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Literary heroes are big business in Dublin – so why won’t the city protect its Joyce heritage?

19 November 2020

In October, Dublin City Council granted planning permission for 15 Usher’s Island to be turned into a tourist hostel. Built beside the river Liffey in around 1775, the four-storey Georgian townhouse had fallen into disrepair for much of the 20th century. The city has many such elegant yet neglected buildings. This one, though, was where the great aunts of James Joyce once ran a music school. The writer had used ‘the dark gaunt house’ as the setting for ‘The Dead’ (1914), one of the greatest short stories ever written. It was rescued from ruin in 2000 by Brendan Kilty, a Joyce-loving barrister who attempted to revive it as a cultural centre but ended up bankrupt. Dublin City Council passed on the chance to buy the property in 2017 and it was instead acquired by two private investors.

Its current owners’ first application to put the building to more profitable use was rejected last year. The proposals were opposed by, among others, a group of writers and academics from around the world headed by Colm Tóibín and the Joycean scholar John McCourt. The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht objected that the development would ‘undermine, diminish and devalue a site of universal cultural heritage’ that was key to Dublin’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature. Following on from the submission of revised plans, the council has now concluded that ‘the proposed change of use will be the best way to secure’ the building’s ‘long-term conservation’. The campaign group led by McCourt and Tóibín has already appealed against the ruling to An Bord Pleanála, the national planning body.

View of 15 Usher’s Island from James Joyce Bridge, Dublin.

View of 15 Usher’s Island from James Joyce Bridge, Dublin. Photo: An Taisce

Dublin has a fraught relationship with its architectural heritage. The shelling of the city centre during the Easter Rising of 1916, followed by the economic austerity of the post-independence period, unease with the material legacies of British rule and, more recently, the booms and busts of a volcanic property market have all taken their toll. The desolate area surrounding 15 Usher’s Island stands as a condemnation of longstanding failures of conservation, planning and social policy. Across town in prosperous Ballsbridge, developers last month controversially flattened the house of Michael Joseph O’Rahilly (one of the rebel leaders killed in 1916) to make way for luxury apartments – just what a place long in the grip of a homelessness crisis needs.

The city’s literary heritage has also been big business. When the tourists land in Dublin airport, they are greeted by the words of Joyce and other Irish writers adorning the walls. On getting off the bus from the airport on O’Connell Street, they can glance left up North Earl Street and see Marjorie Fitzgibbon’s statue of the writer. Walking down to the Liffey and turning right on to Bachelors Walk, they might arrive at the James Joyce Guesthouse. The faces and words of Joyce and others Irish writers can be found on many a pub wall. The game can visit ‘Castle Dracula Dublin’ – not an actual castle but an ‘experience’ based on the extraordinary creation of yet another Dublin writer, Bram Stoker, and featuring ‘a hilarious vampire show’ in what I can believe is ‘the world’s only graveyard theatre’. More tastefully, the National Library of Ireland has put together two excellent, free exhibitions on W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. In September last year, the ambitious new Museum of Literature Ireland also opened, joining the long-established Dublin Writers Museum.

Martello Tower, Sandycove, Dublin, which houses the James Joyce Tower and Museum

Martello Tower, Sandycove, Dublin, which houses the James Joyce Tower and Museum. Photo: William Murphy/Flickr, published under a creative commons licence (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It has generally fallen to enthusiasts to preserve and commemorate Joyce’s legacy. The Martello Tower in the seaside suburb of Sandycove which provides the setting for the opening of Ulysses, and where Joyce stayed for an eventful few days in September 1904, was bought by an architect, Michael Scott, and turned into a museum which first opened in 1962. It is still going, staffed by volunteers. The James Joyce Centre in the north inner city presents an exhibition and offers walking tours, as well as hosting readings and lectures. It is housed in another fine Georgian townhouse, which was saved from demolition in the 1990s by a campaign led by a Joycean scholar, David Norris, who also happens to be a senator. Sweny’s on Lincoln Place, where Leopold Bloom buys a bar of lemon soap in Ulysses, miraculously operated as a pharmacy with an unaltered Victorian interior until 2009. It then evolved into a volunteer-run Joycean museum, shop and hub for readings. Two years ago, its rent was doubled, but it has fought on.

Joyce had a complicated relationship to the city. As a child and young man, he lived in 20 different addresses, shifting from the genteel southern suburbs to the crumbling north inner city as his father’s finances subsided. He then left Dublin in 1904, aged 22, and returned only three times. The last of these visits in 1912 brought to a bitter end his failed attempt to have Dubliners (the collection of interlinked stories that concludes with ‘The Dead’) published in the city it depicts. In exile, he continued to represent the already vanishing city of his youth in unsparing yet loving detail, blurring the very lines between fiction and reality. Now the city is filled with plaques commemorating things that only ever happened in his books. On leaving Dublin for the last time, Joyce wrote the satirical broadside ‘Gas from a Burner’, ventriloquising his perfidious publisher, George Roberts, objecting to him ‘writing of Dublin, dirty and dear’. If Joyce were alive and writing today, one suspects Roberts would still have plenty of reasons not to publish.