A literary pilgrimage through the streets of Dublin
Enright is a very modern Irish novelist. She once said that, unlike other cities where clever people make money: ‘In Dublin, clever people go home and write their books.’ Anne did both: her haunting novel The Gathering won the 2007 Man Booker prize and became a bestseller. Although set in the kind of genteel Dublin suburb in which I grew up, her novel reaches beyond Ireland towards a universal terrain of loss:
“We each love someone, even though they will die./ And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love any more./ And there is no logic or use to any of this, that I can see.”
In her previous, debut novel, The Wig My Father Wore, the narrator Grace uses the wig as a symbol of what is false in her own life and the Ireland which has shaped and distorted her: “For years my father’s wig felt like an answer. I could say ‘I am the way I am because my father wears a wig.’” To sample something of the intellectual world that shaped Anne Enright, I step into the calm, cobblestoned quad of Trinity College, where she was a student in the Seventies.
Founded in 1592, Trinity was for centuries a bastion of Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. The first Catholics were not admitted until the late 18th century. The Catholic Church viewed the institution with grave suspicion: until 1970, Catholics needed permission from their bishop to attend Trinity. The college is home to the Book of Kells, an eighth century set of gospels created by the monks of the Abbey of Kells in County Meath. A work of incredible beauty, the book helps to attract close to half a million visitors to Trinity College each year. Other bibliophiles come to spend a contemplative hour or two in the Long Room of the old Library Building – lined with thousands of volumes, and where the atmosphere is heavy with the grace of knowledge.
Walking past the busts of notable scholars, each with solemn visage gazing out from the distant past, I pass shelf after shelf crammed with learning. Yet the books on display are but a fragment of the Trinity collection. There are more than three million books in the repository, with extensive collections in the Irish language and a world-renowned children’s literature catalogue. Also here are the depositions taken following the Irish Rebellion of 1641. These feature interviews with Protestant survivors of the Catholic massacres and were used as justification by Cromwell for his notorious campaign later in that decade. The depositions were circulated in England to create public support for a punitive campaign against the Irish.
Emerging from the hush of the library and finding myself suddenly hungry, I make a beeline for Leo Burdock’s chipper. For nearly a century, Burdock and his descendants have served what Molly Bloom in Ulysses called ‘a nice piece of cod’ in crisp batter, with equally tasty chips. My favourite is the smoked cod, a Dublin staple, to be eaten across the road at the site of the old fish market on Fishamble Street, which entered musical history as the place where Handel’s Messiah was first performed at Neal’s Music Hall on 13 April 1742. Sat here in the open, I catch the scent of roasting barley blown downriver from the Guinness brewery at St James’s Gate. That is the smell of Dublin.
Walking east along the banks of the River Liffey and then turning north takes me to the greatest of Dublin’s five Georgian squares. Mountjoy Square was named after an Anglo-Irish peer who promoted the development of Georgian Dublin but died fighting against Irish rebels in 1798.