Colm Tóibín walks the ‘intense, haunted’ streets of Dublin

The city is full of ghosts ... in the house where Wilde grew up, the library where Yeats studied

There is a peculiar intensity about some streets in Dublin that gets more layered the longer you live in the city and the more stray memories and associations you build up. With time, thoughts thicken and become richer, connect more.

On a busy day, nonetheless, it is possible to go into the General Post Office on O'Connell Street to post a letter or buy a TV licence and not think at all at first about the 1916 rebellion, which used the post office as its headquarters, or about MacDonagh and MacBride, Connolly and Pearse, the men who led the rebellion, or about WB Yeats's lines:

When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,
What stalked through the Post Office?
What intellect,
What calculation, number, measurement, replied?

But then I turn and see the statue of Cuchulain, the mythical Irish warrior, made by Oliver Sheppard, which stands in the post office, and remember that Samuel Beckett once asked his friend Con Leventhal to betake himself "to the Dublin Post Office and measure the height from the ground to Cuchulain's arse", because Neary in Beckett's novel Murphy wished to engage with the arse of the bronze Cuchulain by banging his head against it. Thus the mind, pondering on nothing much or the malady of the quotidian, can become bothered by heroes, by history, by head-bangers.


I move in to South Leinster Street, where the bomb went off in 1974, and I try to remember how many precisely it killed and wonder why there is no memorial there, and then try to remember what the bomb had sounded like as I sat in the reading room of the National Library that late Friday afternoon. It was like nothing much in fact; it was more the silence afterwards and the much more exact memory I have of the rest of that evening in the mad, panicking city, watching each parked car with a mixture of suspicion and fear and disbelief, then drinking in Toner's pub in Baggot Street until the early hours, cello music playing on the radio, broken by a hush as each news bulletin came on.

And then I half notice the sign on the gable end of the building on the opposite side of the street. It says Finn's Hotel. James Joyce got two books out of it, or the title of the second anyway. Finn. Finnegan. It was here on June 10th, 1904, that he met Nora Barnacle, who worked in the hotel. The two young strangers arranged to meet four days later outside the house where Sir William Wilde and his wife, Jane, lived, where they raised their son Oscar, who was three years dead by the time Joyce met Nora.

When Nora stood Joyce up on June 14th, he wrote to her ardently, pleading for another date: “I hear nothing but your voice ... I wish I felt your head on my shoulder.” They walked out together for the first time on June 16th, which is when their story began, and when Ulysses is set. It was lucky, I suppose, that their date wasn’t in the middle of November, then it would have been a shorter book. Or on Good Friday, when the pubs used to be closed. The thought occurs to me for a moment, as I think of those closed pubs and wine sales off bounds on Good Friday, that it was a dry business, a crucifixion. Especially towards the end. Only water came out of the wound in his side.

* * * * *

The street between Nora’s hotel and Oscar Wilde’s house is called Clare Street. Beckett’s father ran his quantity surveying business from No 6 but there is no plaque here. When their father died in 1933, Beckett’s brother took over the business while Beckett, who was idling at the time, took the attic room. Like all idlers, he made many promises; in this case, both to himself and to his mother. He promised himself that he would write and he promised his mother that he would give language lessons. But he did nothing much. It would look good on a plaque: “This is where Samuel Beckett did nothing much.”

Like Wilde and Yeats, Beckett belonged to that group of Protestant geniuses who thought they should write down their thoughts just as their landowning and powerful and money owning colleagues were clearing out of Ireland or learning to keep quiet. They all came from different rungs of the social ladder. At the top was Lady Gregory; and then John Millington Synge, who had a small private income, as Beckett and Wilde did; and then WB Yeats, who worked hard all his life; and also poor Bram Stoker and George Bernard Shaw. And then Seán O'Casey, who was nearly blind he was so poor. All of them baptised into the wholly un-Roman and highly Protestant church. And none of them believed a word of it, except poor Lady Gregory, unless O'Casey's communism, which was of the high church sort – he supported the crushing of the Budapest uprising in 1956, for example – was a sort of religion. It must be fun not believing in anything, and having your fellow country people wanting you to clear off to England because of the very religion you don't believe in.

This must be why a few of them became interested in posing and twisting things around and developing their eloquence and working on their silence. It must be why Wilde loved finding an accepted set of truths and then turning them sharply inside out, and why Shaw loved a paradox and Elizabeth Bowen, who left later, loved the Irish Sea.

I turn into Westland Row. So much has disappeared; so much stays in the memory. The bank is gone, and so, too, the old Academy Cinema, which was once the Antient Concert Rooms, where Joyce sang and where he set his story A Mother. I saw Fellini’s Amarcord in the Academy in the spring of 1975 with my friend Gerry McNamara. In those years, the Irish film censor used to cut the dirty scenes from films with scissors, so it was only years later that I got to see the episode where the Italian boys all masturbate.

Gerry is more than 20 years dead now, and my friend Anthony Cronin is over two years gone. He lived for some time around the corner from here in Magennis Place with the writer Anne Haverty. In the years when he lived here, he wrote a love poem to Anne about making his way home:

Sometimes, walking along Westland Row
Thinking that Anna will be there before him,
His happiness is so great,
He is like a walking jar,
Full to the very brim.

When I was growing up in a small town two hours south of here the train from Rosslare stopped at Westland Row. So this street was my introduction to Dublin. Westland Row was also a commuter stop for those going to work in the city centre from the south side of Dublin. These included the poet Thomas Kinsella, who worked in the Department of Finance on Merrion Street. His poem "Westland Row", from his volume Nightwalker published in 1968, captures that sense of coming down into the street from the station platform above:

We came to the outer light down a ramp in the dark
Through eddying cold gusts and grit, our ears
Stopped with noise.

As I move up Westland Row towards Clare Street, the street is dingy-looking; some of it is even derelict. I know that Joyce's father spent time here, as did the parents of Wilde, John Stanislaus Joyce coming here in the 1870s, the Wildes two decades before that. It is hard not to imagine how desolate it must have been then in the years after the Famine when Dublin was a capital city from which the glory had departed. It had no parliament then, since Ireland had been ruled directly from Westminster following the Act of Union of 1800. As Belfast was becoming an industrial city, Dublin stagnated, or seemed to.

James Joyce saw the city as “a centre of paralysis”, and his younger brother Stanislaus, who left Dublin in 1905 and did not return wrote: “In Ireland, a country which has seen revolutions in every generation, there is properly speaking no national tradition. Nothing is stable in the country; nothing is stable in the minds of the people. When the Irish artist begins to write, he has to create his moral world from chaos by himself, for himself. Yet, though this is an enormous disadvantage for a host of writers of good average talent, it proves to be an enormous advantage for men of original genius, such as Shaw, Yeats, or my brother.”

Sir William Wilde, when he married Jane Elgee, lived first in this street. His son Oscar was born in 1854 at No 21 Westland Row. The Wildes moved around the corner to No 1 Merrion Square soon after Oscar was born. Twenty years later, John Stanislaus Joyce moved his offices to No 13 Westland Row. He and his mother may even have lived in this building, or in a nearby hotel. Westland Row appears in episode five of Ulysses – Leopold Bloom appears in the street in that episode. It is 10 o'clock in the morning on June 16th, 1904, as Bloom walks away from the quays via Lombard Street East, passing Nichols the undertakers, which is still in business to this day. He stops to look in the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company at No 6 Westland Row, now gone. Then he goes into the post office at 49–50 Westland Row, also disappeared. Using the name Henry Flower, he asks if there are any letters for him, to find that there is a letter from Martha Clifford, who has answered an advertisement he has placed in The Irish Times. ("Wanted smart ladytypist to aid gentleman in literary work.")

In Westland Row he bumps into an acquaintance called M'Coy, who has appeared earlier as "secretary to the City Coroner" in Joyce's story Grace. M'Coy has been drinking in Conway's at Nos 31–2 Westland Row, now called Kennedy's; in passing, they mention the names of several characters from the stories in Dubliners – Hoppy Holohan, Bob Doran and Bantam Lyons. For a second, as he moves away, Bloom thinks about his father, who killed himself. Under the arch of the railway, having read the words of Martha Clifford, he tears up the letter. He notes that "an incoming train clanked heavily above his head, coach after coach", before entering St Andrew's Church – which he calls All Hallows – by the back door. Here he studies people receiving communion and makes one of the best jokes in the book when he considers the use of wine in the mass: "Wine. Makes it more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they are used to Guinness's porter or some temperance beverage Wheatley's Dublin hop bitters or Cantrell and Cochrane's ginger ale (aromatic)."

Bloom remembers that he must go to Sweny's chemist at the top of the street, which is now a sort of Joycean museum, where he has a lotion made up for Molly and where he buys a bar of lemon soap. Bloom passes by the back gates of Trinity College, and moves into South Leinster Street, where he will visit the Turkish Baths. "Enjoy a bath now: clean trough of water, cool enamel, the gentle tepid stream. This is my body." Because the novel is set in 1904, Wilde and Yeats are already famous, as are Wilde's parents. Thus Joyce, as he moves his characters in these streets, is circling the world of the two other writers. In episode 10, one of his characters will halt "at the corner of Wilde's house" at 1 Merrion Square.

Wilde himself is a constant presence in Ulysses. In episode one, for example, when they discuss the mirror, they refer directly to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1891. In the same episode, Buck Mulligan says: "We have grown out of Wilde and paradoxes." Yeats and his two sisters also wander through the pages of Joyce's book. In episode one, Lily and Lollie Yeats appear as "the weird sisters" who print books in Dundrum, and they will be referred to later as "two designing females". They had returned to Dublin a couple of years before Ulysses is set to establish the Dun Emer Press, which produced limited editions. Ulysses also mocks Yeats himself. His statement on Lady Gregory's translation of The Táin: "I think this book is the best that has come out of Ireland in my time," is the cause of much mirth in the book.

Yeats's grandparents and his father knew Wilde's parents and were part of the same small Dublin world. What connects Wilde with Joyce, however, besides Wilde's presence in Ulysses, is that both writers knew Yeats, who supported each of them in times of difficulty. I walk along South Leinster Street – Beckett and his father used to enjoy the same Turkish baths as Leopold Bloom – again and turn into Kildare Street, where in Joyce's story Two Gallants, "a harpist stood in the roadway, playing to a little ring of listeners. He plucked at the wires heedlessly, glancing quickly from time to time at the face of each new-comer and from time to time, wearily also, at the sky."

I walk past the National Library, built by the firm owned by Beckett’s grandfather. Yeats used the reading room, as did Joyce. Joyce would set episode nine of Ulysses in the library. This is where Stephen has his long debate about Hamlet and Shakespeare. In this building, “Coffined thoughts around me, in mummycases, embalmed in spice of words.” The domed reading room has not changed since the time of Yeats and Joyce. It has the same light and layout, the same noises, perhaps even some of the same people, or maybe they just look similar. And the same sounds: whispered consultations with the librarians; chairs being pushed back; the seagull cries on the outside reminding us how close the sea is and the port; some coughing; and then a sudden pounding silence as heads are bowed low in the holy sacrament of reading.

I walk now towards St Stephen's Green where Henry Moore's monument to Yeats is situated. The statue of Joyce's head faces Newman House, the site of the Catholic University. In 1880, it became University College Dublin. Joyce studied here from 1898 to 1902. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he has Stephen Dedalus call Stephen's Green "my Green". When Ulysses appeared, a professor who taught at Trinity College said: "James Joyce is a living argument in favour of my contention that it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the aborigines of this island – for the corner boys who spit into the Liffey." I have news for this professor: we spit no more. We write books now and make software. We travel home peacefully to the suburbs when the day is done.

I walk out of the Green. I am going home. The books are waiting, as are the empty pages. Some city streets, in the wake of these figures, are haunted. – Guardian

Colm Tóibín’s Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce is published by Viking, £14.99