Led back into James Joyce’s Dublin
Self-guided walking tours of James Joyce’s city transport Dubliners and tourists to a new world
Image: Kevin O’Hare/Irish Times Premedia
“I felt that I had been very far away, in some land where the customs were strange – in Persia, I thought . . .”
I’m standing in the middle of Dublin, just north of the Liffey, at the corner of Parnell Street and Cumberland Street. The place is humming with cars, buses and people. Many – most – of the faces are African or Chinese. It’s already a potent mix of worlds. But as I prepare to cross the road I’m transported to a different world. Flickering all around me, in this other universe, are the sounds of James Joyce’s Dublin, from church bells to Victorian parlour songs. And inside my head are the rhythms and cadences of Joyce’s Dubliners.
The characters – Old Cotter, Ignatius Gallaher, Eveline Hill, Father Flynn and Gabriel Conroy – are speaking to me as if I’d just met them in one of the city’s many hostelries. It’s not so much that they have come out of the book as that I have strayed into it, courtesy of one of Wonderland Productions’s self-guided Dubliners walking tours.
“He pursued his reverie so ardently that he passed his street and had to turn back . . .”
A Little Cloud
Wandering around 21st-century Dublin, lost in Joyce, is a mildly perilous undertaking. The tour begins at the James Joyce Centre, on North Great George’s Street, where the staff kit you out with an MP3 player, headphones and a series of maps and charts.
The player switches itself off regularly to save battery power, but it bookmarks the place, and restarts at the same point, so that isn’t a problem.
The maps are crammed with visual information. Even so, I fall through the joins more than once. “Where on earth,” my notes exclaim crossly at one point, “is Henrietta Street?”
Perhaps wandering, Leopold Bloom- style, is a necessary part of the experience. And when you’re listening to beautifully written, beautifully performed stories through headphones, it’s easy to get lost. It’s also easy to get run over by a bike. They don’t necessarily come from the direction you’re expecting. So be careful.
“North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free . . .”
There are several of these tours to choose from, depending on how much time you have. The route on the half-day tour takes you north from the Joyce centre past Belvedere College and Hardwicke Street, then up to the King’s Inns.
Then it’s back along Capel Street and Mary Street to the river and Usher’s Island for the house of The Dead.
You track back via Temple Bar, Duke Street and Nassau Street. It takes about four hours, allowing pauses for coffee, lunch, standing and staring, sitting and dreaming.
The commentary presents nuggets of information, tailored to the pace of your perambulation. Layers of history peel away from buildings as you pass.
The upper storey of Penneys on Mary Street fades to the Volta cinema, the scene of Joyce’s brief venture into the movie business. O’Neill’s pub on Suffolk Street becomes Corless’s restaurant. “Clifden oysters, wines from the wood and a first-class French chef.”
And here is Joyce having tea with William Butler Yeats on Kildare Street. Yeats is 37, Joyce 20.
“I’m sorry,” the younger writer remarks over his shoulder as he leaves, “but you’re too old for me to help you.”
“Da,” says the young man of Slavic extraction sitting next to me in a cafe on Mary Street as he and his friend tuck into two full Irish breakfasts. The sun blazes through the glass. The sunny side of the street.
Joyce is meticulous about such things. You could check the forensic accuracy of his descriptive writing, if you were so inclined. Or you could just soak it up with the sunshine.
“Like distant music these words that he had written years before were borne towards him from the past . . .”
The reading of The Dead is, unsurprisingly, the climax of the day. The story that almost didn’t make it into the collection has become a literary superstar.
But the overwhelming impression left by this tour is one of pulsating life. It’s a joyous celebration not just of Joyce but of parts of Dublin that many natives, never mind tourists, rarely see.
Like all good tours, it makes you look at your city with different eyes. Walking back down O’Connell Street to the James Joyce Centre, I pause at Middle Abbey Street while a Luas glides past.
And then I do a double take. Cycling along behind the tram on an ancient sit-up-and-beg bike is a little auld lad straight out of Dubliners central casting.
I blink. Did I dream him? Is it some kind of visual Wonderland trick? No: there he is, pedalling merrily across O’Connell Street the wrong way, in the wake of the shiny new tram. Disappearing eastwards into the future. Joyce would love it.
You can book the Dubliners walk at the James Joyce Centre, North Great George’s Street, 01-8788547, jamesjoyce.ie. Tours cost €8-€19. A set of audio CDs of the stories costs€20