Friday 5 July 2019

A Walk Through Literary Dublin

Statue of Oscar Wilde
in Merrion Square, Dublin.
On this trip I travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland and Aer Lingus. This story arose from my 2011 visit to Dublin but never went online, so here it is for your enjoyment...

“We call him ‘the prick with the stick’,” says tour guide Pat Liddy, cheekily referring to a statue of the writer James Joyce which stands proudly in busy O’Connell Street, Dublin.

It might seem disrespectful, but inventing such acid nicknames is a casual hobby to Dubliners, who’ve applied them to many statues in the Irish capital.

For example, a busty statue of Molly Malone, who sold “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-oh” in the famous song, is commonly known as ‘the tart with the cart’.

It's all in good fun, says Liddy, smiling as he returns to his pint of Guinness in an atmospheric old pub which is, as it happens, an former haunt of Joyce’s.

It seems somehow fitting that we should be on a literary walk that’s immediately ended up at the pub, given the central role of such establishments in Ireland’s social and cultural life.

Pat Liddy outside Mulligan’s, Dublin.
Having left Trinity College, which contains the famous Book of Kells, we were assaulted by a driving rainstorm that appeared from nowhere, and have taken refuge in Mulligan’s until the weather eases.

It’s a classic Irish pub, with a dimly-lit back room where we sit around chipped old timber tables, a huge gilt mirror on the wall behind us.

Mulligan’s has a literary pedigree of its own, says Liddy, as a longtime hangout of Irish Times journalists and of Joyce, who mentioned the establishment in his landmark novel Ulysses.

The outside of the pub is even painted with the date of Bloomsday (June 16th, 1904), the day in which the novel’s story is set.

As we sip Ireland’s most famous beer, Liddy tells us about the wealth of writers that the city has produced. For a city of a million people, Dublin has a remarkable back catalogue of literary heroes, including Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw and Jonathan Swift. And let's not forget Bram Stoker, whose popularisation of the vampire lives on to the present day.

Liddy is a great story-teller, and he’s easily diverted into amusing anecdotes from his life and tour work. He chats about his son’s train journeys through Asia and Russia, and tells us about having to explain Oscar Wilde to foreign visitors. There’s also a witty story about the time he had to sing Handel’s Messiah to a group of German visitors who’d never heard of it.
Oscar Wilde's birthplace, Dublin.

The beer and the craic are very diverting, but we have pavements to pound. The rain clears and we're off again, through the atmospheric historic streets south of the River Liffey.

We’re entering Oscar Wilde territory here; as we stroll, Liddy points out the former St Mark’s where the great playwright was baptised.

Then we arrive at 21 Westland Row, a respectable facade featuring a big blue door beneath a fanlight.

This is where Wilde was born, and an inscription within a stone wreath credits him as ‘Poet, Dramatist, Wit’. Those are words I’d be happy to have on my gravestone, I think, as we move on.

Our next stop is Sweny, an attractive small shopfront which was featured in Ulysses in its then role as a pharmacy. It was here that the book’s hero, Leopold Bloom, bought a cake of soap with a lemon scent. Remarkably, it remained a pharmacy right up to 2009, when it passed into the care of a group of volunteers who run it as a bookshop and an unofficial shrine to Joyce.

You don’t have to be a fan of Ulysses to appreciate the shop’s atmospheric interior, packed both with books and reminders of its apothecary days. There’s even a drawer full of old photos once developed here, to show visiting kids who may only be familiar with digital shots.

Wendy Conroy at Sweny, Dublin.
The remaining space is lined with new and second-hand copies of books by Irish writers of all eras.

It’s a great place for visitors to acquaint themselves with both the classics and the lesser-known gems of Irish lit, and to pick up some reading for their travels.

Behind the counter today is Wendy Conroy, a passionate fan of Joyce’s master work. “There are Conroys all the way though Ulysses,” she points out.

Not that Joyce was the only star of the written word to hang out in this neighbourhood. “Wilde and Yeats may well have stood where you’re standing,” she says.

From here it’s a short walk around the corner to Merrion Square. Opposite the park stands the house where the young Oscar grew up, and in the park itself is a wonderful surprise - a colourful statue of Wilde which was unveiled in 1997, over a century after being imprisoned for his homosexuality.

A symbol of his 21st century rehabilitation and popularity, the unconventional statue depicts Wilde lounging in a colourful jacket on a large rock, a smile on one side of his face and a grimace on the other. The mixed expression may be a reminder of his mixed fortunes, as perhaps are two smaller nearby statues of his wife Constance and an anonymous male torso.

The plinths of these statuettes are adorned with many of his famous sayings, one of which seems to sum up Wilde’s sensational life: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.

Davy Byrne’s, Dublin.
Heading back toward the bars and restaurants south of the Temple Bar district, we pass another pub mentioned in Ulysses: Davy Byrne’s, where Bloom ordered a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of Burgundy.

Though the pub has been renovated in a swish modern style and now specialises in seafood, it’s still a meal you can order there today.

Then, finally, we finish at McDaid’s. It’s a popular pub which has retained its original character, furnished with bookshelves, tiled panels and a high timbered ceiling.

This was a haunt of postwar playwright and novelist Brendan Behan, says Liddy, at least until the one-time IRA member was barred. It was also, inevitably, frequented by Joyce and the other Irish writers who milled around this part of Dublin.

It’s been a great tour. Via Liddy's enthusiastic and colourful delivery, the city's great books and their writers have come to life - and even though I haven't read all of them, I go away with a hunger for their work and an understanding of how much Dublin loves its stories.

Pat Liddy’s Walking Tour of Literary Dublin is available on request. See for contact details and other scheduled tours.

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