of street theatre – reveals the story of the gin palace and the long hall, quoting from the works of Joyce, Behan, Wilde and many more. Enjoy a pint or more as actors perform scenes from Waiting for Godot, sing songs, reveal interesting historical trivia, and host a short quiz at the end. The Duke Pub, the Bailey, or Davy Byrne’s were frequented by Joyce, Kavanagh, and Behan – reason enough for a booklover to enjoy a glass of their favourite tipple with a hearty meal to end the day!

Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle.

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