Dublin has always been a city of words. Its literary life is written in its pubs and alleyways, its parks and churches, its ramshackle houses and majestic mansions that line the River Liffey. An unquenchable love of language inherent in the Irish people stamps the streets of the city. In 2010, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) named Dublin a World Heritage City of Literature, one of only six to share that honor.
A lifelong fan of James Joyce and W. B. Yeats, I had come to Dublin to follow in their footsteps and to try to see the city through their eyes.
But, Dublin, too, is a city that courts compulsion. James Joyce’s iconic characters, Stephen Daedalus and Leopold Bloom, owe their existence to Joyce’s obsession with the place of his birth. He left it as a young man in 1904 and never returned, yet the city haunted him. It was the wellspring from which all of his later work sprang. “For myself,” Joyce wrote, “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 in the world.”
Joyce was not alone. Dublin’s heart was also the place where Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, William Yeats, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, and Samuel Beckett began their literary journeys. As one Irish friend told me, “It’s sober writing here by a restless crew of pub crawlers.” The irony of course is that Dublin’s writers were passionate about Ireland, its history, culture, and traditions. Yet the language in which they wrote and are memorialized is the language of their conquerors, the English whom they loathed and worked so hard to expel.
All over Dublin is the lilting sound of its literary legacy. Taxi drivers run monologues on literature and politics. A guard at the National Museum asked where I came from and when told California, began a discussion on writer John Steinbeck.
Remembrances of Dublin’s literary glories are everywhere, from the memorial stone of Brendan Behan in Glasnevin Cemetery to the plaques on plain-fronted Georgian houses announcing that pioneering mystery writer Sheridan Le Fanu or brilliant wit Oscar Wilde once lived on the premises. At the National Library of Ireland, W. B. Yeats holds sway over an extensive exhibition featuring recordings of the author reading his own work.
The best place, however, to begin a tour of literary Dublin is at the Dublin Writers Museum in Parnell Square. This carefully restored Georgian townhouse acts as the “Cliffs Notes” of Dublin’s latest and greatest. Each author from Swift to Beckett has a space in a glass case with a mini-biography, a small collection of memorabilia, and a place on the audio tour. For a quick once over it’s a great place to start.
From there it’s a short walk around the corner to the James Joyce Museum. Joyce is everywhere in Dublin. His statue in bronze strides just off O’Connell Street; illustrations illuminating scenes from “The Dubliners” occupy an entire wing of the National Gallery. Finn’s Hotel, where his wife and muse, Nora Barnacle, worked as a chambermaid, has had its now obsolete sign carefully preserved. At the James Joyce Museum you can buy his works, examine a recreation of his bedroom in Trieste, or listen to a recreated discussion by Joyce’s contemporaries of the merits and horrors of his masterwork, “Ulysses.” The most electric exhibition in the museum stands alone under a skylight, the original door of 7 Eccles Street, through which Leopold Bloom walked on June 16, 1904 securing Joyce’s literary legend.
For the dean of Irish writers, a Sunday morning service at the Anglican cathedral of St. Patrick’s brings you into his world. Jonathan Swift, author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” was dean of the cathedral for nearly 30 years and is buried here next to his beloved “Stella,” Esther Johnson. As music from the cathedral’s renowned choir, founded in 1432, flooded the groined Gothic arches, I wondered how the locals had reacted so many years ago to Swift’s acerbic tongue.
At the bar of the upscale Shelburne Hotel, Brendan Behan once held court among the whiskey bottles. Just down the street at the ancient Huguenot Cemetery, the ancestors of Samuel Beckett are buried. The Abbey Theatre showcases Sean O’Casey and J. M. Synge.
Perhaps the best place to find the living literary blood of the city is in the pubs that all Irish authors have frequented and which still flourish today. Glasses pour, voices roar, and the litany of language soars with musical accompaniment over the mob. Davy Byrne’s Pub on Duke Street is where Leopold Bloom had lunch, as did his creator, James Joyce. The Church Pub, a repurposed church on Jervis Street is where Jonathan Swift once attended services and where Sean O’Casey was baptized.
Dublin is a writers’ town, whatever the season, whatever the hour, a literary city of leading lights that dreamed in Irish but created iconic works in a foreign tongue.
Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the United Kingdom, and Hawaii and writes about art and culture.