Re-Joyce in Dublin

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2004

If my Dublin visit had been a play, the plump matron with the wisp of silver hair would have been one of those stray characters who pop up from nowhere. As she pulled a furry hound by a leash along the beach in the suburb of Sandy Cove, I approached and asked for directions to the James Joyce Museum.

"Oh, don't tell me you're caught up in this silly craze over Joyce, too," she howled. "He's way overblown. Period. And besides, he probably didn't write all those books on his own. Can't you think of something more interesting to do in Dublin?"

"No ma'am, I can't."

"Oh, don't ma'am me. Just bloody get on with it, then."

And so I did, for five glorious days of walking tours, readings and forays to writers' homes and other haunts where verse and prose seemed to rise from the walls. In the evenings I repaired to the Merrion Hotel, a cluster of restored Georgian mansions with a lobby warmed by a blazing fire and adorned with works by Irish painters. Jameson whiskey seemed to flow from a bottomless bottle, and lively chatter carried on until the smell of Irish bacon lulled guests downstairs for breakfast.

This was my self-styled literary tour of Dublin. The trip, in late March, was timed to beat the rush of Joyce fans and other travelers sure to descend on Dublin for the celebration of Bloomsday this summer.

Ever since Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce's "Ulysses," made his labyrinthine June 16, 1904, sojourn through the city, the day has become one of Ireland's biggest literary events. Every year on Bloomsday, fans spread about the city in search of the nutty gizzards Bloom savored for breakfast, the address where he finally rolled into bed next to his wife and every taste he sampled and stop he made in between.

In this Bloomsday centennial year, plans to mark the occasion are bigger than ever: Dublin tourism officials have planned to stretch it over the whole summer. It will feature walking tours, kidney- and intestine-heavy feasts, marathon readings, weighty seminars and other events. Although the inspiration is Bloom's amble, the events have been broadened. An exhibition of pieces inspired by Joyce is being displayed at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. And Dublin city libraries have mounted a show designed to make the writer's often complex works more accessible to lay readers.

I wanted to trace the haunts of Joyce and Ireland's other literary greats without the Bloomsday hoopla. Still, I couldn't resist making some stops on the well-worn Bloom path -- such as No. 7 Eccles St., site of the Blooms' home in the city center. The house has long since been razed, but the spot is marked by a bronze plaque on the side of nearby Mater Hospital. Among the less-traveled points on my itinerary: the Victorian house where a teenage George Bernard Shaw lived in the mid-19th century, the gravesite of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the grand Georgian building at University College Dublin, where Joyce studied.

I happily strayed from the trails forged by Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, the other leading character in Joyce's 1922 tome. This was, after all, a country that has given us more than its share of literary masters, including playwrights Shaw and Samuel Beckett, novelist Jonathan Swift, poet W.B. Yeats and author Oscar Wilde.

Even if most of these writers didn't much fancy Dublin, monuments in their honor appear around nearly every corner. Busts of Swift in St. Patrick's Cathedral and the library at Trinity College are particularly impressive. The statue of Wilde reclining on a rock in Merrion Square is fittingly whimsical. And bronze plaques showing whereYeats lived are a reminder of his ubiquitous presence in the city in the early 20th century.

One side trip took me through the Dublin Writers Museum, a painstakingly restored Georgian mansion on Parnell Square in central Dublin. It includes exhibits detailing colorful episodes throughout Ireland's emotional, often raucous literary history, from the riots caused by the first staging of "The Playboy of the Western World" to 20th-century novelist Brendan Behan's tossing his typewriter out of a pub window. (The typewriter is displayed in a showcase.) Another night, I attended the Pavilion Theatre in the suburb of Dun Laoghaire, where readings by three poets left much of the audience alternating between emotional weeps and outbursts of laughter.

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