In Ulysses, James Joyce’s most famous novel, a character wonders if it would be possible to walk across Dublin without passing a pub. When I lived in Dublin I used to wonder if it would be possible to go into a pub in Dublin that didn’t claim to have some kind of connection with a famous Irish writer! Like no other city in the world, Dublin is self-consciously ‘literary’- it has a reputation and it is intent on maintaining it, with pictures of Beckett and Joyce in every other pub and hotel, and plaques everywhere pointing out where famous writers were born, died, or at least sat down for a while. Like leprechauns and traditional music, literature helps create Ireland as a global tourist brand. The benefits for tourism have been impressive in the last few decades, but it can seem a little trite, and a little silly.
Joyce, Samuel Beckett and the poet William Butler Yeats are the most commodified and publicized writers on the tourist trail, which is interesting given that Yeats had a difficult, often unhappy relationship with Irish life, and that Joyce and Beckett left as soon as they could. Joyce in Zurich and Beckett in Paris both wrote about Ireland throughout their careers, but with anger and scorn as well as affection. Joyce sneered at it as ‘that priest-ridden nation’. So with this in mind, I thought I’d try and write a kind of alternative tourist guide to ‘literary Ireland’, and discuss some writers who haven’t been as exhaustively celebrated in the capital.
Joyce’s Ulysses is rightly praised for its descriptions of Dublin. However, the city has been beautifully depicted elsewhere. J.P. Donleavy, an American serviceman who took the opportunity to study in Dublin after the war, supplied one of the most memorable descriptions in his novel The Gingerman (after which, of course, a pub has now been named). The roguish protagonist, Sebastian Dangerfield, drinks and romances his way through various parts of town, and Donleavy recreates the beauty of the city whilst poking fun at the conservative, Catholic middle classes who make up a large chunk of the population. The book was banned after its publication, mainly because of a scene where Sebastian inadvertently exposes himself on the tram. Another controversial portrayal of Dublin is contained in James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, a fictionalized description of the industrial riots of the 1920s. Plunkett creates a colourful, Dickensian cast of characters from the inhabitants of one of the city’s slums, and describes the poverty and degradation of their lives unsparingly.
His ear for the evocative language of inner-city Dublin is reminiscent of a more recent novelist, Roddy Doyle. Doyle, who was a school-teacher before writing his first book, used his experience of the way schoolchildren talked to create some memorably funny dialogue. The Commitments, about a group of Dublin teenagers who form a soul band, is a great example of this style. It has since been made into a successful film. Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy was also adapted for the cinema, but the two novelists couldn’t be more different. McCabe’s characters speak in the crudely colourful language of small-town Ireland, reflected through a gothic, violent style. The New York Times sees him as “uncovering a hidden English-Irish lyricism that has not previously found its way into literature”. Lyricism is also a key element in the work of another novelist, John Banville, whose evocatively written books often describe a nostalgia for childhood and for old Ireland.
These writers are just some examples of the counterpoint to the endless discussion of Joyce and company. I don’t think we should stop talking about them; their success and their work is of lasting importance to Irish cultural heritage. But McCabe and Doyle have a great deal to say about contemporary Ireland, and their names don’t appear on any plaques as far as I know. Roddy Doyle runs a scheme called Fighting Words for inner-city Dublin children. The idea is to teach them to approach creative writing in the same way they would approach football. Even if you’re not Cristiano Ronaldo (or John Banville), you can have fun with it and enjoy yourself. Schemes like this are far more important than statues of dead poets, or selling green hats to gullible Americans with Irish ancestors. I’m glad Dublin is seen as a tourist destination, and as a literary hub. I would just like it if more was done to encourage visitors to look past Ulysses and Innisfree and see that there’s still a vibrant community of novelists making exciting, relevant work, which talks to the future of Ireland as well as its past.