An Incomplete Literary Tour of Ireland

The view from the Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse

The view from the Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse

As many folks know, Tara and I built parts of our wedding around a literary theme — and the honeymoon in Ireland had more than its share of writerly angles as well. As you can see above, even the Guinness Storehouse had quotes from Joyce inscribed on the windows of its Gravity Bar, adding commentary to the view of Dublin laid out before us. So I just wanted to take a moment to share some of the highlights of our literary ramblings through the Irish cityscape and countryside. (And thanks for indulging another personal post or two here; we’ll be back on track in a day or so.)

One of our first stops in Dublin was Trinity College (literally next door to our hotel) to see the Book of Kells. However, while we felt the appropriate reverence for that exhibition and the pages on view, both Tara and I experienced a far greater awe when we walked up to The Long Room, a stunning great hall of books boasting more than 200,000 titles. And I was particularly glad that we caught the very last week of the exhibition “The Body in the Library: The Great Detectives 1841-1941,” which had a great many rare works on display, from The Memoirs of Vidocq and sample pages from the Newgate Calendar right up to a first edition of Red Harvest (which I’d just recently reread) and beyond. Chief among the pleasures I found there was seeing Irish stained glass artist Harry Clarke’s depiction of the ourang-outang from Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” — far more frightful than anything my own imagination had conjured up! — and the first pages of The Moonstone as published in its serial form in All The Year Around, which I’ll admit I was more excited about than seeing the original Sherlock Holmes stories in The Strand.

The West of Ireland offered literary treasures as well, but we soon realized that we’d been overly ambitious about many of our driving plans; narrow, winding roads, truck and tractors, and our shared cautiousness in the midst of all that (Tara let out a yelp of terror more than once) meant that trips took longer than planned. Lady Gregory’s Estate at Coole Park? A worthy destination, I know, but we flew past it at 100 km/hour, eager to get to our next hotel, Ashford Castle, and the drinks and dinner awaiting us there. “No swans today!” I said. But just a little further up the road, we couldn’t help but turn off for Yeats’ Tower, Thoor Ballylee. That stop just underscored the sense of adventure that each side trip offered. The path here was even narrower than the main road had been, barely a single lane, and at one point we passed a seemingly abandoned home, whose stone walls, seen below, bore ominous greetings:


We were apprehensive, to say the least. When we finally reached the tower, we missed the parking lot beforehand and then drove past the home itself. Expecting another parking area beyond, we continued and soon found ourselves unable to turn around, bouncing along another small by-way, swerving into the bushes to make room for a car that passed us, following miles and miles of road until we came out where we began.

Thoor Ballylee

Thoor Ballylee

Undaunted, we turned back and eventually reached the tower once more, just in time to see the workers there closing the shutters on the place and preparing to lock up for the night. They were kind enough to let us in for a quick look at how Yeats spent his summer months — certainly not a luxurious waterfront retreat, with quarters that seemed spartan at best. Still, it was nice to see not only his working space but also many of the early editions of his work, and we were able to snap a couple of pictures of the tower as well. 

Of course, the highpoint of our literary travels was being in Dublin for Bloomsday — something that we just lucked into in many ways but which proved a delight. At 10 a.m., we gathered with other Joyce fanatics under the railway bridge on Westland Row to catch up with an ongoing performance of scenes from Ulysses, presented by a group called the Balloonatics, with Paul O’Hanrahan in the role of Leopold Bloom. The section we saw was from the Lotus-Eaters episode, and the crowd followed Bloom as he picked up a letter addressed to his pseudonym, “Henry Flower,” watched as he read it and then tore it up, traipsed silently behind him into a church for a few moments, and then saw him buy some lotions and “sweet lemony wax” soap at the chemist’s (or near the chemist’s, since Sweny’s itself was, unfortunately, closed). 

Paul O'Hanrahan as Leopold Bloom, buying lotions and soaps around the corner from Sweny's

Paul O'Hanrahan as Leopold Bloom, buying lotions and soaps around the corner from Sweny's in Lincoln Place

From that performance, we went to Davy Byrne’s for Bloom’s traditional lunch of gorgonzola cheese, brown bread and a glass of Burgundy wine (and in our case a couple of glasses of champagne from the proprietor, toasting our honeymoon), and then on to the James Joyce Centre for souvenirs and up to 7 Eccles Street, Bloom’s home — or rather where Bloom’s home would’ve been if it were still there. The wine, champagne and walking left Tara needing a nap, but I checked in on a series of readings and performances at Meeting House Square in Temple Bar, catching selections from the Ithaca and Penelope episodes — a fine way to round out the day’s celebration.  

Reluctant TyrantLater that evening, our last in Ireland, Tara and I went to the Abbey Theatre for a performance of Tom Murphy’s The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, now in its world premiere production. The show has gotten mixed reviews (see the Irish Times‘ review here,  the Guardian‘s review here, and the Independent‘s here) and it’s true that a couple of characters seemed thin and that the closing monologue was a little long and unfocussed, but Tara and I generally admired the play: its provocative parallels to Lear, its richly lyrical language (both of us thought Shakespearean), its trenchant look at greed and class and religion, its odd humor and then gothic excess. We had plenty to talk about in the wake of watching the play, and were glad to end our trip with a stop at the Abbey itself, surely one of the great landmark of modern Irish literature.


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