Monday, 31 December 2012

Dear Dublin


"When I die Dublin will be written in my heart."
-- James Joyce


A few years had passed since I'd first picked up a copy of Ulysses, and I was becoming familiar with Joyce's writing style.  He wrote as if the reader instinctively knew the Dublin of 1904.  Every street and building he wrote about was real, or rather, was as real as it had been on June 16, 1904.

There are so many references to Dublin's streets and buildings in the pages of Ulysses that Joyce once joked that if Dublin were to be destroyed by some catastrophe, it could be rebuilt brick by brick, using his novel.

Joyce wrote about Dublin the same way an author would write about New York City or Paris today.  If a character visited the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, there would be no need to describe the appearance of these landmarks.  Most people would automatically conjure an image of them in their minds.  It's the same thing with Joyce's Dublin: he didn't feel it necessary to describe Dublin -- he just put it all out there.

At first I found Joyce's approach to writing about Dublin unsettling -- particularly since I had virtually no mental image of Dublin.  So I dug up an old atlas of the British Empire that included a Dublin street map, and tried to figure out where the action was taking place.  After reading Ulysses a few times, I was starting to develop a fairly detailed two-dimensional map of Dublin in my mind, and I was eager to travel to Dublin and see what the city really looked like.

In 2006 my wife and I took an eight-day holiday in Ireland.  We spent our first three days in Dublin, and after that, drove in a semi-circular path around Ireland's southern coast, spending nights in Dunmore, Cork, Kenmare and Galway, and returned to Dublin on our last day to catch our plane home to Canada.

On our first day we arrived at a hotel in the Temple Bar area of Dublin, and I was excited to finally get a chance to experience the pages of Ulysses in 3D.

There was only one problem....while I was planning to devote three days in Dublin to seeing the streets and buildings I'd read about in Ulysses, my wife just wanted to tour Dublin's sites and do some shopping; she had no interest in James Joyce whatsoever.

The first day, she humoured me.  We went to the James Joyce Centre on North Great George Street, and toured the wonderful museum.  We saw original door from 7 Eccles Street, the house that the Bloom's lived in, portraits of the Joyce family and a copy of Joyce's death mask.  It was terrific.

A copy of Joyce's death mask
After that, we walked to 7 Eccles Street to see where Bloom lived.  Big mistake!  Eccles Street is a tiny, unexceptional street with a few townhouses on it.  I tried to make it sound historic and profound, but even I had to admit, it wasn't much to see.  By then, my wife had enough with James Joyce.  She wanted to do some real sightseeing and shopping.

"OK, I've had enough James Joycey stuff," she said. "Now let's tour the city." 

Fortunately, things worked out for the both of us.  My wife absolutely adores exploring new cities and taking long walks -- so I suggested we stroll over to the pedestrian shopping district and visit the museum. 

We walked over the O'Connell Bridge and took Westmoreland Street to the Grafton Street pedestrian shopping district.  After that we turned on to Duke Street and stopped by Davy Byrnes for lunch (She knew something was up when I ordered a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich for lunch, but by then she was enjoying the walk and didn't care that we were following Bloom's steps in the Lestrygonians chapter).  After that we took Molesworth Street to Kildare Street and toured the National Museum.  

The next day, we took some fascinating long walks around Dublin, including a beautiful stroll on Sir Rogerson's Quay, down Lime Street to Hanover Street, via Lombard Street to Westland Row, where I ducked into Sweny's drug store to buy some lemon soap.  As long as I didn't talk about James Joyce, and the path was interesting, she was happy to walk anywhere in Dublin.  

Over the course of our three days, we walked through most of Dublin's downtown.  We visited Trinity University, saw the remarkable Book of Kells, visited the National Library, and took tours of memorable sites like Dublin Castle, the Guinness factory and Kilmainham jail.  

James Joyce and me in Dublin
One thing we didn't do in our first three days was visit the Martello tower mentioned in the first chapter of Ulysses. However, when we returned to Dublin after touring the south of Ireland, we had just enough time to take a quick DART trip to Sandycove and see tower.  My wife was reluctant to go after she heard the name of the tower (The James Joyce Tower), but ultimately, we both enjoyed our walk around Sandycove.

All in all, we had a fantastic time in Ireland.  We experienced a truly beautiful city, met extraordinarily friendly people, ate outstanding meals, saw fascinating sites, and in the end, walked on a few well trodden paths from the pages of Ulysses.

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