Rising from The Dead? Frank McNally on the fate of No 15 Usher’s Island
If No 15 were to be preserved and extended it could be a win-win
When hosting re-enactments of the Christmas dinner described in Joyce’s most famous short story, the former owner liked to tell guests they were in “the most important dining room in world literature”. Above, Brendan Kilty, John Sheahan, John Gallagher, Mark Lawler and Oisin Quinn. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times
As someone who was a frequent visitor to No 15 Usher’s Island in the years when Brendan Kilty was heroically trying to keep it alive, I would love to see the “House of the Dead” preserved as a dedicated Joycean attraction.
But as Kilty knew, this is a lot easier said than done. The house had been in danger of falling down, largely unlamented, when he bought it. Subsequent refurbishment was only the beginning of what would have been needed to secure its viability as any sort of museum.
When hosting re-enactments of the Christmas dinner described in Joyce’s most famous short story, the former owner liked to tell guests they were in “the most important dining room in world literature”. This contrasted with the view expressed by the author’s grandnephew Bob Joyce – himself since dead – when the house was being sold in 2017 on the instruction of receivers. He suggested it had only a “small connection” with the writer and that, on the question of who might buy it, “if James Joyce was alive, I don’t think he’d care”.
I tend to lean towards Kilty’s assessment rather than that. But even so, I can’t quite agree with John McCourt (Opinion, October 31st) when he says that the proposal to turn it into a hostel is “cultural vandalism”.
I don’t know any of those involved and I’ll leave it to the planners to decide on their scheme’s merits. All I know is that both the house and the area around it are a grim spectacle these days, more devoid of life that even the author of The Dead could have imagined.
If No 15 were to be preserved while also being extended at the rear and filled with people, especially young people, it could be a win-win. You never know, a few of its future visitors might even be persuaded to put their smartphones down long enough to read Dubliners.
In a city where everywhere has cultural resonance, Joyce presents a challenge to heritage campaigners. He lived in about 20 different Dublin addresses, for one thing. And in Ulysses, he deliberately compiled an architectural inventory of the city as it was just before he left it.
He later joked it could be rebuilt from his pages, if necessary, a premise the city fathers seemed determined to test back in the 1960s and 1970s. But he would hardly have expected much of 1904 Dublin to be preserved on his account.
John McCourt laments, for example, the loss of Barney Kiernan’s pub, scene of the most entertaining chapter in Ulysses. It is indeed a pity we don’t still have it. It may be fortunate, however, that it lasted long enough even to hear itself mentioned by Joyce.
According to The Irish Times archive, it was the subject of an executor’s sale as early as 1907, three years after the fictional events there, which were not yet written.
Already a “famous” pub then, at least according to the advertisers, it survived a few decades more under new owners. But it didn’t live to see the first recorded Bloomsday: the jaunt by Patrick Kavanagh and others in 1954, and the moment of its passing does not appear to have merited mention in this newspaper.
Life moves on and even famous literary pubs have to watch the bottom line. A Joyce-loving friend of mine was in France recently and delighted to find a hotel there called the Anna Livia. That of course was the author’s poetic name for the River Liffey. So was the owner a Joycean? Not really, it turned out. The most important thing was that “Anna Livia” started with A and would be Google-friendly.
Even the name of Usher’s island, a vestige of times when the same Liffey was less confined than now, is a reminder that nothing stands still. The man who set his greatest story there appreciated this more than most.
Even if we don’t accept his descendant’s dismissal of No 15’s importance, he was probably right that Joyce wouldn’t have cared. Stoicism was a keynote in his writings, as evidenced by a recurring theme in Finnegans Wake: the “Quinet Sentence”, which talks of the rise and fall of civilisations while marvelling that, even among the ruins of the ancient world, wildflowers arise anew every year.
Finnegans Wake was partly inspired by the ballad of similar name, about a builder from Watling Street, who rises from the dead due to accidental administration of whiskey at his wake. Watling Street is around the corner from Usher’s Island. But despite his immortality in song and prose, no other trace of Tim Finnegan now remains there.