An Irishman’s Diary on James Joyce and 15 Usher’s Island
The other day, I was sitting in the Gresham Hotel over a cup of coffee when a voice in my head reminded me that this was one of the locations for what is widely regarded as the greatest short story of the 20th century.
The central character in James Joyce’s The Dead, Gabriel Conroy, had booked a room for his wife Gretta and himself because it was early January and he didn’t fancy the trip home to Monkstown on a night when, as the story itself points out: “Snow was general all over Ireland.”
The pair were attending the annual party held by two aunts of Gabriel’s, Kate and Julia Morkan and their niece, Mary Jane. Described by him as “the Three Graces of the Dublin musical world”, they live in a Georgian house at Usher’s Island on the quays of the Liffey, where in reality two grand-aunts of Joyce rented the upper floors for a music school.
The 1987 film version directed by the legendary John Huston is especially touching to watch because so many cast-members have since died, some of them at a relatively early age such as Donal McCann, who plays Gabriel, and Frank Patterson, who takes the part of the singer Bartell D’Arcy.
The director himself passed away the same year as the film was released; his daughter Anjelica, happily still very much with us, plays Gretta Conroy with a perfect rendition of the Galway accent.
One of the most enjoyable occasions I ever attended was a re-enactment of the dinner-scene in “The House of the Dead” at 15 Usher’s Island.
The invitation came from two American friends, Prof Robert Graalman and his wife Diane, who were in town with a group of students from Oklahoma State University. I was accompanied by the late Brendan Glacken, who wrote the highly amusing Times Square column for this newspaper.
I am grateful to another academic, Prof Edward Walkiewicz, who kept a record of the occasion which took place on July 26th, 2007. It was he who made the arrangements for the group to attend the dinner. I was also in touch with Prof Doren Recker and he tells me the students had read The Dead in class the same day as the dinner. The menu was based on the fare described in Joyce’s story and the spiced beef was a fine example of how people would have managed without home refrigerators in the early years of the 20th century.
There was singing, of course, drawing on the story’s musical dimension and, as the only Irish members of the group, Brendan and I were asked to read some excerpts. Women members had their picture taken strikingthe pose adopted by Gretta Conroy and memorably portrayed on film by Anjelica Huston as she leaned wistfully on the banisters near the top of the first flight of stairs, listening to Bartell D’Arcy singing The Lass of Aughrim.
Watching her from below, Gabriel is inspired with passion for his wife, only to discover later at the Gresham that she was recalling her youth and a 17-year-old boyfriend, the late Michael Furey, who used to sing it. He was afflicted with a life-threatening disease but insisted on coming out in the snow to see her one last time before she left Galway for Dublin. “I think he died for me,” she sobs.
In a letter to this newspaper on January 3rd, Terence Killeen of the James Joyce Centre in Dublin noted that, “large weeds are growing on the steps leading up to the doorway” of 15 Usher’s Island. He expressed serious concern about the future of the building, but I have not seen any response.
When I walked past No 15 myself, a few days after Easter, weeds were still flourishing but I did not see inside. Conservation architect James Kelly points out that, quite apart from the Joyce connection, this 18th-century house is significant in its own right, with “a very nice neo-classical interior”. The website of QRE Real Estate Advisers reported on December 14th, 2017, that neither Dublin City Council nor the Office of Public Works made a bid for the property of 371 square metres (4,000 square feet) which has four storeys over basement and was sold for “more than €650,000” to a private investor.
In its own way and allowing for the obvious difference in scale, this building is our literary Notre Dame and there needs to be a greater level of public interest in its future. The world community of Joyce scholars and admirers must also get involved. Leopold and Molly Bloom’s place at 7 Eccles Street is gone.
The Dead House should be open to all the living.