Literary giants by the Liffey

7th February 1997 at 00:00
There are half a dozen good reasons for going to Dublin. Its spacious Georgian squares - quite different in feel from Bath or Edinburgh; the magnificent coastal and mountain scenery within 10 miles of the city centre; its unexpectedly interesting art galleries, its theatres, its pubs,the Temple Bar district (a new Bohemia with restaurants), and, of course, the Guinness.

But it is the astonishing contribution of an Irish city to literature in English that makes Dublin worth visiting with GCSE and A-level students. It is the birthplace of no fewer than three winners of the Nobel prize for literature - Shaw, Yeats and Samuel Beckett - and James Joyce, the writer who immortalised a day in the life of the city. Perhaps best to start with him.

Go up Dublin's broad main thoroughfare, O'Connell Street, past the General Post Office where Patrick Pearse defied the British army and disturbed his countrymen in 1916, on to the beautiful Rotunda - the first maternity hospital in the British Isles, then through a few hundred yards of not very salubrious Parnell Street and on to North Great George'sStreet.

At number 35 there is a museum dedicated to James Joyce. He didn't actually live there, but he might have done. His family occupied 19 addresses in the Dublin area as, propelled by his father's feckless drinking, they plummeted from comfort and affluence to a nomadic poverty. (There is, sadly, still plenty of poverty not far from the museum - affluent, comfortable Dublin is mostly to be found on the south side of the river Liffey. Roddy Doyle's characters in The Commitments and The Snapper tend to live north of the river.)

Number 35 has, nevertheless, a specific connection with Joyce's work. A back room on the ground floor was leased in the early 1900s to a flamboyant character who appears in Ulysses - "Mr Denis J Maginni, professor of dancing etc. in silk hat, slate frock coat with silk facing, white kerchief tie, tight lavender trousers, canary gloves and pointed patent boots. "

Mr Maginni held his dancing classes at the house and, along with other well-known Dublin characters of the time he flits, on six occasions, in and out of Ulysses . The fictional Maginni is more glamorous than the real Dubliner - who had the more prosaic name of Maginnis, and whose six daughters all died of the scourge of turn-of-the-century Dublin, tuberculosis.

When Number 35 was built in 1784 it had the usual finely proportioned rooms and some exceptional plaster work. By the 1970s it had become so dilapidated that it was in danger of being pulled down. But it was saved by a campaign led by Senator David Norris, a well-known Joycean scholar who lives in the same street.

As well as carefully restoring the building, he and others gathered together a fine series of Joyce family portraits. There's one of the reprobate John Stanislaus, Joyce's father; and another of Nora Barnacle, the Galway chambermaid whom Joyce first went out with on June 16, 1904 - the day, Bloomsday, that was to encompass the whole action of Ulysses . There are also several portraits of Joyce's grand and great-grandparents - the existence of which reveals just how wealthy the family once was.

The museum shows how much trouble Joyce took to get his Dublin details right. He left in 1904 and returned briefly three times over the next three decades, but using his memory, maps, street directorie s and research by his brother Stanislaus, he created in extraordinary detail a specific city which provided the background for his extraordinary account of Leopold Bloom's 24-hour odyssey.

Back down to Parnell Square, then on just a few hundred yards to Dublin's Writers' museum. This reveals in straightforward wall displays just how large the contribution of Irish - and in particular Dublin - writers has been to the canon of English literature. As one caption neatly puts it: "Ireland, in spite of its size and location at the very edge of Europe, has produced an undue number of the world's greatest writers."

Starting with the Book of Kells (on display in the magnificent library of Trinity College), the display takes in Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick's (one of Dublin's two, almost side-by-side Protestant cathedrals),and three major figures of the 18th-century theatre, Congreve, Farquhar and Goldsmith. All four, incidentally, studied at Trinity College - now restored to its Augustan glory.

The parade of writers continues with less famous but much read figures like the reclusive Sheridan Le Fanu ( Uncle Silas ) and Bram Stoker ( Dracula ). Then on to Bernard Shaw, whose miserable Synge Street birthplace can be visited and who was happy to escape from Dublin; and Oscar Wilde, who took a first in classics at Trinity College, but never wrote much about Ireland after he went to Oxford and London where found he had more pressing concerns.

The museum records how Dubliner playwrights turned the steady stream of dramatic writing into a flood in the 20th century. All, with one exception,made their name in Dublin, but few spent all their lives there. John Millington Synge ( The Playboy of the Western World ), was born in the south Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham but found his inspiration much further west; Yeats went to London but returned to live in Dublin and help create the Abbey Theatre. Denis Johnston ( The Moon on the Yellow River ) came from Ballsbridge and was successively a lawyer, playwright, and a war correspondent. Samuel Beckett, who spent a troubled youth in affluent Foxrock, eventually made Paris his home and, for a time, French his literary language. He was the only one to achieve his greatest success abroad.

All of them were southsiders and of what might be called Ascendancy stock.Sean O'Casey came from north Dublin, but left after the success of his three great plays and ended his days in, of all unlikely places, Devon. Brendan Behan was a north Dubliner by inclination, if not by birth. After the success of The Quare Fellow he took too much of his native city - and its liquor - to his ample bosom and paid the price.

This is just the start of a city tour which can weave literature and history together memorably. Go back across O'Connell Bridge over the wide Liffey, past Bewley's excellent eating house, then on along Westmoreland Street to a huge colonnaded building, now a bank, but once the seat of the Irish Parliament which gave the country 18 years of confident self-government (of a kind) from 1782 to 1800, the period known as Grattan's Parliament.

What life was like during this time for the wealthy and cultured residents of the elegant Georgian square on the south side of the city is splendidly illustrated by Number 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street. Built in 1794, it has been restored to show the minutiae of daily life in Dublin at the time when Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Tom Moore were writing.

The end of Grattan's Parliament - the Act of Union 1800 - started a long decline for the Second City of the British Empire. When at last revival came - more than a century later - literature, and especially drama, was in the van.

Dublin is now a buzzing, bracingly youthful European city, with its own fine crop of contemporary dramatists.

And finally . . . more James Joyce. Go by the DART (Dublin's comfortable north-south suburban train service) to Sandycove and then walk to the Martello Tower where Joyce stayed for a few days in 1904 - leaving after fellow-writer Oliver St John Gogarty (later fictionalised as a stately, plump Buck Mulligan in Ulysses ) fired a pistol shot just above where he was sleeping. As one guidebook says with delicious understatement: "Joyce took this as a sign that his presence was not welcome and left the next morning . . .'

These days you can travel to Dun Laoghaire, just south of Dublin, in 99 minutes by Stenaline's fast ferry from Holyhead. Rates for parties travelling in a minibus can be quite cheap.

Further advice and accommodation details from the Dublin Tourist Information Office, tel: 00353 1605 7797, or Irish Tourist Board, 0171 493 3201. Stenaline 01233 647047, Irish Ferries 0345 171717

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