In the footsteps of literary greatness in Ireland
It’s just a little sign posted above a shop at Dublin’s Lincoln Place that reads “Sweny’s”, and if you didn’t know any better, you might walk on by.
That would be a real shame, for there are no more passionate fans of James Joyce than the 15 or so volunteers who at various times man this former chemist’s, which was immortalised when the famous Irish author included it in his vast 1922 novel Ulysses.
The Lotus Eaters, the first of 18 chapters in a book that draws parallels to Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, describes Sweny’s in detail.
Joyce has his character Leopold Bloom stop by, picking up a bar of its waxy, lemony soap before heading to a bathhouse, and then a funeral.
The soap is still on sale in the shop for a pretty steep €5 (Dh20). Various Ulysses translations, as well as other works, line the walls – the most recent in Bulgarian, brought here proudly by the translator herself, with an inscription. There are weekly readings, one of them in French. And behind the counter, a young bearded Irishman tells his story of a midnight party in a park devoted to the final chapter, Penelope, before a much older gentleman, his neck wrapped in a warm scarf, describes the exact passage involving Sweny’s.
It’s just one stop in a literary city brimming with delicious opportunities for book-lovers. So much so that in 2010 it was dubbed the fourth Unesco World City of Literature. For people who love writing, Dublin truly is a slice of heaven. Anyone’s first stop could be the Dublin Writer’s Museum at 18 Parnell Square (www.writersmuseum.com), dedicated to Ireland’s four Nobel Prize in literature winners W B Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney, as well as lesser-known figures.
Over at the National Library of Ireland on Kildare Street, near St Stephen’s Green, The Yeats Exhibit: The Life and Words of William Butler Yeats features the largest collection of the bespectacled poet’s papers in the world, including 2,000 poems, plays, essays, cards, letters, clippings and scribbles.
Plaques on buildings indicating the great minds who lived inside dot the city, as do literary statues. Among the most famous is a smirking, reclining Oscar Wilde, wearing a tie and green-and-red dinner jacket, in Merrion Park. (Wilde actually lived in the square – next door to Yeats). There are various bridges named after writers, including the modernist, cable-stayed Samuel Beckett Bridge over the south side of the River Liffey.
A major draw, not to mention source of awe and tourist crowds, is the Book of Kells, a ninth-century gospel manuscript housed in Dublin’s Trinity College Library. Upstairs, the musty smell of centuries-old books permeates the air in the stunning Long Room. The space, which is two storeys high and extends 65 metres, houses more than 200,000 books on oak shelves, with access provided by a series of ladders and winding staircases. The room is so grand, it may have inspired George Lucas in designing the Jedi Council seen in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones; they appear so similar Trinity College threatened to sue LucasFilms back in 2002.
An American mining engineer-turned-millionaire might seem a strange source for more than 6,000 pieces, including books, calligraphy tools, letters and encyclopedias. But collect Alfred Chester Beatty did, items ranging from 2700BC to present day. After moving to Ireland he built a space for them; the Chester Beatty Library is now located at Dublin Castle.
Among the items collected during extensive travel are 260 Qurans in complete and fragmented form, some dating back to the eighth century, several no bigger than the palm of the hand. One dated 1850, from Turkey, has pages foiled in gold, each pricked three times to allow sunlight to shine through on each turn.
For more on visiting Dublin, go to www.tourismireland.com