The Dubliners

Yesterday, I had an amazing experience. You may remember that when I first arrived in Dublin last year, I didn’t like the place. It was always raining, it was cold, not much was happening and the things that were happening were so mind-numbingly tourist-y that I didn’t hold out much hope for the rest of the country. I knew that Ireland and Dublin were ancient places, places with many different faces, but the only face I could see when I arrived last year was the drunken leer of British stag nights and Aussie backpackers.
But, yesterday, yesterday, I got up close and personal with the Dublin of James Joyce, and I fell in love.
Every April, at least, every April for the past few years, Dublin has run a program called ‘One City, One Book’. They chose one book and everyone in Dublin is encouraged to read the same book. They run programs, events and performances surrounding the book and its author throughout April, hoping to encourage discussion amongst strangers and friends – its as if the whole city is one great big book club.
This year’s book is, rather appropriately, ‘The Dubliners’ by James Joyce, a series of short stories set amongst the streets of Dublin. When Dad visited Ireland last year, he read ‘The Dubliners’ as a kind of alternate tourist guide and he raved about the stories as well as the insights into the city they afforded. So, when I saw that one of the programs included in the ‘One City, One Book’ program was a ‘Dubliners’ audio walking tour, I got very excited. There were two options: a half-day tour (5 – 6 hours) or a full day ‘epic’ (9 – 10 hours). Of course, being the enthusiast/self-punisher that I am, I chose the 9 – 10 hour tour.
I managed to do the tour in 8 hours and by the end of it all, I was so tired and hungry that I could barely think straight. Despite this, yesterday was one of the most charming, educational and magical things I have ever done in any city anywhere in the world. The stories were read by a large cast of actors and chopped up so that you could listen to them in the exact places that they were set in. I walked many kilometres, all the way out to the mouth of the Liffey and back to the village of Chapelizod (pronunciation: Chap-uh-lizad, meaning: Isolde’s Chapel) near Phoenix Park. I saw new places and I saw old places anew. At the prompting of the earphones, I went into backstreets I would never dared to have gone down on my own (I’m still not sure if it was wise), peeked into people’s back gardens and saw gorgeous Georgian houses run down by years of neglect. I stood in front of shiny department stores and looked above them to see the still-beautiful Victorian facades that Joyce would have walked past in his time. I stood in the last patches of empty parkland that were once great fields and listened to the characters describe the sun hiding behind the clouds and then watching my contemporary clouds covering the contemporary sun in a similar way. I laughed and gasped in the streets listening to the stories of these Dubliners, all of whom are trapped (and many of whom agreed passionately that you cannot get anything done in Dublin – to grow you have to get away, to go abroad).
Highlights were the beautifully sad story of a middle-aged couple engaging in an affair in the village of Chapelizod and the paths of Phoenix Park (‘A Painful Case’). The music and the sound on the headphones changed the atmosphere of the park grounds so effectively that even though it was a beautiful, sunny day, I felt as if I was wandering the lanes in darkness, listening to the voice of the dead woman, feeling her hand on mine, her breath on the back of my neck. I sat in the same pub as the male character and watched the Liffey go by, the drinkers in Joyce’s story (‘five or six working-men in the shop… drank at intervals from their huge pint tumblers’), seemed almost to still be there. They stared at me – what was a woman doing in this pub?
Another highlight was the setting of the famous story, ‘The Dead’. The story starts in a Georgian townhouse near my neighbourhood of the Liberties. The director of the tour had set up the second floor of the ‘James Joyce House’ (where Joyce’s aunts lived) for an early 20th century evening meal. You sat at the table with candles, cutlery, and on your headphones heard the conversation of the evening meal of the story. It suddenly felt as if this other Dublin, this other era, was alive in the room with you. For a history nut like myself, this was such a thrilling experience. To pretend that you were part of this fictional, and yet deeply historical story, was a step above the usual theatre show that I go to see with its fourth wall concretely in place, and was genuinely moving.
But, in the end it was the story of Eveline that touched me the most. The sad girl who fell in love with an Irish sailor and was to run away with him to Argentina but got cold feet at the very end had me confusedly crying in the street. It wasn’t just the physical exertion that exhausted me at the end of the day, it was the emotional gymnastics, the concentration required and the education that was involved.
I wish that I could make a recommendation for this tour to continue indefinitely. It seemed like such a wonderful thing, not only for tourists, but for those people who lived in the city. I also think that its something that could work well in many other cities, the only thing that would need to be figured out would be the chosen stories that were used. Its only a small slice of Dublin’s long and varied history that I heard/saw yesterday, but the place already feels so much richer and I feel so much more apart of it because of what I’ve done.

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I love the city, I love Joyce, I love The Dubliners.


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