Yes, this dapper statue of the famous James Joyce is here to tell you that I have left behind the sweltering heat of December in Australia to potter around Europe with my sister, a handful of books, and not nearly enough winter clothing to keep an ordinary human being from contracting pneumonia. Throughout my trip I’ll be sharing stories from some of the literary places I visit, including writers’ homes, literary museums, and – of course – bookshops.
My first stop is Dublin, Ireland’s capital and a UNESCO City of Literature. This, to me, sounds like an appropriate place for a eager lit major to start. So after one full day in Dublin (half of which, admittedly, was spent in a blissful jetlag-induced haze), what have I learnt about the city’s approach to literature?
Well, for one thing, they like to make jokes. Specifically, they like to make jokes about Ulysses, James Joyce’s behemoth of a book set in early twentieth-century Dublin. They are proud of it and amused by it in equal measure. It’s hard to hate a book that really put Dublin on the literary map, even if Joyce actually wrote most of it in Switzerland and France, where he ended up living until his death. Still, you’d never guess from the number of statues, museums, and mentions Joyce receives in Dublin.
There’s more to Dublin than just James Joyce, though. Ireland has a rich storytelling history which was highlighted in our first museum of the day: the National Leprechaun Museum on the city’s north side. Now, I know what you’re thinking. A museum dedicated to leprechauns? This is something to see.
And it was. Unfortunately, due to my impeccable planning skills, my camera battery chose that very moment to expire, so I’m afraid the only image I was able to capture was this:
No, don’t worry. As it happens my sister is much more organised than I am, so for the rest of the day I shamelessly borrowed her camera for just about every touristy snap I could manage.
The Leprechaun museum is a small museum with a big story to tell. The museum is dedicated to Irish storytelling, and throughout the tour we were entertained with stories from Irish myth and folklore. Also, there is a room with really big chairs that makes you look like a tiny leprechaun. But mostly, of course, we were interested in the storytelling. Irish fairy stories aren’t the quaint, sparkly ones most kids are used to; they’re often intentionally scary and have very depressing, even gruesome, endings. People were genuinely terrified of being abducted by the fairies and never being seen again. They took measures to prevent this happening; iron was thought to repel fairies, so often they would hang horseshoes above their doors. If they were too poor to afford even a horseshoe, they would content themselves with an iron nail. And leprechauns aren’t the benevolent, cheerful little guys you might expect. They were often cheeky and even downright dangerous. Don’t believe me? Check out some examples of fairy stories on the museum’s website.
It’s a little disorientating to emerge back into the daylight after listening to the tales of leprechauns, banshees, fairies, and witches. But our next port of call was rather less spooky. We took a wander through Trinity College Dublin, a university originally established in 1592. Outside its walls are statues of some of its famous graduates; one which catches the eye is Oliver Goldsmith, the author of The Vicar of Wakefield and She Stoops to Conquer. I have to say, he’s a lot better looking in stone than he is in the famous portrait by Joshua Reynolds. Trinity College is also home to the Book of Kells, which we saw on our first visit to Dublin a few years ago. It’s an illuminated manuscript from around AD 800, beautifully preserved and boasting some stunning images.
A short walk from Trinity College is The Little Museum of Dublin. This museum tells the story of the city over the course of ten decades in the twentieth century, rather like a two-room time capsule. Hung on the walls are letters, posters, and photographs from the various decades. Also on display are artefacts which illustrate the experience of the twentieth century; commemorative milk bottles, a child’s tricycle, and Monster Much granules encased in solid gold (‘Depiction Ireland in the nineties,’ we were told; ‘rich on the outside but junk on the inside’). The guides take ‘sample stories’ from each decade as they lead you around the museum’s collection. One of the most interesting literary stories was one about Samuel Beckett, who received a letter from a young boy in Dublin. This boy lived in the house where Beckett had been born, and he had sent Beckett a letter as a school project. Beckett replied to the little boy, and the letter he wrote is on display in The Little Museum. It’s a sweet little story, even if Beckett’s closing words may have unintentionally sparked nightmares which would take years of therapy to overcome:
Also on display was Joyce’s rather spooky death mask and a first-edition copy of Ulysses.
A few hours and one potato-heavy lunch later, we wound up at The Duke pub for The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. Led by professional actors, the pub crawl takes you through the heart of Dublin, highlighting the places where famous writers came to drink, talk, and share ideas. As you hop from place to place the guides take brief interludes to perform extracts from some of the most famous of Dublin writers’ works, including Waiting for Godot (Beckett), extracts from Oscar Wilde’s letters, and The Risen People (James Plunkett). Of course, it being a cold night, there was much drinking involved in this process. As a result, we did not obtain any photographs, so I’m afraid that this picture of a pamphlet for the pub crawl will have to do.
Our final port of call was Davy Byrnes’ pub, which is mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses as the place where Leopold Bloom eats a gorgonzola sandwich. It was also one of the favourite haunts of Brendan Behan, Ireland’s hard-drinking, hard-writing writer/playwright, who once said, “I am a drinker with writing problems.” Like the other extracts we’d heard that evening, from Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Joyce, Behan’s words have a special kind of sharp wit to them. This particular line of his was quoted to us twice in one day; first at the Little Museum and then on the pub crawl. If I learnt anything about the way Irish people think about literature on my first day in Dublin, I think it is how highly they praise the kind of wry wit demonstrated by people like Behan, Wilde, and even Joyce (despite its length, many rushed to assure us that Ulysses is in fact a very funny book). That was my impression for the first day, at any rate. I’m curious to see what I’ll learn tomorrow.