Turning Joyce’s house of ‘The Dead’ into a tourist hostel beggars belief

Great writers such as Joyce are the Irish equivalent of the pyramids in Egypt, the Colosseum in Rome

Could Irish Book Week have got off to a worse start? On Friday we read the disheartening news that planning permission has been granted to turn Joyce’s house of ‘The Dead’ into a 56-bed hostel despite objections from leading cultural figures at home and abroad, from the Department of Culture and Heritage, An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland, the Irish Georgian Society, the Heritage Council, and from city councillor, Fianna Fail’s Deirdre Conroy, who is also an architectural historian. In granting permission for the hostel conversion and the installation of ‘a platform lift on front elevation’ as well as other substantial changes that will irreparably alter the building’s interior (which remains today exactly as Joyce described it in “The Dead”), Dublin City Council ignores all objections and does not deign to acknowledge the house’s Joyce connection.

If this redevelopment is allowed to go ahead, it will disfigure one of the most famous settings in modern literature. Back in the autumn of 2019, many of the world’s leading writers and literary academics, from Salman Rushdie to Edna O’Brien to Ian McEwan, signed a petition, drafted by Colm Toibin and myself, calling for the preservation of the house. These writers will again be backing a formal appeal against this planning decision and calling for the safe conservation of 15 Usher’s island as a vital national heritage site located not in Dublin’s periphery but, if one’s vision is not myopic, at its centre.

Altering this building to the extent that it loses its character as an emblematic part our literary heritage so as to build yet another hostel beggars belief at any time but now, during this pandemic, with hostels and hotels sadly closed or idle, more than ever.

Back in 1950, in a Senate debate, W.B. Stanford, Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College Dublin and noted early Irish Joycean, spoke as follows:


“The resources of modern Ireland are far better known in Egypt or Peru for the writings of W.B. Yeats and James Joyce than for our stock exchange or our turf development schemes. Take the Shannon scheme of which we all think so highly ... To us that scheme is a great thing. It is a pigmy scheme amongst the hydro-electrical schemes of Europe. But Jonathan Swift is no pigmy in any literature. James Joyce and W.B. Yeats are giants in the literature of the world. There is a difference. Canada will always produce better wheat than we can produce. Denmark will always produce as good butter and eggs. But what Canadian or Danish name, with the possible exception of Hans Andersen, can compare with the great literary and artistic names we can mention. There is none.”

Without wishing to offend our friends in Denmark or Canada or indeed dairy or poultry farmers, we can legitimately claim that our great writers are the Irish equivalent of the pyramids in Egypt, the Colosseum in Rome. They are our signature calling cards around the world and have been gratefully used to the full in this sense by successive governments in their promotion of the country.

Perhaps, with the mayor (Hazel Chu) and a minister for Culture and Heritage (Catherine Martin), both coming from the Green Party, we can be hopeful that there will be fresh and innovative thinking and action on this question. Perhaps.

It is time for the government to intervene along with Dublin City Council to block this short-sighted hostel project and to explore ways of acquiring the Joyce house on Usher’s island as a crucial landmark which could, with relative ease, be turned into a museum celebrating Joyce and ‘The Dead’, celebrating Joyce’s Dubliners, a museum interconnected with the National Library, Moli, the Joyce Centre on North Great George’s Street, and Sweny’s pharmacy. The house has major tourist potential in an area of town that badly needs a lift. Joined up thinking is needed now more than ever to take us beyond the haphazard randomness than currently passes as ‘planning’ in Dublin, a city which enjoys the status of being a UNESCO city of literature.

In the decades since Joyce’s death in 1941, too many of the signature sites in Joyce’s writing (and not only) have been lost to the city. First and foremost, 7 Eccles street, home to the immortal couple, Leopold and Molly Bloom. If there were any solace to be found in its being demolished in the sixties, it lay in the fact that it made way not for another hostel but for an important extension to the Mater hospital.

Too much of our literary heritage has only survived thanks to the voluntary efforts of hardworking enthusiasts and through generous private sponsorship. Much goodwill remains but it needs to be matched by adequate action from the government and the City Council which demonstrates a true public understanding of the importance of our literary heritage to who we are as a people. We are all tired of the tardy handwringing that inevitably follows destruction (the recent demolition of the O’Rahilly house is but the most recent example).

Back in 1985, leading American Joycean, Morris Beja remembered a trip to Dublin for the first international Joyce symposium in 1967. ‘To be in Dublin on Bloomsday’, he wrote, ‘is always, for a lover of Ulysses, like being in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday. But in 1967 it was a Jerusalem in which relatively few people aside from the pilgrims from afar seemed to care very much about its Messiah’.

Today, far more locals do care about Joyce and warmly celebrate his legacy. It is time for those who govern the city and the country to catch on and catch up.

Realistically, 2022 will see the start of the much-desired post Covid-19 recovery of our pulverized economy. The world will be watching as we approach that year which is also the centenary of the publication of Ulysses, an event that will offer a huge opportunity for Dublin to be centre of the world’s literary stage over the summer months. The authorities need to intervene now so that we can approach that date with our cultural dignity - and 15 Usher’s island - intact.

John McCourt is Professor of English Literature at the Università di Macerata, Italy