An Irishman's Diary


THE LEMON soap opera has taken a new twist. Seven months after it closed, apparently forever, Sweny’s chemists has risen from the dead and ascended into a sort of Joycean heaven. Maybe Leopold Bloom’s fictional visit in 1904 really did immortalise the place after all.

The premises reopened quietly in recent days, under a new management determined to save it: still selling the soap famously bought by Bloom, and a range of other merchandise loosely connected with either the pharmacy, or James Joyce, or both. As luck would have it, the first customer in was a man from Connecticut who knew nothing about the shop’s literary connections. He bought a pair of nail clippers for €3. The money is now stored behind the counter as the latest exhibit in what will also be a living museum.

When I dropped in during the week, volunteers assisting the project were still setting up shop, even as they dealt with the trickle of customers and well-wishers.

For the moment, Sweny’s will not be a dispensing chemist: one of the reasons is that its range of merchandise has been expanded to include such things as Jacob’s cream crackers (Jacob’s plays a dramatic cameo in Ulysses, when Bloom has a biscuit tin thrown at him by “the Citizen” outside Barney Kiernan’s pub). But the hope is that a dispensing facility might be reintroduced at some point, perhaps as a link-up with the school of pharmacy in nearby Trinity College.

The 156-year-old shop has already been archived: every bottle, drawer and press photographed from all angles, so that if the need ever arises, the place could be reassembled like Francis Bacon’s studio. Now the emphasis is on bringing it to life again. And one of the ways this will happen is that, while continuing to function commercially, the tiny premises will also become a performance space.

The new lease owner – a well-known Joycean (no, not David Norris) who nevertheless wants to keep a low profile for the moment – has radical ideas involving both the front windows. The eastern one, looking out on the sign for Fenian Street, will be devoted to music. He hopes to have someone sing a song there every hour on the hour, startling passersby on Lincoln Place.

It need not have Joycean connections, although the line “Just a Song at Twilight” is expected to feature prominently in the evenings. The important things will be that the songs are out of copyright and the singers can actually sing.

The second window – the one looking down Westland Row towards the Liffey – is to become “Sweny’s Story Snug”. This idea has been inspired by the experience of another Joycean address, the “House of the Dead” at Usher’s Island. As happened there, the reclaimed Sweny’s is expected to spark off many reminiscences from visitors, even those who have never read a line of Joyce.

The stories might be about Dublin, or Ireland, or Irish ancestors, or anything. Whatever the subject, the tellers will be invited to record them digitally in the “snug” behind the window: a cosy womb-like space hitherto used as an office. The results will be uploaded onto a website now also in preparation.

Even if Leopold Bloom had never visited, Sweny’s would have a rich history. The floorboards behind the counter are literally sagging from the weight of the various shop assistants who have stood there over the decades. When a piece of floor-covering was taken up recently, there were newspapers underneath dating from 1959. And that’s only the more recent past.

A couple of drawers behind the counter still contain ancient-looking packages and prescriptions meant for customers but never collected for one reason or another. Each is wrapped in brown paper, tied carefully with twine, and covered with the dust of at least half a century. Succeeding chemists in the shop did not disturb them, and the new tenants will not open them either. The plan is to glass the drawers over and leave them there.

Joyce apart, it is reasonable to assume that many famous people must have come through the shop’s doors in the past century and a half. Oscar Wilde was born only a few yards away in Westland Row and grew up just around the corner on Merrion Square.

And Nora Barnacle worked nearby at Finn’s Hotel.

Indeed it was from Finn’s that, having stood Joyce up in their first date, June 15th, 1904, she furtively watched him waiting outside the Wilde house: “quite dejected” as he later admitted. She took pity on him the following day when they walked together in Ringsend. And a grateful Joyce commemorated the occasion by setting his masterpiece on that date.

WB Yeats also lived on Merrion Square and must have frequented Sweny’s too. Samuel Beckett’s father worked in the area. Beckett jnr and Shaw probably visited as well. So although technically at a T-junction, Sweny’s is at a crossroads of Irish cultural history. As if to underline the point, one of the other callers while I was there was a staff member from the nearby Royal Irish Academy of Music. She had noticed the place open again and dropped in just to wish the work well. But before she left, she had also been recruited as a possible supplier of singing talent. The latest phase of Sweny’s existence promises to be a soap opera in more ways than one.