The River Liffey cuts through Dublin on its way to the Irish Sea, dividing the town into two distinct halves. “South of the Liffey,” reported our Fodor’s guide, “are graceful squares and fashionable terraces from Dublin’s elegant Georgian heyday.” Trinity College, Temple Bar, Grafton Street—all of the city’s most heralded sights are here.
Mother and I chose to stay on the Northside, in Phibsborough, a neighborhood whose main attraction is a filled-in spur of the Royal Canal. We took up residence on the North Circular Road, at Charleville Lodge in Rathdowne Terrace, originally a row of luxurious Victorian townhouses. Like many places in Dublin, it later developed a literary history. The Southside might have the Book of Kells and Oscar Wilde’s house, but we were sleeping in the former offices of Ireland’s first and only girls’ paper, Maeve’s Own. It was here that Dublin literati had penned such classics as “When will the Corset Come Back?”
The Northside is also the birthplace of Brendan Behan, a mid-century celebrity and self-described “drinker with a writing problem.” Behan joined the Irish Republican Army when he was sixteen and spent the next decade trying, unsuccessfully, to blow things up. After a couple stretches in prison, he wrote an excellent play (The Quare Fellow) and an even better novel (Borstal Boy) before drinking himself to death at the age of forty-one.
On entering our local pub—the Bohemian—for the first time, Mother and I found its clientele living up to the legendary Northsider’s example. Before the foam in my Guinness could settle, a foursome of curious neighborhood tipplers had joined us in our booth. They seldom encountered Americans this far north, and were concerned that we’d been the butt of a cab driver’s cruel joke. After we assured them that we were in fact temporary Phibsboreans, one of the older men put his arm around Mother and began to sing.
What arose was not some old pennywhistle folk ballad, but Gene Pitney’s ‘60s hit “Town Without Pity.” When he’d finished, one of the gang issued a complaint. “Fug,” he said. “What we really need is a pub without Pitney.”
We were having fun, but Mother’s beau quickly deteriorated. When he fell out of his chair and began to serenade a table leg, I knew it was time to call it a night.
In the morning, we emerged from the comforts of the Charleville for a brisk walk up the North Circular Road. Mother seldom takes the initiative when it comes to planning sightseeing itineraries, so it fell to me to map out our route and formulate an edifying theme. Today’s tour would be “Literary Dublin.”
We passed rows of townhouses with brightly painted doors, then plunged into Phoenix Park, a realm of pastoral ponds and greenery.
“It’s gorgeous,” said Mother, as we entered a stand of sycamores. “But I don’t see why it’s on the literary tour.”
“It was here, in Phoenix Park, that HCE, hero of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, committed a sexual indiscretion with two young girls. This was the trespass that precipitated his fall from Dublin society,” I said.
“It’s short for Here Comes Everybody.”
Mother gave me a skeptical look. “The character’s name is Here Comes Everybody?”
“Well, he starts out as Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Here Comes Everybody is a sort of alias.”
“Do me a favor,” said Mother.
“Never mention that book again.”
We enjoyed a relaxing hour in the teahouse near the zoological gardens, but found the most scenic spot in Phoenix Park to be an area known as Furry Glen. Furry Glen has a lovely lake and is full of flowering furze-bush, but you should exercise caution when asking directions there. Do not, for example, approach any of the Russian-accented girls who loiter around Fitzwilliam Square with the following inquiry:
“Excuse me, miss, do you know where I can find the Furry Glen?”
She will show you the way, but it will be very expensive.
After tea, we set out under the spitting clouds for the Northside’s other great literary attraction—the Dublin Writer’s Museum on Parnell Square. It’s located inside the Georgian townhouse of the late distilling magnate John Jameson, and is full of rare manuscripts and first editions, as well as a large collection of uninteresting objects that are supposed to become interesting once you find out who owned them—things like Samuel Beckett’s telephone, Lady Gregory’s lorgnette and Mary Lavin’s teddy bear.
Most fascinating is a battered typewriter that Brenden Behan hurled through a pub window during an alcoholic tantrum. The name of the pub has been lost, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out it was the Bohemian, or that his outburst was brought on by someone asking him to sing a Gene Pitney song.
The next leg of our scholarly trek took us south on Dublin’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, past the spire and over the bridge to the cobblestone courtyard of Trinity College, whose literary alumni include Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. The main draw at Trinity is the Book of Kells, in the Old Library, which was, of course, closing when we arrived. I told Mother to assume her abused street urchin face, and took her over to the guard. He was an older gentleman with an air of kindliness about him.
“Can we get in the library?” I said.
“We’re not to let anyone in past quarter-to. Why don’t you come back Monday?”
Mother, a slight woman of barely a hundred pounds, is very good at looking pathetic. She’s seen every Dickens adaptation on PBS and can slip instantly into Oliver Twist mode. Her frown was so pitiful I thought I’d better proceed before she asked the guard for a second helping of porridge.
“We’re leaving on Monday,” I lied. “And Mother has always dreamed of seeing the Book of Kells. I’m sure at her age she’ll never have the opportunity again. Isn’t there anything you could do?”
The guard looked at her and beamed. “Why didn’t you say so? There’re always exceptions for mothers in Ireland.”
Walking into the 200-foot barrel-vaulted Long Room was more like entering a cathedral than a library, except for the smell. Instead of the pungent reek of incense and candles, we were met with a whiff of aged leather and dusty paper. After our eyes adjusted to the dim light, we saw that we were surrounded by two stories of brittle books, some held together by little more than string and ribbon. The shelves were dark oak, and the marble busts that lined the central hall glowed an otherworldly white.
In every shadowed corner of the Old Library, some treasure of ancient Ireland lurks—the Book of Durrow, the Book of Howth, and the famed Brian Boru, one of the last medieval Gaelic harps in existence. The Book of Kells, displayed under glass, is an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels. Its vivid colors and intricate Celtic designs are amazingly well preserved, especially considering it was once stolen by Vikings, relieved of its golden cover, and chucked into a bog.
From this bookworm’s paradise we went south for a bit of fresh air in St. Stephen’s Green.
“Okay,” said Mother. “What’s literary about this place?”
“I’m glad you asked,” I said. “St. Stephen’s Green features prominently in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I have an excellent quotation—”
“I said no more Joyce!”
“You said no more Finnegans Wake. This is Portrait of the Artist.”
“Oh, go ahead.”
“Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ego, is walking through the green on his way to class. ‘But the trees in Stephen’s Green were fragrant of rain and the rainsodden earth gave forth its mortal odor, a faint incense rising upward through the mold from many hearts.’”
Mother sniffed the air. “Ah, yes,” she said. “The mold from many hearts.”
“I’m beginning to think my literary tour is boring you.”
“Oh, no. Tell me more about the mortal odor.”
“Look! There’s Joyce now!”
I ran across the path to a craggy bronze bust of the author. Mother came over and sized him up.
“So this is the drunkard who’s been torturing me all day,” she said. “Looks pretty sickly.”
“He was legally blind.”
“Serves him right.”
St. Stephen’s is a fine sward with a pretty pond, but after the expanse of Phoenix Park it seemed inexcusably diminutive. We strolled the Beaux Walk, admired the Fusilier’s Arch, and then went back to the Bohemian for a pint.