The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once and say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud reads the novel The Commitments (1987) by Roddy Doyle, the acclaimed Irish writer, which in 1991 became a successful movie directed by Alan Parker.
The story tells the adventures of a group of unemployed tousled youngsters who decide to put on a band of soul music in Dublin in the early nineties.
Back then the Irish capital was the Dirty Old Town of the eponymous song by The Pogues, the Anglo-Irish folk punk band, far from today’s modern European Silicon Valley. I know it well because I was there!
As a matter of fact, I landed, as an unbridled barely legal girl, in the magical island to live a few months in a kind of commune. I ended up falling in so much in love with this enchanted land to keep coming back for over a decade. Those were years of discovery marked by absolute and dissolute freedom.
It was my Just Kids time à la Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe. I seduced penniless but enticing musicians and barmen. I traveled far and wide, from rural Donegal to musical Dingle peninsula, arriving in the wild Aran Islands to listen to old countrymen singing songs in Gaelic.
All this, of course, seasoned with generous doses of Guinness. I went to Belfast to visit Falls Road, enclaves of hard-core Catholics, I met militants of Sinn Fein, IRA’s political wing in Northern Ireland and years later I chose to devote my thesis on The Troubles.
Ireland is a land of unruly rebels, poets, writers, inspired musicians, passionate fighters and Dublin a true heaven for booklovers to which I dedicate this literary guide.
A must-see visit is walking in the magnificent library of Trinity College and literally sniff the smell of old books. Every time I do it, the guards observe me in a daze to which I jolly reply: “Howdy, I am a bookaholic!”
The Long Room, as the great hall is called, is home to more than 250,000 ancient books including The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript created by Irish monks in the Ninth century. In terms of literary museums, you’ll be spoiled for choice: The James Joyce Center, Yeats: The Life and Work of WB Yeats at the National Library and the Dublin Writers Museum on Parnell Square.
Newly opened last September is The Museum of Literature in front of beautiful St. Stephen’s Green Park, where there is a statue dedicated to James Joyce with his quote Crossing Stephen’s, That Is My green. Being a passionate lover of literature, I would have never left in the grip of awe and wonder. The museum develops on three floors, with rooms immersed in written and spoken words, lined with books, quotes, inspirations, photographs.
When I saw the first original copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, dating back to 1922, I almost felt tears watering my eyes. Oh yes, we sapio(sexual) are very emotional and “emotioning”! The museum also offers an immersive feature film dedicated to Ulysses 18 chapters. Last but not least, in the basement, there’s The Commons Café, a lovely bistro where you can sip a cup of tea inspired by great Irish literature and enjoy a delicious meal.
Dublin still boasts a good number of independent bookstores: in one of my favorite – The Winding Stair which also has an excellent restaurant on the top floor overlooking the River Liffey – not only I came across the book The I.R.A. by Tim Pat Coogan, fulcrum of my first thesis in translation, but I also discovered an interesting Irish author of the Twentieth-century: Maeve Brennan.
The cover of The Visitor, her short novel published posthumously in 1997, caught my sensitive soul. In its pages, soon devoured sipping Irish coffee and a tasty hot soup in another literary mecca – Bewley’s Café a most iconic landmark dating back to 1927, decorated with beautiful Art Deco statues and original elements among with the Harry Clarke windows, the historic front façade and the open fireplaces and lovingly managed by the Campbell family – the word “lonely” tolls like a solitary bell throughout the pages of the novel. Brennan doesn’t just writes of solitude. She inhabits it. She exhibits it. She elevates it to an art form.
Maeve Brennan, born in 1917 – epochal date because in 1916 there was the Easter Rising that led to the Irish War of Independence – was both an important literary figure and a woman of great beauty. Petite, with impeccable manners, and extremely witty, Brennan began her career in New York working on the pages of Harper’s Bazaar until 1949 and then became in the 50’s and 60’s a diarist on The New Yorker, the legendary literary magazine back then at its influential zeitgeist, with the notorious Talk of the Town column where she was a savage satirist writing of style, culture and society.
An Irish woman in New York who after an unhappy marriage chose to live alone in the city of bright lights and in which she flourished as an intellectual until the Seventies when after a nervous breakdown, she stopped writing and became an eccentric squatter living in a tiny box room in the offices of The New Yorker magazine. She emerged only to abuse the staff and eventually ended up in a series of mental hospitals before her death at the age of seventy-six.
Her style and her persona reminded me of another of my journalistic icons: Irene Brin, the 50’s Italian journalist and writer, traveler, a woman of great culture, intelligence and wit.
Another Dublin literary gem is Sweny, antique apothecary dating back to 1847, located 100 meters from Oscar Wilde’s birthplace, that I discovered by chance while walking – I am indeed a serial walker – the narrow streets of the city. Enthralled by its windows, which display books and potions – both magical – my curiosity pushed me in where I was greeted by a smiling and quaint character: Mr. PJ O’Brien with tousled white hair dressed in a pharmacist’s coat. A native Dubliner, the jolly “pharmacist”, who is a polyglot (he speaks 10 languages and has read Ulysses 56 times) told me the story of the bookstore/pharmacy, sang me a song in Gaelic with a guitar and invited me to a reading in Italian of Joyce’s masterpiece. Then we all ended up at the historic Kennedy’s pub just in front of Sweny.
Sweny’s – which was “preserved through neglect” – boasts the honor of being described in sumptuous detail in James Joyce’s novel, who was once a customer of the old pharmacy, as the likes of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. Leopold Bloom, the hero of the book, comes into the shop, admires its bottles of potions and compounds and ponders the alchemy that the place possesses.
While waiting for the pharmacist, Bloom smells the lemon soap on the counter and buys a bar. The soap becomes the talisman for his journey that is recreated in Dublin every year on June 16 – the day in which takes place the entire plot of Ulysses – during Bloomsday when the whole town dresses up like the characters in the book and where there are readings, performances, literary quotes and drinking all over the dirty old town.
After all, as the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett once said: We are all born mad. Some remain so.
I remain so. So very much!