By Brian Arsenault
We’re heading back from a sobering walk at the side of the Liffey River (more about that later) which splits Dublin in two. Within sight of our hotel, my glance falls upon a picture of James Joyce.
The sign on the shop above the picture reads Sweny’s. Can it be? Is it? Was this by chance or magic? In Ireland, you can still believe in magic.
Yes it is. Sweny’s. The pharmacy, chemist if you will, made famous in Ulysses where Leopold Bloom buys lemon soap and forgets Molly’s cream. I stopped, just stopped for a moment to breathe and reflect and recall.
“Mr. Bloom raised a cake to his nostrils. Sweet lemony wax. ‘I’ll take this one, he said’.”
We just have to go in. Sweny’s is now operated as a second hand book shop by volunteers. They still have the lemon soap. Did I do the tourist thing and buy a bar? Damn right. It’s in my shower now.
They have readings of Joyce there every day. From The Dubliners tomorrow at one, the counter lady says. Alas, we are returning to the West tomorrow.
Some would argue that Joyce is the greatest novelist who ever lived. Others that Ulysses isn’t really a novel. Doesn’t matter. As Hemingway called it, “a damn fine book,” and Hemingway was loath to say something nice about most other writers’ work.
It got me to thinking about such a small nation producing not only Joyce but Yeats (has there been a better poet?), Wilde, Shaw, others. And the father of all modern vampire yarns, Bram Stoker. Though Bram might wish the form had been stillborn if he could see some of today’s silly stuff.
This all from a population that had been devastated by the famine in the mid nineteenth century while foodstuffs were shipped to England. Before the joy of finding Sweny’s, perhaps guided by the little people as relief, we’d visited the famine statues.
They are pictured here. They are not surrealistic. They are how people looked during the potato famine. Half dead before boarding ships to Canada and the USA, many died during the journey. So many that the reproduction ship Jeaine Johnston bobbing in the river is well remembered because it was the only one on which no passengers expired in the three months it took to cross the Atlantic.
We took some pictures of those statues, reluctantly because they are not easy images to look at. Kathy restrained me from swearing at the American early ’20s threesome when the girl of the group did a fake broken field run among the statues.
I sputtered “no respect” but mostly kept silent while wishing that Jack Taylor had come down from Galway and thrown the three of them in the Liffey.
Thank goodness for the restorative powers of St. Stephens Green, not nearly so large as New York’s Central Park but equally beautiful with lighter use. A true jewel box just down the street from the National Library.
Dublin’s National Library where Joyce read just about everything. Where he and Yeats and so many other Irish writers gathered on the steps to speculate, converse, argue.
The internet is wondrous for a quick bit of information gathering but a public library gives free access to all the greatest written works. I find one of the stupid catch phrases of the day to be that libraries have been made obsolete. Only for the illiterate.
We also visited the Abbey Theater. Oh, not the one of Yeats and Singh and Lady Gregory where the “peasant plays” helped spur a sense of national identity which would eventually lead to the Irish throwing off the yoke of England. That Abbey Theater is gone, a victim of time. A rather grimy “new” one stages plays today.
And the plays live on. Playboy of the Western World is playing somewhere right now.
Maybe near you.
Photos by Kathy Arsenault
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