It is difficult – if not downright impossible – to avoid the ghosts of Irish writers in Dublin. How could it be otherwise when you begin to list the masters of the English language who were born and often scribbled their tales on Hibernian shores. While on a birdwalk* through Dublin’s streets it is not unusual to come upon a plaque, bust or full-blown statue of one of her writers. I have a feeling they outnumber even those to the heroes of the fight for Independence. Sheridan, Swift, Wilde, Shaw, Behan, Beckett, O’Casey, Yeats,and Joyce – all are amongst those commemorated or celebrated on the walls and walks of the city.
Perhaps only Sean O’Casey has written more of Dublin and her citizens but it is the myopic Joyce that is the most visible presence about town. I can’t say that he is amongst my favourite authors and I will confess that, though I enjoy his short stories, absently holding a paperback copy of Ulysses at a used-book stall is the closest I’ve come to approaching his masterpiece. However I’ve been told that the ways and byways of Dublin are almost a living thing in Bloom’s homeward journey. I know that there are walking tours and pilgrimages to the places that are referenced particularly every June 16th to celebrate Bloomsday.
Again I am not a Joycean but I must confess that a pilgrimage of sorts figured in our trip. One of the greatest short stories in the English language, and one of my favourites, is The Dead the final vignette in The Dubliners. As I am in a confessional mood I will freely admit that my introduction to this heart-breaking study of lives in limbo was through John Huston’s film adaptation**. That in turn led to my reading and re-reading over the years the Joyce original and eventually to my booking The Gresham Hotel for our stay in Dublin as a mini-tribute to Joyce.
Why the Gresham? Once a premier hotel on one of the most fashionable streets in Dublin, it is the setting for the final passage in the story. After the Morkan ladies’ Epiphany celebration Gabriel and his wife Greta confront their ghosts past and present in the room they have booked there for the night. It is a sign of financial and social success that they have left the quayside middle-class Catholic enclave of the party to cross the river for the more prosperous and respectable Sackville (O’Connell) Street.
Now, despite visible vestiges of that prosperity, it is apparent that the street has seen better times. On our way into town our taxi driver, with a touch of ruefulness, told us that it’s become a street of fast food outlets, entertainment arcades and souvenir shops. Allowing for a touch of Gaelic hyperbole he wasn’t far wrong. The statues that Gretta and Gabriel’s horse drawn cab take them passed have been replaced by new worthies, the General Post Office still dominates majestically but Clery’s and the other shops of distinction are no more. The grandeur of O’Connell Street has faded into the past. As indeed has at least one of the five stars once awarded The Gresham itself. The facade continues to impress, the public rooms are inviting, and the service warm and attentive. Unfortunately the rooms are shabby but sadly without the chic.
The hotel was opened in 1817 by Thomas Gresham, a former butler, who turned several town houses into a lodging establishment for wealthy families and pied-à-terres for MPs who commuted between Dublin and London. In 1865 it was taken over by group of business men who gave the building a unified and elegant facade. Much of the hotel along with its archives were destroyed during the Battle of Dublin in 1922. It was rebuilt in 1926 and reopened in its present state in 1927. The public rooms were much remarked upon as were its dining options and it became a very popular hotel with off-duty servicemen during the Second World War. Dining options may have changed to more popular gastro-pub fare but afternoon tea and cocktails or a night cap a bit later in the day in the Writer’s Lounge are a pleasant end to a day of walking about town.
Throughout the week it had been my intention to visit the “dark, gaunt house” where the annual Epiphany celebration that sits at the heart of The Dead takes place. I had planned to trace the walk that the Connollys and company made that snowy morning in 1904 – though chances of catching a carriage at Winetavern Street would have been slim. And as I mentioned many of the landmarks in that area have long since disappeared either in acts of violence – King Billy’s statue in College Green in 1928 and Nelson’s Pillar in 1966 – or through, often misguided, urban renewal. Unfortunately we just became caught up in too many things and too little time to do the walk however on our way to the nearby Heuston Station to board the train we travelled along Usher’s Quay and caught a glimpse of it.
15 Usher’s Island was a house that Joyce knew well – his great aunts Ellen and Julia lived there for a time and many family gatherings were held there. Like the Misses Morkan Joyce’s aunts rented the top floors from the corn merchant who’s business was on the ground floor. It was close to Arthur Guinness’s Brewery (the largest employer in Dublin at the time with over 2500 employees some who lived in tenements in the area) and therefore less than fashionable – it is suggested that the ladies have come down in the world. The area still has an air of slightly decaying gentility about it but is on its way to being gentrified. The house was restored in 2004 by a Joyce enthusiast and is used for conferences and recreations of the Misses Morkans’ Epiphany celebration.
There is a fascinating (to me at least) series of podcasts from University College on how the locations of The Dead reflect the political and social atmosphere of the times and Joyce’s grasp of the history of his city and country. The six episodes can be accessed here.
*A word coined by my friend Larry to denote an unplanned, at times almost aimless, walk through a neighbourhood where the route is often determined by distractions along the way.
** A superb piece filled with brilliant characterizations by some of greats of Irish theatre of the time and stunning central performances from Angelica Huston and Donal McCann, it led me to read The Dubliners.
***Dubliners have a fondness for giving their statues nicknames – dedicated on Bloomsday in 1990 it was very quickly rechristened The Prick with the Stick.