Retracing James Joyce's Dublin: A walk through "The Dead"
We discover Dublin through the eyes of its most celebrated novelist, James Joyce, as seen in his lauded short story, "The Dead"
It’s considered one of the finest short stories ever written and brings Dubliners to an emotionally wrought close. But James Joyce hadn’t originally planned to include “The Dead” in his collection—in fact it wasn’t even written when the book was accepted for publication in 1906.
Dejected and homesick for Dublin the following year in Trieste—with the book still unpublished—he realised the stories in Dubliners were not a true reflection of the city.
He wrote to his brother: “I have reproduced none of the attraction of the city… I have not reproduced its ingenuous insularity and hospitality… I have not been just to its beauty."
And so he wrote “The Dead”.
15 Usher’s Island
Credit: William Murphy, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. 15 Usher's Island is now a derelict house, but was depicted as full of life and music by James Joyce
Set on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, the annual party of the Misses Morkans is in full swing.
“For years and years it had gone off in splendid style, as long as anyone could remember," the drawing room cleared for waltzes and Quadrilles, the table in the supper-room groaning under the weight of roast goose and spiced beef, side-dishes of fruits and jellies, bowls of desserts and old-fashioned decanters of port and dark sherry, three squads of beers, ales and minerals topping the closed square piano.
"It’s not hard to imagine the dance music drifting from the upstairs window, and the plaintive verses of the 'Lass of Aughrim'"
Today, standing outside the four-storey Georgian townhouse at 15 Usher’s Island, where Joyce set his festive gathering, it’s not hard to imagine the dance music drifting from the upstairs window, and the plaintive verses of the "Lass of Aughrim", sung by the tenor Bartell D’Arcy.
James Joyce’s great-aunts, the Misses Flynn, lived and taught music at this address from the 1890s, just like Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia in the story, and Joyce’s parents attended their famous Christmas parties.
But the house is now derelict. A recent successful application to turn it into a 56-bedroom tourist hostel was met with protests, condemned by writers and artists as an act of cultural vandalism.
The James Joyce bridge is designed to look like an open book
The house faces the River Liffey, close to the James Joyce bridge, which was opened on Bloomsday, June 16, 2003, and designed to look like an open book.
Outside, the traffic thunders by heading west, past the 1750-acre Phoenix Park, Europe’s biggest city park, where Gabriel—the somewhat pompous hero of “The Dead”—imagines the snow falling outside “forming a bright cap on top of the Wellington Monument”.
The west of Ireland
The west of Ireland plays a special part in “The Dead”, a remote and romantic place where a man, it appears, can die for love of a woman.
The heart of traditional Ireland with its native language and customs is dismissed by Gabriel even though it’s where his wife Gretta comes from—like Joyce’s own wife Nora Barnacle.
But Gabriel has high notions, spending his holidays on the continent and writing book reviews for the English Daily Express—and is castigated as a “West Briton” at the party.
Franciscan Church of the Immaculate Conception
At the end of the night, Gabriel and Gretta take a cab to the Gresham Hotel on Dublin’s main thoroughfare, Sackville St as it was then.
Following in their footsteps, though without the handsome horse drawn carriage, I walk along the quays from Usher’s Island, past Adam and Eve’s—the Franciscan Church of the Immaculate Conception—where Aunt Julia is the leading soprano, its mighty dome standing aloft over its neatly laid-out gardens.
Ireland's oldest bookshop, Hodges Figgis, opened in 1768
On the opposite side of the river, the second-hand bookshops that Gabriel visited nearly every day, Hickey’s on Bachelor’s Walk and Webb’s and Masseys on Aston’s Quay, are long gone.
"Dublin’s—and Ireland’s—oldest bookshop is Hodges Figgis on Dawson St, opened in 1768"
But there are plenty of books and an armchair for reading them in the cosy Winding Stair on Ormond Quay, one of Dublin’s oldest independent bookshops, with a bright restaurant and views of the Ha’penny Bridge upstairs.
Dublin’s—and Ireland’s—oldest bookshop is Hodges Figgis on Dawson St, opened in 1768. It stocks one of the biggest collections of books on Ireland found anywhere in the world and, on the day I visit, has 15 different editions of Dubliners to choose from.
O’Connell Bridge and the statue of Daniel O’Connell
Crossing over O’Connell Bridge where, according to party guest Miss O’Callaghan, you will always see a white horse—I don’t—I come to the towering figure saluted by Gabriel as he passed in the cab.
The statue of Daniel O’Connell, who fought for Irish rights in the 19th century, was a relatively new monument that night but the street wasn’t named for him until 1924.
I carry on down O’Connell St—stopping off to say hello to James Joyce, forever immortalised in brass at the corner of North Earl St—until I reach the Gresham Hotel. Now owned by the Spanish RIU Hotels and Resorts, with a large Spanish staff and clientele—Gabriel, with his continental aspirations, would have been delighted.
Recently revamped, many of the bedrooms have had a shiny new makeover, though keep a slightly old-fashioned feel, with swirly carpets and heavy chandeliers.
I can imagine Gretta standing by the thick brown curtains in my room looking wistfully out at the falling snow, thinking of her lost love, Michael Furey, who sang “The Lass of Aughrim” outside her window in Galway not long before he died.
James Joyce Centre
It’s a short walk from here to the James Joyce Centre on North Great George’s St, where that famous Dublin hospitality is very much in evidence, with bright log fires burning in the downstairs rooms.
The 18th-century, ornately-styled townhouse is a museum and cultural institution, full of Joyce memorabilia, with regularly changing exhibitions.
It hosts workshops, lectures and events and its director, an actor and musician, has even performed “The Lass of Aughrim” on the stairs of 15 Usher’s Island.
Glasnevin Cemetery is the final resting place for some of James Joyce's relatives, as well as some characters in "The Dead"
Glasnevin Cemetery, with its one and a half million dead, is a fitting place to end my tour, an easy bus ride from the James Joyce Centre. It features prominently in Joyce’s Ulysses, and you can take a guided tour to visit the graves of his compatriots as well as some of the characters in the book.
Joyce himself is buried in Zurich, where he died suddenly from a perforated ulcer in 1941, but you can visit the grave of his parents and sister Eva in Glasnevin, though the headstone—which Joyce paid for—only lists the parents.
"You can take a guided tour to visit the graves of his compatriots as well as some of the characters in the book"
His great-aunts from Usher’s Island are also buried somewhere in this huge 124-acre plot, but sadly their graves—like the graves of three quarters of the dead in this cemetery—are unmarked.
It's hard not to think of that other grave in this story, the grave to which Gabriel’s thoughts turn at the end, as his mind sets “out on his journey westward”, imagining the snow falling all over Ireland, “on the dark central plain… on the Bog of Allen… into the dark mutinous Shannon waves… falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried”.
That journey westward is one Joyce himself took two years later. But that’s another story.
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