Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan has rejected suggestions she should intervene to “save” the house at 15 Usher’s Island known as James Joyce’s House of The Dead.
Almost 100 prominent Irish and international writers, artists and academics have signed a letter calling on Ms Madigan to protect the house after a planning application was submitted to Dublin City Council to convert it into a 56-bedroom hostel.
A spokesman for the Department of Culture and Heritage said the house already had protection due to its listing on the city's record of protected structures.
"Inclusion in the Record of Protected Structures places a duty of care on the owners and occupiers of protected structures and also gives planning authorities powers to deal with development proposals affecting them and to seek to safeguard their future," he said.
As the Minister was a statutory consultee under the planning acts, and there was a live planning application under consideration by the council, she would not “be in a position to comment further at this point in the planning process” he said.
“The Department fully recognises the importance of Joyce and provides support on an annual basis to the James Joyce Centre at 35 North Great George’s Street, another location with connections to Joyce’s work. This year’s allocation is €162,000.” He added that the Usher’s Island building was “a privately owned building”.
The Georgian house at 15 Usher’s Island, the setting of Joyce’s short story The Dead and one-time home of the writer’s great-aunts, was sold almost two years ago for €650,000.
The estate agency handling the sale, QRE, had expected interest from Dublin City Council or the Government, but neither bid for the historic building and it was sold privately.
Some of the 99 signatories to the letter calling for intervention to save the house include authors Sally Rooney, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, John Banville, Kevin Barry, Eavan Boland, Salman Rushdie, Richard Ford, Edna O'Brien, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Carlo Gébler, Michael Ondaatje, Paul Muldoon and Tobias Wolff. They are calling for the protection of the house due to its literary importance.
Other arts figures from theatre director Garry Hynes to film-maker Lenny Abrahamson, and academics including Roy Foster of London's Queen Mary University, Nick Fargnioli of the James Joyce Society in New York and John McCourt of University of Macerata in Italy, are also signatories.
"As writers, artists, and scholars of Irish literature and culture, we call upon Josepha Madigan, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and Owen Keegan, Dublin City Manager, to intervene to save, for the nation and the world, the house at 15 Usher's Island, known to all as Joyce's house of The Dead, and prevent any deterioration of its fabric," the letter states.
“In the decades since Joyce’s death, too many of the places that are rendered immortal in his writing have been lost to the city. Let us not repeat this mistake today.”
The signatories say that 15 Usher’s Island is “not just another house connected with Joyce”.
“Built in 1775, its upper floors were rented by Joyce’s great-aunts in the 1890s and the writer himself often visited them there. Most importantly, it is the setting of The Dead, widely considered Joyce’s and indeed the world’s greatest short story,” the letter states.
The writers and artists write turning it into a hostel would “destroy the uniquely valuable interior” which still “maintains the character of the house so splendidly described in the story”.
They believe Usher’s Island has the potential “to become a worthwhile site of literary pilgrimage”.
“As we approach the centenary of Ulysses in 2022, we believe that saving this unique piece of our national heritage is within the power of the Government and the national institutions and that it should be an urgent priority. We appeal to you and to the government to act before it is too late,” it said.
The building, which was sold for almost €650,000 two years ago, is known colloquially as The House of the Dead due to its association with the Joyce’s short story The Dead.
During the 20th century, the house fell into increasing disrepair. It was boarded up and remained derelict until 2000, when it was bought by Dublin barrister and quantity surveyor Brendan Kilty.
He refurbished the building over four years, recreating Victorian interiors in rooms that have since been used for Joyce-related events, including re-enactments of the Christmas dinner scene from the short story.
In 2012, Mr Kilty filed for bankruptcy in the UK, with debts including £2.1 million (€2.34 million) owed to Ulster Bank, relating to the Usher's Island house. The house was sold in 2017 on the instructions of receivers.
Speaking about the house, writer Colm Toibin, an organiser of the writers' letter, said because the area has not been developed, "you go in now, and it is the same house, especially on the ground floor and first floor, as in the story. The corn factor [landlord Mr Fulham's rooms on the ground floor, in The Dead] mentioned in the opening - you can see where that was. The hallway and then the rooms upstairs where the dance happened, where the meal happened, where the coats were put.
“So anyone going into the building is seeing how life inspired this story, how a real place where James Joyce’s grand-aunts lived, a party that his parents went to, a house he was in during his life, was used in this way.”
Speaking on RTE 1’s Morning Ireland, he said “anyone coming to Dublin can see this is not just where the story was set, but it hasn’t been reconstructed on the inside, it’s intact”. While Ulysses is a summer book, “The Dead is a winter story, so it happens inside. The story is filled with the way the rooms are configured. It’s a very unusual thing to be still in existence in that way.” He said “56 rooms for a youth hostel will simply ruin that interior. What other city would do that? It’s not being done deliberately, it’s happening sort of by accident.”
But “it’s a winter city” too, he pointed out, “and all you need is one big leak, one big winter, so it’s an urgent matter”.
They wrote the letter aware that “in 50 years time, when somebody says, did no one say to the Minister or Dublin City Council - this is a piece of national heritage of immense importance”. The 99 signatories “from all over the world, writers and people involved in the literary business” signed the letter to draw attention.
“If the world is still there in 1,000 years time, The Dead will be known still, and that house will be... an essentioal element in the fabric of Dublin. It’s a wake-up call to the nation to say we have a piece of treasure, please don’t don’t let’s regret this in 50 years time when people ask, how did you let this happen?” he said.
He talked about contacting Hilary Mantel, twice Booker winner for her Cromwell novels: “When I explained to her what it was - people are really shocked about this everywhere.”
Toibin suggested the House of the Dead could be declared a national monument or acquired by Dublin City Council, and come under the aegis of an existing museum.
Separately, leaders of the International James Joyce Foundation in Zurich, a large organisation of scholars, students, critics, readers, and writers, added their names “to the growing list of Irish Times readers writing in to say they oppose the recently reported plans of developers”.
In a letter to the editor of The Irish Times published on November 8th, Joyce Foundation president Geert Lernout and president-elect Claire Culleton, wrote “We are well aware, as James Joyce was, that cities stand on the ruins of older parts of the city, but it would be a great credit to the city that was immortalised by James Joyce if it would preserve and protect the setting of a short story that has a place at the centre of the literary memory of Dublin, of Ireland, and of the world.”
FULL TEXT OF LETTER
Open letter from artists, scholars and writers bout the proposed development of 15 Usher’s Island.
As writers, artists, and scholars of Irish literature and culture, we call upon Josepha Madigan, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and Owen Keegan, Dublin City Manager, to intervene to save, for the nation and the world, the house at 15 Usher’s Island, known to all as Joyce’s house of “The Dead”, and prevent any further deterioration of its fabric. In the decades since Joyce’s death, too many of the places that are rendered immortal in his writing have been lost to the city. Let us not repeat this mistake today.
15 Usher’s Island is not just another house connected with Joyce. Built in 1775, its upper floors were rented by Joyce’s great-aunts in the 1890s and the writer himself often visited them there. Most importantly, it is the setting of “The Dead”, widely considered Joyce’s and indeed the world’s greatest short story. The house has retained much of its atmosphere and the configuration of the rooms remains largely untouched since Joyce’s time. Turning it into a 56-room hostel would destroy the uniquely valuable interior, which still maintains the character of the house so splendidly described in the story.
Usher’s Island has the potential to become a worthwhile site of literary pilgrimage, a way to inform and inspire new generations of Joyce readers.
As we approach the centenary of Ulysses in 2022, we believe that saving this unique piece of our national heritage is a most fitting way to honour Joyce, that it is within the power of the Government and the national institutions, and that it should be an urgent priority.
We appeal to you and to the government to act before it is too late,
- John McCourt (University of Macerata, Peter O'Brien Visiting Scholar, Concordia University)
- Colm Tóibín
- Abraham Baldwin (Professor in Humanities, University of Georgia)
- Adrian Paterson (NUI, Galway)
- Alice McDermott
- Andre Aciman
- Andrew O'Hagan
- Anne Enright
- Anne Fogarty (Professor of Joyce Studies, University College Dublin)
- Barry McCrea (Donald R. Keough Family Professor of Irish Studies, University of Notre Dame)
- Belinda McKeon
- Bill Whelan
- Carlo Gébler
- Caroline Elbay (Champlain College, Dublin)
- Caroline Magennis (University of Salford, Chair, British Association for Irish Studies)
- Catherine Dunne
- Catriona Clutterbuck (University College Dublin)
- Cecily Brennan
- Celia de Fréine
- Christopher Morash (Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing, Trinity College Dublin)
- Claire Connolly (Professor of Modern English, University College Cork)
- Claire Messud
- Colm Wilkinson
- Damon Galgut
- Derek Hand (Dublin City University)
- Dermot Bolger
- Diana Copperwhite
- Donnacha Dennehy
- Edmund White
- Eavan Boland
- Edna Longley (Queen's University Belfast)
- Edna O'Brien
- Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
- Eithne Jordan
- Enrico Terrinoni (President, James Joyce Italian Foundation)
- Enrique Juncosa
- Eoin McNamee
- Fintan O'Toole
- Fiona Doyle
- Francis O'Gorman (Saintsbury Professor of English Literature, The University of Edinburgh)
- Fritz Senn (Zurich James Joyce Foundation)
- Garry Hynes
- Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin (Johnson Chair in Québec and Canadian Irish Studies, Concordia University)
- Geert Lernout (University of Antwerp, President, International James Joyce Foundation)
- Geraldine Higgins (Director of Irish Studies, Emory)
- Graham Benson
- Hugo Hamilton
- Ian McEwan
- Iarla O Lionard
- James Shapiro (Columbia University)
- Jane McGaughey (President, Canadian Association for Irish Studies – Cais)
- John Banville
- John Crowley
- Joseph Hassett
- Julian Barnes
- Kate Costello-Sullivan (Le Moyne College, President, American Conference for Irish Studies – Acis)
- Katharina Rennhak (University of Wuppertal, Chair, European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies - EFACIS)
- Katy Mullin (University of Leeds)
- Kevin Barry
- Laura Pelaschiar (Director, Trieste Joyce School, University of Trieste)
- Lenny Abrahamson
- Lia Mills
- Luca Crispi (University College Dublin)
- Lucy McDiarmid (Montclair State University)
- Margaret Kelleher (Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama, University College Dublin)
- Maria Simmons-Gooding
- Martina Devlin
- Mary Cregan
- Mary Morrissey
- Michael Longley
- Michael Ondaatje
- Nicholas Allen (Director of the Willson Center)
- Nick Fargnioli (President, James Joyce Society, New York)
- Nick Laird
- Nicole Flattery
- Noel O'Grady
- Ondrej Pilný (Charles University, Prague, Chair, International Association for the Study of Irish Literature – Iasil)
- Patrick Lonergan (Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies, NUI, Galway)
- Patrick McCabe
- Patrick McGrath
- Paul Muldoon (Princeton University)
- Paula Meehan
- Peter Fallon
- Rachel Kushner
- Richard Ford
- Robert D. Newman (Director, National Humanities Center)
- Rónán McDonald (Gerry Higgins Chair of Irish Studies, University of Melbourne, President, Irish Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand – Isaanz)
- Roy Foster (Professor of Irish history and literature, Queen Mary University of London)
- Ruth Padel
- Sally Rooney
- Salman Rushdie
- Sam Slote (Trinity College Dublin)
- Sean Latham (Walter Endowed Chair of English and Comparative Literature, University of Tulsa, Editor, James Joyce Quarterly)
- Sinead Gleeson
- Sophia Hillan
- Tessa Hadley
- Tobias Wolff
- Vona Groarke
- William Wall