For a reader, there is perhaps no better city in the world than Dublin. Literary sights are integral and plentiful. These are the streets walked by Leopold Bloom, protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses; these are the theaters that premiered the groundbreaking works of Synge, Yeats, Shaw and Beckett. Lively, smart Dublin has a long relationship with the written word. It’s probably one of the only cities in the world where “literary pub crawl” doesn’t sound antithetical.
Dublin’s literary history goes back centuries. The satirist Jonathan Swift, known best for Gulliver’s Travels, attended Trinity College in the 1600s. Swift went on to write books and political essays, including A Modest Proposal, wherein he cheekily suggests that the Irish may alleviate poverty by selling their children as food. Though he spent much of his adult life in London, Swift became Ireland’s first major author.
Swift’s university, still vibrant today, has two important literary sights: the Book of Kells and the Old Library. Written out by Celtic monks in the 9th century, the Book of Kells shows Ireland’s long-standing respect for the written word. The four Gospels of the Bible, lavishly lettered and decorated in gold, are the main attraction. But the library itself makes a wonderful destination: arched ceilings, wooden shelving reflected in the floor, the smell of pressed paper. Oscar Wilde, Oliver Goldsmirth and Samuel Beckett also attended school at Trinity, giving it a prestigious literary pedigree.
Another building with literary history is Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. At the Abbey, the Irish Revival movement stoked political resistance and national awareness. Poet and playwright W.B. Yeats became a key figure in the movement. Entranced in his early work by the faeries and heroes of Irish mythology, he came to see literature as a way to forge and maintain Irish identity. Yeats’ poetry often tackled political themes. Stylistically, he bridged formal and modern verse, becoming a pioneer of 20th century poetry.
Yeats’ work at the Abbey opened the door for Irish playwrights. When John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World premiered at the Abbey, it caused a sensation, offending nationlists who sought to idolize the Irish peasant. The Abbey premiered works by Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, and it remains vital in Ireland’s theater scene. Today, visitors can still attend classic plays and also see new works by Ireland’s up-and-coming writers.
Beside these cultural institutions, there are many other places to experience Dublin’s literary life. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, who always looks white-bearded and wise in photographs, grew up in Dublin. His birthplace is now a small museum, with personal information and period furniture. A more comprehensive look at the lives of Dublin’s authors, the Dublin Writer’s Museum features rare and first-edition books, rotating exhibits, and other literary paraphernalia.
As he lay dying, Oscar Wilde drank a glass of champagne. “Alas,” he said, sipping the bubbly. “I am dying beyond my means.” The witty playwright is immortalized in Merrion Square. His statue, lounging about on a rock in typically flamboyant posture, levels the passerby with a wry half-smile. Another famous likeness is that of James Joyce, who looks rather more pensive than Wilde, standing on the street with an upturned face.
Joyce became Dublin’s greatest representative. All of his works take place in and around the city; his collection of short stories, Dubliners, is a melancholy, epiphanic tour through the lives of the city’s residents. Dublin has many walking tours that simply retrace the steps of characters from Joyce’s stories. On June 16th, also known as Bloomsday, the James Joyce Center celebrates Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses. The book traces a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, in a journey roughly based on Odysseus of Greek mythology. Bloomsday celebrants follow the route of Ulysses, participating in readings, speeches, debates, and lots of Guinness quaffing.
Literature continues to thrive in Dublin. Poets Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland both have residences there, as well as popular novelist Maeve Binchy. Modern authors are carrying on the relationship between the city and their writing.
Joyce said, “For myself, 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 of the world.” In the rain-wet streets and back-alley pubs, Joyce saw a universal portrait. Like writers, travelers are often looking for a representative glimpse, a particular detail that describes and encapsulates a place. In Dublin, that detail can be found in its unique literary culture. By attending a play at the Abbey Theatre or enjoying a reading on Bloomsday, visitors can come a little closer to understanding the city and the writers who have distinguished it.
Written by Caitlin Dwyer for EuropeUpClose.com