“Special Offer Today! Free Ride In A Police Car!" screams the hand-scrawled notice in the newsagent's window. In smaller print comes the punch line: "Shoplifters Only". In Ireland's capital city of Dublin, the streets are alive with the sound of scribbling, and the little note in the window offers a favourable omen as I begin my jaunt through Dublin’s literary landmarks.
Ploughing my way through legions of shoppers and tourists, I reach the top of O'Connell Street, the sweeping boulevard often described as Dublin's Champs Elysees. At its head I find not the Arc O'Triomphe, but a monument to the written word.
The Dublin Writers' Museum is one of the legacies from the Irish capital's year as European City of Culture in 1991. Inside the splendidly restored Georgian townhouse are books, letters, photographs, and memorabilia that bring Dublin's literary heroes to life. At times, it's a bit like exploring the Irish national attic.
There's James Joyce's piano and here's Patrick Kavanagh's typewriter. With enough first editions to make a bibliophile's heart sing, this is surely the only museum in the world where you'll find Dracula rubbing shoulders with Ulysses. I'm almost tempted into the museum's bright and airy café, but with no time to tarry, I must press on to my next literary attraction.
Ireland is known as the land of saints and scholars. At Trinity College both are in evidence. Leaving behind the din of traffic on College Green, I find myself in an oasis of academic tranquility. The College's main courtyard, with its handsome bell-tower, is largely unchanged since Oscar Wilde swept across these cobblestones. My quest will take me much further back in time than that.
Photographs can't do justice to the jaw-dropping beauty of the illuminated manuscripts displayed in the College library. The glorious gold leaf, elegant lettering, and quirky illustrations bear witness to the skill, ingenuity, faith, and humour of monks who devoted their lives to these magnificent masterpieces. The famous Book of Kells seems as resplendent now as on the day it was completed eight centuries ago.
Later that evening, I'm confronted with another slice of literary life. Dermot slumps against me and slurs, "I'm a drinker with a writing problem." A visit to the local branch of Writers' Anonymous seems in order, but within seconds he's sobered up. Dermot is one of the two guides on Dublin's Literary Pub Crawl.
He's quoting Brendan Behan, the great Irish playwright for whom the phrase "tired and emotional" wasn't so much a euphemism as a way of life. Behan would certainly have approved of a tourist trail bringing together books and booze. In the space of almost three hours, with a dozen others I am led through the streets broad and narrow to hear in poetry, drama, and music the story of Dublin's wordy-wise celebrities. The street theatre is punctuated by 20-minute stopovers in some of the bars well-known to writers from a city that's produced a preposterous number of literary Nobel laureates.
I'm afraid the rest of the evening is lost in a boozy blur, testimony to the power of Irish stout to drown out even the finest of Irish literature. All I can remember about our final pub — Davy Byrne's in Duke Street — is that it had something to do with James Joyce and Gorgonzola.
The next morning, swearing never to touch another drop, I make my unsteady way up the treacherously named Winetavern Street to St.Patrick's Cathedral. It's believed that converts were baptised on this site by Patrick himself, but my sights are set on another man with cathedral connections.
In his time as Dean of St Patrick's, Jonathan Swift was a priest and preacher, but it was his writing that carried Swift's words from 18th century Dublin to a global congregation. Today we think of Gulliver's Travels as a children's classic, but Swift wrote it as a savage satire against mankind. Not content with raging against humanity, he also established Ireland's first lunatic asylum. Here, in the cathedral where he was laid to rest, Swift has left us an explanation:
He gave what little wealth he had
To build a house for fools and mad
And showed by one satiric touch
No nation wanted it so much.
Around the corner from St Patrick's, behind a mysterious black door, lies a literary treasure house. In 1701 Archbishop of Dublin, Narcissus Marsh, opened the first public library in Ireland. Over 300 years on, it's exactly as Marsh would remember it. The sturdy oak bookcases with their carved gables appear good as new. The cages inside, which readers were locked out of to ensure rare books didn't go on a walkabout, are also intact. Among the 25,000 volumes are 16th and 17th century books on medicine, law, travel, and Irish history. Jonathan Swift is here again, eerily present in the form of his death mask.
There's just time to browse among the shelves at Greene's in Clare Street, one of the few remaining independent booksellers in Dublin. With its creaky wooden stairs and rickety bookcases, it has a mildly knackered feel that the squeaky-clean book emporia of today just can't match. There's not a whiff of cafe latte, but the essence of greatness is unmistakable. From Shaw to Beckett, Roddy Doyle to Joseph O'Connor, all of Dublin's literary giants are here. The trouble is: whom do I take home?
I settle on a battered copy of Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest and make my way around the corner to pay homage to the man himself. Perched on a rock in Merrion Square and overlooking the house where he was born is Wilde's grinning likeness daring me not to be impressed by his genius.
I'm at journey's end, but the story that is Dublin's love affair with the written word has many miles to go before reaching its final chapter.