Looking for a pulse among dead Irish writers
Dublin Writers Museum opened 22 years ago to celebrate the capital’s literary tradition but it now feels more like a mausoleum
Robert Nicholson has been curatorof Dublin Writers Museum since it opened in 1991, a role that involves checking tickets, manning the reception desk, checking the environmental controls and planning new exhibitions. Photograph: Eric Luke
The Dublin Writers Museum on Parnell Square was opened in 1991 by the then taoiseach, Charles Haughey. Robert Nicholson has occupied the role of curator since then; a not inconsiderable 22 years.
“When it opened, the museum was owned by Dublin Tourism, but we’ve since integrated with Fáilte Ireland, ” he says . Fáilte Ireland is now the employer of all those who work in the museum, which it owns and runs.
We’re sitting in the small bookshop at the back of the building. Nicholson had been in the front hall, issuing admission tickets, when I arrived. A phonecall later, and he has swapped places with a colleague in the bookshop, where we do the interview. There is only one visitor in the bookshop for the duration of the hour-long interview, so his guess that we were unlikely to be interrupted there proves correct.
Explaining the reason for the name – ie why it’s not called the Irish Writers Museum – Nicholson says: “I suppose because it was a Dublin Tourism venture in the first place and therefore we couldn’t claim national status. To most intents and purposes, it does cover the whole Irish literary tradition, as practically all Irish writers have some connection with Dublin.”
The museum appears to have changed very little since this reporter first visited it some 20 years ago. The pre-internet boards with explanatory text about writers are still on the walls of the two main downstairs rooms. There is the same seemingly random pairing of featured writers in certain display cases. Samuel Beckett and Máirtín Ó Cadhain share one such space. At first, I think it’s because they were both born in 1906, as the text panels note, but the audio guide informs me it’s because they both “chose not to write in English”.
“The decision we made at the start, and which is one I’m still reconsidering, is that we would feature only dead writers,” Nicholson says. “The problem is that when they die, we have to find a place for them on the walls.”
How does he choose who should be included, once they’re deceased? “There’s the question of flavour of the month, so you need a bit of historical perspective,” he says.
“Sometimes you have to sit back and wait and see if somebody who dies was as important as people thought at the time. I am trying to think of a better policy on this one; how you actually decide who is appropriate to feature here, whether you’d do it on some kind of points system, or some kind of measure of universal acclaim.”
What does he mean by a points system? “You could say someone has won X number of important literary prizes, and find some way of measuring an achievement in that way.”