Joyce house of ‘The Dead’ alive to the sound of music

Number 15 Ushers Island hosts late Christmas dinner

From left: Brendan Kilty, John Sheahan, John Gallagher, Mark Lawler and Lord Mayor Oisín Quinn at the Ushers Island dinner last night. Photograph: David Sleator

From left: Brendan Kilty, John Sheahan, John Gallagher, Mark Lawler and Lord Mayor Oisín Quinn at the Ushers Island dinner last night. Photograph: David Sleator


The House of the Dead was alive to the sound of music last night as literary enthusiasts began the centenary celebrations of James Joyce’s Dubliners in the setting of its most famous story.

To mark the occasion, Number 15 Ushers Island on the Dublin quays hosted a late Christmas dinner of the kind described in The Dead, the 16,000-word masterpiece with which the short story collection finishes.

But music was at least as central to Joyce’s text as food. So the commemoration included singing of the Lass of Aughrim, around which The Dead’s celebrated denouement revolves. There were instrumental contributions too, at least one of them very apt.

The band known as the Dubliners have not been around quite as long as the similarly named book. But it was nevertheless fitting that, to mark the literary milestone, the last-surviving official Dubliner – from the group’s original line-up – was among the guests of honour.

John Sheahan had left his fiddle at home, but brought the tin whistle. Surrounded by visitors from as far apart as Massachusetts and Georgia (the former Soviet one), he played a number of tunes including Among Friends.

As the owner and restorer of Number 15, Brendan Kilty, explained, there was more than one Joycean anniversary to celebrate. It’s now 10 years since he reopened the house: home of Joyce’s real-life grand-aunts, the models for The Dead’s music-teaching Morkan sisters.

But along with the Dubliners centenary, 2014 is also the “super-centenary” (ie the 110th) of the year in which the story is set. For good measure, this is also the 350th anniversary of William Ussher’s [sic] signing of a lease for what then really was an island in the Liffey.

The original rent included annual payment to the city fathers of “two fatt [sic] capons” (large, castrated chickens). Although there were no capons for dinner last night, guests included Lord Mayor Oisín Quinn, who had already been ceremonially presented with a pair of outsized chickens over Christmas.

The Dead is assumed to be set on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, even though this is not specified in the story. Otherwise, last night’s dinner faithfully reproduced many of the details of the original meal, including peeled almonds and jelly. Late-arriving guests were expected to include a group returning from a weekend in Turkey that had been commissioned to bring back Smyrna figs, as specified in Joyce’s text.

Fortunately, perhaps, the Lord Mayor had departed for another engagement just before Mark Lawler read an excerpt from another of the Dubliners stories, Ivy Day in the Committee Room.

This had the cynical Mr Henchy expounding on how city politics worked, circa 1904: “You must owe the City Fathers money nowadays if you want to be made Lord Mayor. Then they’ll make you Lord Mayor. By God! I’m thinking seriously of becoming a City Father myself.”

By way of a footnote, Lawler added that he’d been assured the city council had changed for the better since the era in which Joyce set his story: the political and moral vacuum that followed the death of Parnell.