Dublin was a new and complex sensation.
– James Joyce
Between settling into classes, working through my first round of papers, and visiting with my parents for two great weekends, I finally managed to carve out another weekend to explore Europe beyond Scotland. I had bought a plane ticket to the wonderfully literary city of Dublin weeks earlier, and after a 5 AM wake up, a Ryanair flight, and a year of dreaming about Dublin, I was actually, finally there. I had taken a bus to Edinburgh the night before and stayed with my UVa roommate, Maureen (whose blog can be found here), and we met up with three friends who are studying abroad in Lille, France, at the Dublin airport.
The night before, restlessly trying to sleep on the floor of Maureen’s dorm room, I had a particularly bizarre dream. Flying Ryanair is an essential part of any study abroad experience; tickets are cheap, but what you save monetarily is made up for in weirdness. In my dream, a flight attendant in a quasi-military uniform rigidly observed us, the passengers, as the plane lurched over white capped waves showered with snow. There were no seats in the dream-flight; only floor to ceiling poles, like the kind you find in busses. I woke up as the plane seemed to be tipping toward the dark water, just before vertigo set in…
In reality, the flight wasn’t nearly as strange, although Ryanair did offer us a selection of hot foods including chicken nuggets, hot dogs, pana chocolate, and meatballs, none of which were even remotely appealing at 8:00 AM. I also opted to pass on luggage, duty free perfume, and lottery tickets – so much retail packed into a 45 minute flight.
Per usual, I was glued to the window on our bus ride to the city center. Brick houses slid by as the bus rattled through the suburbs, and I glimpsed tree-lined streets that felt more spacious than St. Andrews’ compact layout. Backpacks in tow, we disembarked at the St. Stephen’s Green stop, cutting through the park as we worked out way toward our hostels, and my James Joyce geekery was off to a promising start. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I had mined my memory for details from Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, steadily building a list of Dublin sights included in the narratives. St. Stephen’s Green serves as Stephen Dedalus’ geographic double in Joyce’s work, cementing Stephan’s self-identification with the Irish nation and characterization as a flaneur haunting Dublin. I had always pictured the Green as a completely open space; in reality, its spiderweb of paths are mostly shadowed by foliage. It was the first of many adjustments to my reading of Joyce that I gathered through the course of the weekend.
From there, we dropped our backpacks off at our various hostels (I stayed at Avalon House, the others at the Times Hostel at Camden Place – both situated between St. Stephen’s and Temple Bar) and began a casual day one wander. We purposely decided to explore without a set plan, saving our packed itinerary for the days when we hadn’t gotten up before dawn to catch a flight. After pausing for mediocre Thai food, we headed toward Merrion Square, a block of Georgian houses surrounding a park and the site of Oscar Wilde’s childhood home. Although Wilde’s home wasn’t open for tours, we were able to visit the nearby Georgian House Museum. The rooms there were furnished as they would have been when the house was first built, and as we looked at antique silver and creepy mannequins set up to represent the family who lived there, I found myself going through the motions of a Delgado Family Vacation, which always features at least one or two historic homes. We also managed to browse the National Gallery before 5:00 PM, when most tourist attractions seemed to close.
The night ended fairly early at a pub near our hostels. I stayed in a 10 bed mixed dorm, thoughtfully arranged with three bunks tucked into alcoves and an additional four beds in a loft accessible via a spiral staircase in the middle of the room. One of my roommates was Jackson, an Australian man who was in Dublin visiting Laura, his Irish girlfriend, for three months, and they struck up a conversation with me. We talked mostly about stereotypes, like the idea that Australians generally take a few years to travel Europe, and I described a stereotypically American passenger on my flight who frantically corralled her children onto the plane while carrying a can of Pringles in the water bottle net on the side of her backpack. Laura then said something hilarious and surprising: “Yourself excluded, of course,” she began diplomatically, “We always joke that the Americans we see are ready for a spontaneous hike.” When I asked what she meant, she replied, “You know. . . big backpacks, boot cut jeans, and trainers. Just not very. . . ” “Fashionable,” I supplied, laughing. Fair enough.
The next day began with a free walking tour (the best way to get your bearings in a new city) through the southwest quadrant of the city, where most of the Viking and other historic areas are located. We saw Dublin Castle, the Central Bank, Parliament, Christ Church, City Hall (where part of the Bram Stoker festival was taking place), the statue of famous and fictional Molly Malone, Temple Bar, and more. Streets blended together in my mind, only to be sorted out later while I pored over a map and retraced our steps. We heard stories about Oisin and Jonathan Swift, and once the tour was through we doubled back to Dublin Castle and Christ Church before I split off to explore the Guinness Storehouse by myself.
I could continue listing sights, but I think the real story of my weekend was the way I chased Joyce’s stories through the city. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man recently for a class, and my general impression was that it was airless, full of dense blocks of text like the rector’s long speech on hell or Stephen’s pontification on aesthetics. At times, Stephen Dedalus is so wrapped up in his thoughts that it’s only when another character interjects dialogue that I realized he wasn’t alone.
Given Joyce’s tight, sometimes stifling focus on Dedalus, I was surprised to find that Dedalus’ alma mater, Trinity College, has a spacious campus. As soon as you pass through the huge wooden doors, the traffic and noise of College Street vanishes and the space opens into a central campus paved with hexagons of clean gray stone. To your left, you’ll see a building that students refer to as “Heaven” – a chapel that served only Protestants until Catholics were permitted to attend Trinity during the 1970s. To your left, there is an identical building that students refer to as “Hell” – the examination room where Dedalus once daydreamed about his aspirations of becoming a national poet. Directly ahead, the Campanile serves as a central focal point; superstition has it that any student walking beneath the Campanile as its bell rings will fail their exams, so undergraduates generally opt for other paths. Joyce projected Dedalus into this space; the text’s richness comes from Joyce’s immensely detailed knowledge of Dublin. Regardless of what details make it into the text itself, the cold spareness of Joyce’s prose signals a vast collection of knowledge pressing behind the literal text itself. Thirty minutes strolling through Trinity College wasn’t nearly enough, just as one reading of Portrait of the Artist didn’t even come close to offering up its full meaning.
On Sunday morning, I split off from my group of friends to chase Joyce to an even more obscure location: Sandymount Strand, the setting of (one of) the infamous scene(s) that led to Ulysses being banned in multiple countries, including the U.S. After researching the location online, I learned that the most direct way to get to Sandymount Strand is by taking the Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART) train from the Tara Street station. I rose early and walked past still-closed shops. Workers cleaned the streets as a cool breeze wafted from the Liffey.
But when I arrived at the Tara Street station, I found the gates closed and locked. A poster informed me that for two days only, the trains wouldn’t be running as engineers worked to restore parts of the tracks. As luck would have it, the two days in question were Sunday and Monday. Undeterred, I asked a bus driver if the distance to Sandymount Strand was walkable, and he directed me westward and told me to walk for twenty minutes. Along the way, I stopped to double check his directions with two men working to guide marathon runners.
“Sandymount?” the younger one asked incredulously, pulling Google maps up on his phone.
“Are you just looking for something to see?” the older one asked, squinting in the morning sun. I explained about Joyce, thankful that he didn’t laugh.
“This is saying it’s a fifty-two minute walk,” the younger man reported. They chatted with me, offering suggestion after suggestion until the first of the marathoners stampeded by, reclaiming their attention.
Waving goodbye, I crossed the river via the Samuel Beckett Bridge and worked my way back toward O’Connell Street, which links the northern and southern halves of the city, passing the Custom House on my way. With a few hours to spare before it was time to rejoin my friends at the Writers Museum, I wandered from monument to monument. The General Post Office (GPO), a site of major importance during the civil war, was closed because it was Sunday, but nonetheless I still managed to find bullet holes in the columns outside. Independent Ireland is a surprisingly young country, and the war still reverberates through the city. O’Connell Street itself is named for Daniel O’Connell, who worked toward Irish independence. Nearby, a relatively new monument called the Spire pierces the sky, and even better, a life-sized statue of Joyce tips its nose up at the city he eventually left for good, eying passers by.
I walked by Yeats’ Abbey Theatre, which is tucked away on a side street, and tried my best to find the James Joyce Center with no luck. I ended up in Croke Park, scribbling in my journal and watching parents push strollers around the park’s circular path. My Joyce tour ended later that day at Davy Byrne’s Pub. As you might remember, I had tried to replicate the sandwich Leopold Bloom eats for lunch at Davy Byrne’s back in June as part of my Bloomsday celebration feast. The sandwich our waiter delivered was subtly different than the one I constructed, though – the Gorgonzola was milder and the bread was dry and studded with seeds. Actually, calling it a sandwich was a bit of stretch in my opinion, as it was essentially a wonderful wedge of creamy cheese and two slices of bread, a do-it-yourself project best paired with Merlot. My love of food, literature, and Dublin in general intersected for an hour or so at Davy Byrne’s, and maybe the wine went straight to my head, but that was the happiest I’ve felt in a long time.
We left Dublin at 3:30 on Monday morning, and as the airport shuttle hurtled through the dark streets, I silently said goodbye to the city that had swallowed me for the past three days before spitting me back out in an airport terminal.
Even just scanning the pages of my old copy of A Portrait of the Artist now, names that I previously skimmed jump out at me. Grafton Street isn’t just local color; it’s shorthand for one of the biggest shopping streets in Dublin, and now when I read about Stephen Dedalus walking there, I’m able to sense the crowds of shoppers, the buzzing pubs, and the enticing window displays that lie latent and contextual in that casual mention of Grafton Street. Before I even left Dublin, I was already ecstatic at the thought of returning someday.
Note: I wrote most of this post immediately upon my return from Dublin, but it’s that time of the semester again when job applications, class decisions for next semester, final papers, and more are all attempting to monopolize my time. Fall semester at St. Andrews is eleven straight weeks of classes and assignments – no fall break and obviously no Thanksgiving – so the pressure continuously builds until Revision Week, a glorious week off before finals. Despite “real life” encroaching on my writing time, I have a few more adventures planned – the blog’s not dead!