Tour literary Ireland


Tour literary Ireland

...through century-old pubs, country churchyards and curious museums

By Vatsala Chhibber  August 14th, 2015

I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book

On June 10, 1904, James Joyce first noticed a tall broad with flaming hair, and in spite of his failing vision, identified her as his lifelong lover. The chambermaid, Nora Barnacle, had just finished her shift at Finn’s hotel, a red-brick establishment with a fading sign imprinted on its side, and walked on to Nassau Street, where I now stood. “He asked her to meet him later that week,” John Byrne, my guide and longtime Dubliner explains, as an amphibious bus loaded with grinning Vikings drives by. Joyce was stood up the first time, but the couple, now well-googled for their racy correspondence, did finally meet on June 16. “Joyce set all of Ulysses on that one day,” Byrne concludes, turning back to gauge if I’d truly grasped the significance. This perplexing one-day account — considered the greatest prose of all time — took seven years to write, kept “professors busy for centuries” (just as Joyce intended), and immortalised his city of birth in its pages. It’s a gesture Dublin fondly reciprocates, not just during the Ulysses-themed Bloomsday Festival.

You’ll spot him on the plaque outside Davy Byrne’s pub, where protagonist Leopold Bloom munched on a cheese sandwich, hear about how animal corpses at Christ Church Cathedral inspired in him a simile (“as stuck as that cat to that mouse in that tube of that Christchurch organ”), see his pocket-sized room at the James Joyce Centre where he wrote most of Finnegans Wake, and be told of the struggle to prevent 7 Eccles Street from getting a facelift, because it was Bloom’s residence in Ulysses. At the Little Museum — where the exhibits are curious, free-to-touch and there’s always candy in the jars — you can skip the most exhausting bits of Joyce’s seminal work. The blue-and-white first-edition is turned to the last page; a little cheat to get you to the end of Joyce’s 50-page, punctuation-free last chapter, jokes the museum’s curator, who hasn’t made it through himself. 

Joyce is alive and well in Dublin. His characters, stories and anecdotes blanket a city where literature is always just around the corner. But during his lifetime, the modest Catholic city drove the writer to self-imposed exile; it wanted nothing to do with his filthy prose. “It seems us Irish couldn’t come to appreciate our writers soon enough,” the director of the Dublin Writer’s Museum (Tel: +353 1872 2077) tells me as we walk past a first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It wasn’t just Joyce who abandoned Ireland for more liberal or lucrative lands: Samuel Beckett (also a Joyce student), Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw also got away as soon as they could.

Or maybe it was the incorrigible Irish humour that miffed the greats. Here, you can show deference and lampoon your heroes in the same sentence — it’s encouraged, in fact. Locals are voluble on Joyce’s super-sized ego and Wilde’s classist jaunts, and chuckle at Brendan Behan’s BBC appearance, to which the poet and writer arrived too drunk to utter a word. While other stories lurk in Dublin’s cosy museums, if you really want to probe the country’s literary heart, the Irish would rather you do it in a pub, over a pint of Guinness.

After a friend has gone 
I like the feel of it:
The house at night. Everyone 
asleep. The way it draws in like 
atmosphere or evening

It’s the first time I hear of Eavan Boland, a feminist poet thriving in the shadows of Ireland’s more distinguished Nobel Laureates. I’m huddled in a tight circle at night with other tourists at the Trinity College grounds — a pitstop on the Literary Pub Crawl — empty of the daytime queues for the Book Of Kells, a finely illustrated medieval manuscript. We’re in the campus where Jonathan Swift, Beckett and Wilde kicked around as adolescents, but none of this is a highbrow affair. A dramatic reading of Waiting For Godot is padded at both ends with more of that Irish humour: silly, self-deprecating, strangely incisive, with zero malice.

“The Irish love a bit of crack,” Byrne later remarks. Ah, no wonder all this unnatural cheer on the day of a public bus strike. But he means ‘craic’ (Irish for a good time), and by that he means a visit to a pub. Another pub. It is believed you’re never more than 10 steps away from a pub in Dublin, and if you walk into one alone, you can be sure of being treated to a pint at least. The latter I can vouch for, and given the 800+ watering holes in the city, I’d bet a bagful of money on the former, too. It’s in these pubs that life has always taken place in Ireland: where marriages were fixed and political opinions formed, where writers drank themselves to the streets or to success.

Not one is the same as the others. Family-run affairs, like Killeen’s Village Tavern (Tel: +353 09096 74112) in nearby Shannonbridge are warm and well-worn (with surprisingly good vegetarian soups), others come alive with trad-night hits like ‘Molly Malone’ and ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, while saloon-style parlours offer private booths for illicit meetings. Byrne quickly walks past the EDM-blaring haunts and leads me to his favourite kind — “No music, no television, just good conversation.” It helps him meditate over the changes in his country; he enquires why the pub owner’s young daughter, like most of her classmates, plans to abandon her farm for another in Australia, distresses over the swiftly disappearing bogs, a vital self-sufficient ecosystem, and implores me to tell him who’s been adding these silly ‘must-visit’ tags to the tourist-infested Temple Bar street. I expect he hasn’t had a chance to catch Ek Tha Tiger yet. I tell him I haven’t a clue. 

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!

The epitaph on William Butler Yeats’ grave, resting in a quiet churchyard in Drumcliff, a sparse village (the kind with one church and no secrets) in County Sligow, roughly translates to, ‘I can’t be of much help with your existential angst anymore, so off you go please.’ His burial bed meets all the requirements the poet detailed in the poem ‘Under Ben Bulben’ — it’s near Benbulben mountain, in the church where his grandfather was rector, with ‘no marble, no conventional phrase’.

There was but one star of his dreamy verses: Maud Gonne, the woman Yeats was besotted with for most of his life. It’s an unfortunate love story that fuels Irish digs, even amidst celebrations for his 150th birth anniversary: “He was rejected three times, poor lad couldn’t take a hint.” I join the revelry with a special Yeats brew at the Eala Bhan Restaurant, reading his poetry off the walls as I wait for my buttery fish at Seamus Heaney’s favourite table.

The next day I visit Lissadell house, an unassuming, ashen structure set in sprawling green grounds that hosted cricket matches for Yeats and gave Wilde a temporary home. But the biggest draw to the manor is that it was the childhood home of their common friend, Constance Georgine Markievicz, a revolutionary and the first woman minister of modern Europe. She fought for free-rule at the Easter Rising that split the country into two: the Republic of Ireland and UK-tied Northern Ireland. As we drive towards the invisible border, along the sheep-dotted countryside, hillocks crowned with fairy forts (ancient shields from evil spirits) and blooming cherry blossoms, the weather shuffles around unsurely, as it always does in Ireland. Rain, sun and overcast skies all make an appearance in the time it takes for the listening of a Yeats’ poem, which Byrne has promptly cued for our exit from Sligow towards a whole new country.

In Northern Ireland, the accent is more stretched, the currency is more powerful and the streets exhibit a little more gloss than normcore Dublin. I’m careful to not draw any comparisons out loud, but I spot no signs of competition. Until someone mentions Gaelic football. The literary voices are quieter here, where GoT-friendly landscapes take precedence, but they’re not entirely missing. In capital Belfast is the nose-shaped Cave Hill Summit that inspired Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Oscar Wilde Festival is now an annual affair in Enniskillen, where the writer spent his early, persecution-free years. The captain of our little boat in Fermanagh islands, home to many monastic remains, points at the Portora school. “I studied there myself. We were ridiculed and called ‘gay boys’,” he says. “I had no idea why. The school had knocked off Wilde’s name from its records.”  

If you ever go to Dublin town
in a hundred years or so
Enquire for me in Baggot Street
and what I was like to know

Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, also set in song and revered as a folk classic, is the last bit of reading Byrne has for me on this trip. A product of rural Ireland, Kavanagh is ranked second only to Yeats. But when the aspiring poet first reached Dublin (by foot), the literary elite sneered at his achromic verses and simple structure, which exposed his peasant background. He was furious, but later found solace by the city’s Grand Canal. It was here, gazing at the gentle River Shannon, that Kavanagh (with cancer and only one lung) pondered his most philosophical works. You’ll still find him on that beloved bank seat, bronze though he may be — and he’s left sufficient space for the company of a passer-by.

It’s not an easy goodbye. By now, Ireland has grown into a familiar friend; a living, breathing friend, as human as its documenters, bright, quick-witted, always in a good mood and ready with the offer of a pint. We must drink again soon.  

You may also want to read:Reading list: Modern Irish novels 

I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book

On June 10, 1904, James Joyce first noticed a tall broad with flaming hair, and in spite of his failing vision, identified her as his lifelong lover. The chambermaid, Nora Barnacle, had just finished her shift at Finn’s hotel, a red-brick establishment with a fading sign imprinted on its side, and walked on to Nassau Street, where I now stood. “He asked her to meet him later that week,” John Byrne, my guide and longtime Dubliner explains, as an amphibious bus loaded with grinning Vikings drives by. Joyce was stood up the first time, but the couple, now well-googled for their racy correspondence, did finally meet on June 16. “Joyce set all of Ulysses on that one day,” Byrne concludes, turning back to gauge if I’d truly grasped the significance. This perplexing one-day account — considered the greatest prose of all time — took seven years to write, kept “professors busy for centuries” (just as Joyce intended), and immortalised his city of birth in its pages. It’s a gesture Dublin fondly reciprocates, not just during the Ulysses-themed Bloomsday Festival.

You’ll spot him on the plaque outside Davy Byrne’s pub, where protagonist Leopold Bloom munched on a cheese sandwich, hear about how animal corpses at Christ Church Cathedral inspired in him a simile (“as stuck as that cat to that mouse in that tube of that Christchurch organ”), see his pocket-sized room at the James Joyce Centre where he wrote most of Finnegans Wake, and be told of the struggle to prevent 7 Eccles Street from getting a facelift, because it was Bloom’s residence in Ulysses. At the Little Museum — where the exhibits are curious, free-to-touch and there’s always candy in the jars — you can skip the most exhausting bits of Joyce’s seminal work. The blue-and-white first-edition is turned to the last page; a little cheat to get you to the end of Joyce’s 50-page, punctuation-free last chapter, jokes the museum’s curator, who hasn’t made it through himself. 

Joyce is alive and well in Dublin. His characters, stories and anecdotes blanket a city where literature is always just around the corner. But during his lifetime, the modest Catholic city drove the writer to self-imposed exile; it wanted nothing to do with his filthy prose. “It seems us Irish couldn’t come to appreciate our writers soon enough,” the director of the Dublin Writer’s Museum (Tel: +353 1872 2077) tells me as we walk past a first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It wasn’t just Joyce who abandoned Ireland for more liberal or lucrative lands: Samuel Beckett (also a Joyce student), Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw also got away as soon as they could.

Or maybe it was the incorrigible Irish humour that miffed the greats. Here, you can show deference and lampoon your heroes in the same sentence — it’s encouraged, in fact. Locals are voluble on Joyce’s super-sized ego and Wilde’s classist jaunts, and chuckle at Brendan Behan’s BBC appearance, to which the poet and writer arrived too drunk to utter a word. While other stories lurk in Dublin’s cosy museums, if you really want to probe the country’s literary heart, the Irish would rather you do it in a pub, over a pint of Guinness.

After a friend has gone 
I like the feel of it:
The house at night. Everyone 
asleep. The way it draws in like 
atmosphere or evening

It’s the first time I hear of Eavan Boland, a feminist poet thriving in the shadows of Ireland’s more distinguished Nobel Laureates. I’m huddled in a tight circle at night with other tourists at the Trinity College grounds — a pitstop on the Literary Pub Crawl — empty of the daytime queues for the Book Of Kells, a finely illustrated medieval manuscript. We’re in the campus where Jonathan Swift, Beckett and Wilde kicked around as adolescents, but none of this is a highbrow affair. A dramatic reading of Waiting For Godot is padded at both ends with more of that Irish humour: silly, self-deprecating, strangely incisive, with zero malice.

“The Irish love a bit of crack,” Byrne later remarks. Ah, no wonder all this unnatural cheer on the day of a public bus strike. But he means ‘craic’ (Irish for a good time), and by that he means a visit to a pub. Another pub. It is believed you’re never more than 10 steps away from a pub in Dublin, and if you walk into one alone, you can be sure of being treated to a pint at least. The latter I can vouch for, and given the 800+ watering holes in the city, I’d bet a bagful of money on the former, too. It’s in these pubs that life has always taken place in Ireland: where marriages were fixed and political opinions formed, where writers drank themselves to the streets or to success.

Not one is the same as the others. Family-run affairs, like Killeen’s Village Tavern (Tel: +353 09096 74112) in nearby Shannonbridge are warm and well-worn (with surprisingly good vegetarian soups), others come alive with trad-night hits like ‘Molly Malone’ and ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, while saloon-style parlours offer private booths for illicit meetings. Byrne quickly walks past the EDM-blaring haunts and leads me to his favourite kind — “No music, no television, just good conversation.” It helps him meditate over the changes in his country; he enquires why the pub owner’s young daughter, like most of her classmates, plans to abandon her farm for another in Australia, distresses over the swiftly disappearing bogs, a vital self-sufficient ecosystem, and implores me to tell him who’s been adding these silly ‘must-visit’ tags to the tourist-infested Temple Bar street. I expect he hasn’t had a chance to catch Ek Tha Tiger yet. I tell him I haven’t a clue. 

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!

The epitaph on William Butler Yeats’ grave, resting in a quiet churchyard in Drumcliff, a sparse village (the kind with one church and no secrets) in County Sligow, roughly translates to, ‘I can’t be of much help with your existential angst anymore, so off you go please.’ His burial bed meets all the requirements the poet detailed in the poem ‘Under Ben Bulben’ — it’s near Benbulben mountain, in the church where his grandfather was rector, with ‘no marble, no conventional phrase’.

There was but one star of his dreamy verses: Maud Gonne, the woman Yeats was besotted with for most of his life. It’s an unfortunate love story that fuels Irish digs, even amidst celebrations for his 150th birth anniversary: “He was rejected three times, poor lad couldn’t take a hint.” I join the revelry with a special Yeats brew at the Eala Bhan Restaurant, reading his poetry off the walls as I wait for my buttery fish at Seamus Heaney’s favourite table.

The next day I visit Lissadell house, an unassuming, ashen structure set in sprawling green grounds that hosted cricket matches for Yeats and gave Wilde a temporary home. But the biggest draw to the manor is that it was the childhood home of their common friend, Constance Georgine Markievicz, a revolutionary and the first woman minister of modern Europe. She fought for free-rule at the Easter Rising that split the country into two: the Republic of Ireland and UK-tied Northern Ireland. As we drive towards the invisible border, along the sheep-dotted countryside, hillocks crowned with fairy forts (ancient shields from evil spirits) and blooming cherry blossoms, the weather shuffles around unsurely, as it always does in Ireland. Rain, sun and overcast skies all make an appearance in the time it takes for the listening of a Yeats’ poem, which Byrne has promptly cued for our exit from Sligow towards a whole new country.

In Northern Ireland, the accent is more stretched, the currency is more powerful and the streets exhibit a little more gloss than normcore Dublin. I’m careful to not draw any comparisons out loud, but I spot no signs of competition. Until someone mentions Gaelic football. The literary voices are quieter here, where GoT-friendly landscapes take precedence, but they’re not entirely missing. In capital Belfast is the nose-shaped Cave Hill Summit that inspired Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Oscar Wilde Festival is now an annual affair in Enniskillen, where the writer spent his early, persecution-free years. The captain of our little boat in Fermanagh islands, home to many monastic remains, points at the Portora school. “I studied there myself. We were ridiculed and called ‘gay boys’,” he says. “I had no idea why. The school had knocked off Wilde’s name from its records.”  

If you ever go to Dublin town
in a hundred years or so
Enquire for me in Baggot Street
and what I was like to know

Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, also set in song and revered as a folk classic, is the last bit of reading Byrne has for me on this trip. A product of rural Ireland, Kavanagh is ranked second only to Yeats. But when the aspiring poet first reached Dublin (by foot), the literary elite sneered at his achromic verses and simple structure, which exposed his peasant background. He was furious, but later found solace by the city’s Grand Canal. It was here, gazing at the gentle River Shannon, that Kavanagh (with cancer and only one lung) pondered his most philosophical works. You’ll still find him on that beloved bank seat, bronze though he may be — and he’s left sufficient space for the company of a passer-by.

It’s not an easy goodbye. By now, Ireland has grown into a familiar friend; a living, breathing friend, as human as its documenters, bright, quick-witted, always in a good mood and ready with the offer of a pint. We must drink again soon.  

You may also want to read:Reading list: Modern Irish novels