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.
For a first-time visitor, touring the venues elevated to larger-than-life status by Ireland's leading scribes turned out to be a worthy introduction to the city. Since most of the key stops are centrally located, it's an approach easy for a newcomer to undertake with a couple of good maps and a transport pass.
"What Dublin is about is finely crafted words," said Chris Agee, an American-born poet and editor of the Belfast literary magazine Irish Pages. "People live and breathe literature here."
The Joyce Museum, in a brick 19th-century tower eight miles south of Dublin on the coast, features first editions of Joyce's tomes, as well as letters and manuscripts. There are relics, too, including Joyce's death mask and a piano and a guitar he once played. Upstairs is a re-creation of the room he briefly sublet in August 1904.
Students of "Ulysses" will recognize the place. The opening page of the novel describes how Buck Mulligan, one of the colorful characters, appears on the narrow winding stairs that lead to the upper part of the tower.
With its dank smell and dark atmosphere, the room seemed hardly changed since Joyce's day. One of several Martello Towers built to withstand Napoleon's threatened invasion of Ireland in the early 1800s, it is an impressive structure with a lovely view of Dublin and the surrounding harbor from the top deck. Although Joyce lived there only for a short time, the place apparently stayed with him enough to describe it in detail in the opening scene of "Ulysses." It will be the setting for a number of Bloomsday events, including the inevitable reading from the novel.
An hour later I was in Glasnevin Cemetery -- Dublin's answer to Paris's Pere Lachaise -- where Bloom attended the burial of a friend. His journey was in a horse-drawn funeral carriage; mine was in a city bus.
The past century has brought changes along the route Joyce described: Elvery's Elephant House, once a pub, now houses a Kentucky Fried Chicken. But the cemetery seemed just as Bloom might have seen it. With the towering O'Connell Monument at the center, it extends into a magnificent sprawl of headstones, tombs and crosses.
The cemetery is the resting place of some of Ireland's leading historical figures, including 19th-century activist Daniel O'Connell. Among the major literary figures buried here are Maud Gonne, the actress and Irish revolutionary who inspired much of Yeats's poetry, and Behan.
But for Agee, who accompanied me here, the biggest draw is the grave of Hopkins. After a brief search in the section set aside for Jesuits, we found a towering granite crucifix with Hopkins's name engraved on it, among dozens of others.
Agee, a devotee of Hopkins's lyrical verses, filled me in on the 19th-century poet's link to Dublin. Born and educated in England, he came to the Irish capital in 1884 to teach classics at University College. Joyce was among his students. Apparently never happy here, he described Dublin as a "joyless place." He was felled in 1889 by typhoid. At the place where he was laid to rest, we paused in silent tribute.
After the burial, Bloom took a carriage to a local advertising firm and the adjoining Dublin Evening Telegraph. I hopped a bus to the center of town to the Ormond Hotel, the scene of Bloom's late-afternoon lunch. While the structure remains much the same as the one where Bloom dines on liver and mashed potatoes, the hotel has been modernized. Still, it has the air of a Victorian-era retreat. The Siren's Lounge on the left is a bow to the site's literary significance. While they lunch, Bloom and friend Richie Goulding listen to music coming from the space the lounge occupies.
I made one last stop along Bloom's route through Dublin, heading down Grafton Street to Davy Byrne's pub at No. 21 Duke St. The street, a pedestrian zone popular for its trendy shops and cafes, is not much like the rustic row it was in Bloom's day. The pub is different, too. Bloom saw a curved oak counter and shelves stacked with cans of potted meat and packets of cheese. I saw a long bar backed by shelves of vodka, gin and other refreshments.
At the end of the bar, a group of young Irishmen were making neat work of a bottle of whiskey. The Burgundy that Bloom drank is still on the menu, so I ordered a glass. Dublin still seemed like the provincial enclave of bawdy characters it was in Bloom's day.
In the Pavilion Theatre, in Dun Laoghaire, a motley assortment of wordsmiths had gathered. It was closing night of the city's annual Poetry Now Festival. Among the many writers, poets, essayists and publishers were the literary editor of the Irish Times and a professor of Irish poetry from Trinity College.
When Dublin poet Don Paterson took to the podium, silence fell over the crowded hall -- and for three hours, the audience's hushed attention was turned to the stage. First came Paterson's performance of humorous verses, then poet Paul Durcan's recital of his latest works, and finally American poet W. S. Merwin's reading from his wide-ranging poems.
Afterward, in the lobby, audience members let out their breath. Robert Monroe, a young poet who moved from the United States to Dublin seven years ago, summed up the mood: "Only here can you have an event that keeps people waiting on the edges of their seats for the next line, and the next verse."
Gary Lee will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.
GETTING THERE: The cheapest fares to Dublin for June and July are about $822 round trip, on American from Reagan National via New York, with restrictions. Aer Lingus has a rate of $855 round trip from BWI. Prices drop sharply after Sept. 1.
WHERE TO STAY: A good budget option is Egans House Hotel (7 Iona Park, 011-3531-830-3611, www.eganshouse.com), a clean, well-run guesthouse in a quiet neighborhood 15 minutes by bus from central Dublin. Rates, including a hearty breakfast, start at around $50 a night double. With spacious bedrooms, art-filled common areas, a spa and a lively bar, the Merrion Hotel (Upper Merrion Street, 011-3531-603-0600, www.merrionhotel.com) is one of the city's most elegant hotels. It is also home to Patrick Guilbaud, widely regarded as one of the finest restaurants in Dublin. For guests interested in James Joyce, the hotel is offering a special package in July and August: doubles for $159 a night with a two-night minimum stay, including an Irish breakfast, a Joyce walking tour and a CD.
WHAT TO DO:
* The Irish Tourist Board is featuring readings, tours and dozens of other events all summer to mark the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. Info: www.rejoycedublin2004.com. Maps ($1.20) featuring a self-guided walking tour of Leopold Bloom's sojourn through the city are available at the museum, the tourism office and other places around town. For those who want deeper background and more options for self-guided tours, one excellent resource is "The Ulysses Guide: Tours Through Joyce's Dublin" (New Island Books Press), by Joyce expert Robert Nicholson; it costs $12 at the Dublin Writers Museum (see below).
* The James Joyce Museum (Joyce Tower, 011-353-1280-9265; about $7.50), 20 minutes outside the city in Sandycove, is worth a tour.
* The Dublin Writers Museum (18 Parnell Sq. N, 011-353-1872- 2077, www.writersmuseum.com; $7.50) offers a great overview of Ireland's literary history.
* For guided tours on literature, architecture or other subjects, I recommend Dublin Footsteps Walking Tours (23A Cowper Rd., 011-353-1496-0641); two-hour excursions cost $11 and include a cup of tea.
-- Gary Lee