SONIA NAZARETH finds that writers in Dublin are as much celebrities as artists and musicians.
Literature engulfs an Irishman from the day he is born. Swift, Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Wilde, Synge, O’Casey, and the more contemporary Dermot Bolger, Roddy Doyle and Colum McCann are among the writers, poets and playwrights that are champions of this beautiful game. In Dublin the game takes on new dimensions, as creative Dubliners successfully mine and manage the city’s literary wealth. If you jump aboard a Hop-on Hop-off bus loop tour, you’ll see at once that this is one of the few places in the world where writers are given as much a share of the celebrity podium as artists and musicians.
The commentator aboard the Big Bus Tour makes discovering the presence of literary venues and theatres, remnants of places where writers lived, drank, wrote and socialised as exciting an odyssey as an adventure on the high seas. His commanding voice draws connecting lines over the shapes flying by. Danny Osborne’s flamboyant statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square. The Samuel Beckett Bridge built over the Liffey. The Dublin Writer’s museum. The Abbey Theatre founded by Lady Gregory, J.M.Synge and W.B Yeats. Robin Buick’s pavement plaques marking places on the Ulysses trail.
Which is why it comes as no surprise when a statement that Dublin was crowned City of Literature by UNESCO in 2004 is slipped into the commentary as smoothly as a bookmark. Or why it’s perfectly natural in a city in which words matter, to greet a person with, “What’s the story?” Anne Enright sums up the sensibility saying, “In other cities, clever people go out and make money. In Dublin clever people go home and write books.”
In a more run-of-the mill city, I would go to a library to read, or to a theatre to see a text enacted. But Dublin’s not conventional, and I learn swiftly that one can do these activities just as well in a pub. Here a pub is more than a pub. It is as much a crucible of culture. In these wooden wombs, you can listen to live music or participate in karaoke nights, but you can just as well write your book in a snug corner. The rambunctious Brendan Behan was known to bring his typewriter into McDaid’s and churn out his texts, while cautioning other writers not to spill their pints anywhere in his vicinity.
On the literary pub-crawl that Dublin is so famous for, there’s a mini-school of professional actors performing the works of Dublin’s most famous writers. They lead literary lovers (everyone here is a literary lover) through taverns in which writers, journalists and poets once congregated, performing lines from the likes of Joyce’s Dubliners and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, interspersed with frothy profundity and witty banter. It’s clear at the outset that humour (and an inexhaustible sense of fun) is Ireland’s national treasure and the actors performing the lines, a provocative bunch. Either I’m being prodded through the words of political satires from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or provoked into thought through religious critique from texts like Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy, or laughing out loud at the enactment of chunks of dialogue from Oscar Wilde’s plays. It’s not always easy, but it’s always funny. A wise man told me once, “Sometimes the thoughts that stay with you longest are the ones that aren’t straightforward or easy to digest.”
To see things performed in the places in which they were set adds another dimension to this experience, adding clarity to our hearing. On 21 Duke Street for instance, at Davy Byrne’s, it is possible to stop for a gorgonzola sandwich with mustard and a glass of burgundy wine, exactly as the fictional Leopold Bloom of Ulysses did over a century ago. The experience conjures up the following lines from Ulysses — in which descriptions of food are always near at hand. “Mr. Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate.”
Thankfully this walk, so place dependent, can’t be globalised and is conducted replete with local character. There is also something distinctly pleasurable in sharing an evening with a local audience who knows characters out of the books being read as intimately as if they were friends. But the froth on the beer of this pub-crawl is that you don’t have to be a part of the literati or in possession of a body brimming with academic bones to have an entertaining time. The anecdotes flying around are also worthy reasons to be part of the evening. A man in a flamboyant white wig confides, “When Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World was first staged, one theatre-goer condemned it as a vile, unnatural story told in the most virulent language ever heard on a public platform. Mayhem ensued, world fame followed.”
Inspired by the readings from the night before, I make for the bookshops on Dawson Street the next morning. And as I browse, I overhear the following conversation (that can only possibly unfold in Dublin) from behind the stacks. Mr. Finn loads up his cart with Joseph O’Connor, Maeve Binchy and Sebastian Barry and utters, quoting Desiderius Erasmus, “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.” His friend responds, in the words of Mary Wortley Montagu, “No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting.”
This love of storytelling is as old as the river Liffey which runs through the heart of Dublin. It is believed that no Celtic feast worth its salt could be pronounced complete without a story. A chieftain of any repute would encourage court attendance of poets and storytellers. The stories ensured that the chieftain’s lofty acts would live on. If the chieftain didn’t pay for his story he risked being the knave of the tale.
The first real page turner in these parts, however, was the 9th century book of Kells, an intricately-crafted version of the four Gospels, which now sits in Trinity College. Visited by half a million people each year, this illustrated biblical text whispering and proclaiming through its unusual use of colours — including lilac, pink, red, green and lapis lazuli — is a book that, despite its age, wins every heart.
We follow our noses past the book of Kells and into the belly of the Trinity College Library established in 1592. With a catalogue of more than five million printed volumes, the smell of books is as alluring and decadent a scent as only a library can wear. Among other local libraries worth visiting, Marsh’s, Irelands oldest public library built in 1701, still has three wired alcoves known popularly as “cages”, in which readers were locked while perusing rare books.
A resurgent interest in the Irish storytelling tradition took place in the 1890s, when colonised Ireland still danced to the tune of familiar British colonial soundtrack. To help the nation re-establish identity and rediscover its past, storytelling was encouraged amid other arts. Senator David Norris writes in his forward to the book Dublin, City of Literature of the transition from the ancient Gaelic language into the more practical vehicle of English.
“This grating of one system of expression and feeling against one another and the conflict between the rational imperial language of Britain and the sometimes more subtle evasive structures of the Irish language proved fertile in producing a people with a separate identity and a fresh subversive attitude towards language, not only its meaning but its variety, texture, sound and shape.” A sentiment reiterated in Portrait, where Joyce has his lead character Stephen Dedalus say, “My soul frets in the shadow of his language.” Despite that early fret, Dublin’s clearly a place where despite or perhaps because of the shift in language there’s still a felt triumph of the taste, culture and craft of the written word, albeit in a new way.
And whether the average Irishman has read Joyce or not, the Bloomsday festival that takes place between June 10 and 16 each year is very popular. Joyceans from all over the world congregate in Dublin to celebrate the life of its high priest author, with walks and readings lubricated by alcohol. Following in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom, the principal character of Ulysses, through featured pubs and past Grafton street, with its muslin prints, fashion and crafts wear, places part of everyday life that featured in Ulysses, we reiterate the Joycean sentiment that life’s journey doesn’t need to be unique to be memorable; it becomes memorable through the appreciation of the smallest things. Today, these are the thoughts around which a creative society continues to thrive.