Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Snow Falling at the Gresham Hotel

Snow on the windowsill of the Gresham Hotel

In January 2016, Lisa and I had tickets to see Aidan Gillen performing 'The Dead' at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. This was the perfect time and place to see greatest story in world literature. The theatre is a short distance downriver from 'the dark, gaunt house on Usher's Island' where the story takes place; the performance was also at the same time of year Epiphany week – as the Misses Morkan's annual dance; and Gillen's been one of our favourite actors for more than twenty years, ever since we saw him play Skinny in Jez Butterworth's Mojo at the Royal Court.

I booked a room in the only possible place to stay – the Gresham Hotel, where the story ends with Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, and the snow falling outside the window.

'A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight....'

Clearly, we needed to end the day watching snow falling outside the window, but the forecast was for rain. The obvious solution was to bring our own snow with us. So I bought some 'magic snow' from my local garden centre.

I think this is what folklorists call 'pseudo-ostention' - acting out a myth in real life. There's a lot of this around Joyce. It's hard to explain just how much pleasure Joyce lovers get from re-enacting his fictions in Dublin.

We arrived at the Gresham on Friday afternoon.

'...as they stood at the hotel door, he felt that they had escaped from their lives and duties, escaped from home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure'

But we could see that it was very different from the hotel in the story. We learned that the original Gresham burned down in 1922 during the Battle of Dublin

The Gresham in flames in 1922

The hotel had been a victim of the same kind of vandalism now threatening Joyce's House of the Dead!  
The Gresham was rebuilt in 1927, and this what the foyer looks like today.

'The porter led them along a corridor and opened a door...'

But we had a room at the back, overlooking the rooftops of Dublin, and luckily there was a window we could open.

Lisa at the window in the Gresham Hotel
After unpacking we walked down to Usher's Island, to visit the House of the Dead, which was sadly closed.

It's a miracle that the building is still standing. It's all thanks to Brendan Kilty, the Dublin barrister who bought it in 2000, and saved it from falling down. He rebuilt the back wall, replaced the missing roof, and restored the interiors of the rooms where Joyce's short story takes place.

We were able to visit the house on the centenary Bloomsday in 2004, when I took this photograph of the stairway. Gretta stands here, listening to Bartell D'Arcy singing 'The Lass of Aughrim', while Gabriel looks up from the hall below.

For four years, Kilty staged re-enactments here of the Morkans' Christmas dinner. But in 2012, he filed for bankruptcy, and the house has been closed up ever since.  It was sold to developers in 2017, who are now planning to destroy this interior by converting it into a 56 room hostel.

In the evening, we went to Lanigan's Pub, a regular for stage folk from the Abbey Theatre nearby. At the bar, we found Karl Shiels, another great Irish actor, and artistic director of the pub's Theatre Upstairs. When we told him we were going to see 'The Dead', he said he'd read from it the previous year at the memorial for Barney McKenna of the Dubliners. Karl said he'd had to cut the text, which got him into trouble with 'the head of the James Joyce society.' 

We first met Karl here in 2013, when we were in Dublin with our Brighton friend, Tim Crouch, who had a show on at the Abbey.  Karl, standing outside the pub with a friend smoking, wore a t-shirt with a picture of a republican blanket protester and the words of Francie Brollie's H-Block song. He said he hoped we didn't mind his anti-British shirt. 

Quick as a flash, Tim replied, 'That's ok. I'm wearing my Oliver Cromwell underpants!'

Karl and his friend cracked up.

Writing this today, I was shocked and saddened to learn that Karl died earlier this year. 

'One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.' 

Karl burned brightly. His Irish Times obituary described him as 'a streak of lightning through the world of Irish drama.'

Karl outside Lanigans in 2013
On Saturday morning, we visited Books Upstairs on D'Olier Street. I asked the bookseller if he knew anything about a new statue of Joyce standing on a sundial. He'd never heard of it, but looked it up online and found it was at the Merrion Hotel. We told him our reasons for being in Dublin, which led to the following conversation.

Me: We're staying at the Gresham, where Gretta and Gabriel stay.
Bookseller (to Lisa): I hope you won't have any revelations for him later!

Me: I've got some fake snow to throw out of the window of the hotel. Except I've learned it's not the original hotel.
Bookseller: We got rid of that one in 1922.
Me: So I'm throwing fake snow out of a fake hotel in honour of two imaginary people!
Bookseller: Sounds pretty authentic to me!

The sundial statue at the Merrion
After visiting the new statue, which I've posted about before, we went to the Library Bar to meet our Dublin friends, Olga, Kevin, Alfreda and Ciaran, who were coming to the matinee of the play with us. Everyone was excited at the prospect of seeing Aiden Gillen.

Lisa, Kevin, Olga, Ciaran and Alfreda at the theatre
Then we were off to the Smock Alley to see the play. I loved this programme note from the company.

'Although many of the stories in Dubliners are about the relationship between the living and the deceased...none perhaps achieve quite the same sense of universal connection as 'The Dead'. The story seems to reveal more of itself each time one reads it, growing older with you, speaking with renewed relevance at every age. For most writers such a story would be the crowning glory of their whole career. Yet when one considers how young Joyce was, merely warming up for his subsequent achievements we can only stand dumbfounded before his sheer talent....
  So it's our privilege to welcome you to join us tonight as once again we visit the Morkans' Christmas party. And travel with Gabriel and Gretta Conroy down the Quays to the Gresham Hotel, and off across Ireland in a snowstorm like no other, and out into the universe, and into eternity.'

The stage was set
Here's Lisa's description of the opening, from our diary.

Gillen performed the 16,000 word story at a brisk pace.  I loved the way he handled the comic episodes with Browne, the conflict with Miss Ivors, and Gabriel's 'fever of rage and desire' after the party finishes

But I missed Gabriel's compassion ('Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes') and the breakdown of his egotism at the very end. Here's Peter Crawley's review in the Irish Times:

'The epiphany of Joyce’s story, a realisation that Gabriel hardly knows his wife, himself, or the feeling of overwhelming love, may be one of the most remarkable expressions in literature, a discovery that is dumbfounding but not bitter. Here, Gillen actually seethes through the whole exchange, as though it were nothing but female taunts ('I think he died for me') against a lusty, bruised male ego. It becomes an excessively poisonous interpretation, venomous to those last transfixing words.'

Feargal Murray's music was beautiful, though I was disappointed he didn't play any of the melodies in the story.  He probably thought it too obvious to give us 'The Lass of Aughrim'.

Like Gretta and Gabriel, we got a cab which took us along the Quays and then across the Liffey on the O'Connell Bridge. But instead of stopping at the Gresham, we carried on north to Glasnevin cemetery, where dwell the vast hosts of the Dublin dead.

Joyce's parents in Glasnevin

'My father and mother had many friends in Bray and in town, and at about Christmas time and the New Year they often went up to dances in Dublin and stayed overnight at a hotel, as the Conroys do in 'The Dead'.' Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother's Keeper
Right by Glasnevin is John Kavanagh's, the Gravediggers, Ciaran's family pub. It's our favourite pub in Dublin and it was the obvious place to go after seeing 'The Dead'.

At the Gravediggers after seeing 'The Dead'
Someone commented that this picture looks like an Aer Lingus ad. If only we could live in one...

Ciaran at the bar
At one point we were joined by a couple of the Undead - the pub is on various horror tours.

The lovely Guinness flowed and by the end of the evening, we were as screwed as Freddy Malins in Joyce's story. We poured ourselves into a taxi and headed back to the Gresham. 

I have two blurred pictures of a hand throwing the fake snow out of the window into the Dublin night.

But is it Lisa's hand or mine? Probably Lisa's, but neither of us can remember.

A last diary entry from Lisa...

The snow still lay on the windowsill, proof that our mission had been accomplished.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

The Battle of James Joyce's Bones 2

Ireland has already made amends to Joyce with statues and plaques

James Joyce, who never visited Dublin after 1912, was often asked why he didn't return.
He said that he feared being physically attacked if he went back, like Charles Stewart Parnell who had had quicklime flung in his eye.

'He told me that he had heard of some man who had gone into a Dublin bookshop, and asked if they had a copy of Ulysses. He was told that they had not. 'Well', the man remarked threateningly, 'the writer of that had better not come back to Dublin.'
'A fanatic!' I protested.
'Yes, but it is such a person who does it.'

Arthur Power, 'James Joyce - The Internationalist', Envoy, 1951

In 1936, Ole Vinding asked him if he ever missed Ireland:

'I am not sure I would care to go back. Ulysses is coming out this month in England; let us see how the Irish take it. Furthermore I am afraid to go back to Ireland. You see when one is almost blind and can't see whom one is talking to, then one becomes suspicious.'

'James Joyce in Copenhagen', Portraits of the Artists in Exile

In 1937, Joyce told Constantine Curran why he did not intend to join Nora on a planned visit to Ireland:

'I am trying to finish my W.I.P. (Work in Progress) and I am not taking any chances with my fellow countrymen if I can help it until it is done....But, every day, in every way, I am walking along the streets of Dublin and along the strand.'   

James Joyce Remembered 

It was the Dublin of his imagination rather than the physical place Joyce loved. When Philippe Soupault asked him why he didn't return there, he replied 'It would prevent me from writing about Dublin.'  

Joyce read about Ireland every day in the newspapers, and he did not like De Valera ('the devil era' FW 473.08) or his narrow sectarian Catholic stateHe told Harriet Shaw Weaver that the Irish priests who were now in charge were 'barbarians with crucifixes' and said, 'Any semblance they had of liberty when under England seems to have gone – and goodness knows that was not much.'   

On 30 October, Dr John Doherty had a letter in the Irish Times pointing out that Joyce chose to remain a British citizen all his life:

'Joyce positively rejected Irish nationality on several occasions. Living in Paris in 1930 he wrote to his son Giorgio: 'Some days ago I had to renew my passport. The clerk told me he had orders to send people like me to the Irish legation. But I insisted and got a British one.'
    A decade later the Joyce family were again offered Irish passports which would have enabled them to leave Nazi occupied France more easily if needed. The offer was declined and Joyce clung doggedly to his British passport, despite the increased risk.'
The only one of Joyce's 18 Paris residences to have a plaque, at 71 Cardinal Rue Lemoine, calls him 'a British writer of Irish origin'.

Ironically, because of Brexit, many of my fellow Britons are now trying to get Irish passports!

Two of Joyce's Dublin friends believed that he would eventually have gone back, but only if Ireland had recognised his status as a great writer:

'Up to nearly the end of his life Joyce was waiting patiently, I think, for a signal from the Irish government, inviting him back to place bay leaves in his hair. However the Irish political people are peculiarly indifferent to what their great writers have done for the country. The invitation never came Joyce's way.' 

Mary Colum, Our Friend James Joyce p.168

'He felt his pride involved. I see him postponing his return until some public recognition of the position he had won after much hardship was offered.'  

C.P.Curran James Joyce Remembered p.101 

Dublin has now given Joyce this public recognition, filling the streets with statues and plaques, and staging a massive festival on Bloomsday. It doesn't need his bones too.



The councillors' proposal also involved 'repatriating' Nora to Dublin, though she only lived there for a few months in 1904, while working as a maid in Finn's Hotel. She did not like Dublin or Ireland:


'When I questioned (Joyce) about Ireland, Mrs Joyce protested against his eulogy. 'A wretched country, dirty and dreary, where they eat cabbages, potatoes and bacon all year round, where the women spend their days in church and the men in pubs.' Joyce smiled.' 

Jaques Mercanton, 'The Hours of James Joyce', in Portraits of the Artist in Exile


Nora's favourite city was Paris, where she could eat in luxurious restaurants like Fouquet's and bump into film stars.  


The Joyces regularly ate at Fouquets with the celebrities

After her husband's death, Nora took on a new role as 'the widow Joyce', protecting his reputation.

'As she came to play the part of the widow Joyce, Nora began at last to believe in her husband's genius.... Ignazio Silone's wife asked for her opinion of Andre Gide and got it. 'Sure when you've been married to the greatest writer in the world you don't remember all the little fellows.''

Brenda Maddox, Nora, 473. 


According to Harriet Shaw Weaver's biographers, in 1947 Nora was 'extremely upset' when she read in a newpaper cutting sent her from Galway that the late Paul Leon had given papers rescued from Joyce's last Paris address to the National Library of Ireland.


'She considered that the wishes of the family should have been consulted and that as 'Ireland had never appreciated' her husband the library would not have been her first choice.'  

Jane Lidderdale and Mary Nicholson, Dear Miss Weaver,  412

Imagine her bitterness in 1948, when she read about the state funeral given to Yeats!  She felt that 'the greatest writer in the world' deserved the same honour from his homeland. When her request was ignored, Ireland was finally dead to her.

'Nora Joyce was now bitterly opposed to the idea of her husband's manuscripts going to Ireland. When Harriet mentioned her work on sorting the Finnegans Wake material for its eventual transfer to the National Library, she 'found her without a good word to say for the Irish' and 'strongly averse' to the bequest.' 

Jane Lidderdale and Mary Nicholson, Dear Miss Weaver,  413

So the Finnegans Wake manuscripts ended up in the British Library in London.

'Immersed in Continental life he felt safe and happy.... After he died, Mrs Joyce maintained the same attitude.
   Meeting her in Paris once I suggested, since she complained of loneliness, that she should go over to Ireland.
  'What! she cried, her voice hysterical. 'They burnt my husband's books.' 

Arthur Power, 'James Joyce - The Internationalist', Envoy, 1951 



The whole bone battle reminded my Chicago friend Marc Goldin of medieval relic thefts described in this wonderful book by Patrick Geary. Joyce and Yeats are the modern equivalents of the saints whose bones drew vast numbers of pilgrims to European cathedrals – it's especially fitting that the bones in Sligo were not really Yeats's, since many medieval relics were also fake.


Stealing saints' bodies was big business, and it was justified on the grounds that if they disapproved of their 'translation', they could have used their powers to prevent it. Therefore Saint Mark must have approved of being taken from Alexandria to Venice.

As a modern secular saint, Joyce would supposedly bring the same money-making status to Dublin as St Mark did for Venice.

'Some cemeteries around the world have become major tourist centres due to the graves of famous people....Glasnevin Cemetery, in Dublin, is making great strides to become such a centre. However, it lacks what is termed in the business as a gold-plated grave which would immediately be recognised worldwide.'

Anthony Jordan, The Sunday Independent 18 June 2017
'I don’t want to calculate something like this in shilling and pence but I don’t think it would do any harm. I think it would do some good.' 

Councillor Dermot Lacey, The Journal, 14 October 2019

'There is a calculating, even mercantile, aspect to contemporary Ireland’s relationship to its great writers, whom we are often more keen to 'celebrate', and if possible monetise, than read.'

'The Irish Times view on James Joyce's remains: Leave him be' 26 October 2019 


In late October, the debate turned into a bigger discussion about the gentrification of Dublin, and the hypocrisy of councillors monetising Joyce's bones while failing to protect the very fabric of the city he celebrated.  

In the last year, Sweny the Chemist, the wonderful Joycean shrine run by volunteers, has seen its commercial rates doubled. Sweny's is a place where, every day, Joyce's words live again through group readings, and people from all over the world visit to take part.

It would be far better to save Sweny's than have a grave as a tourist attraction!

Una Mulally in The Guardian on 2 October

On 23 October, the Dublin novelist Mark O'Connell had a passionate and angry article in the Guardian, describing what would happen if the repatriation proposal went ahead:

'What would happen is that it would become one more way for Dublin to present itself as a literary mecca, while in reality transitioning into a cultural wasteland where creative spaces are closing down to make way for more hotels, where artists can’t afford to live due to a brutal and unregulated rental market....What would happen is that Joyce’s bones would bring more tourists to a city that, were he alive today, he would still have to leave because he couldn’t afford to live in it. And what would furthermore happen, I may as well warn you now, is that I would personally dig up those bones in the dead of night, haul them into eternity along Sandymount strand, and heave them into the snot-green, scrotum-tightening sea.'
Bookninja.com shares O'Connell's article on 23 October
On the same day, the Irish Times had an article by another Dubliner, John McCourt, about the ongoing threat to Joyce's Dublin:

'It is hard not to see the request to repatriate his bones as an ill-conceived plan driven by political opportunism or the hope of gain in the field of cultural tourism. It happens in a larger context in which significant pieces of Joyce’s Dublin remain under threat. The house of Leopold and Molly Bloom on 7 Eccles Street was torn town in the late 60s, the Ormond hotel, site of the Sirens episode in Ulysses recently suffered a similar fate, while national and civic officialdom has refused to buy or secure the house in which his great short story “The Dead” took place.'

Astonishingly, just a week after McCourt's article was published, it was announced that there were plans to turn the House of the Dead into a 56 room hostel! 

On Sunday, I was startled to find this picture in the Observer. That's me on the right with my back to the camera!

On 4 November, Dublin Council passed a motion to save the house. But power to do this rests with the Minister of Culture, Josepha Madigan.

Following the Council motion, almost 100 prominent Irish and international writers, artists and academics signed a letter calling on the minister to protect the House of the Dead:

'As we approach the centenary of Ulysses in 2022, we believe that saving this unique piece of our national heritage is within the power of the Government and the national institutions and that it should be an urgent priority. We appeal to you and to the government to act before it is too late.'

Signatories included Colm Tóibín,  John Banville, Sally Rooney, Anne Enright, Kevin Barry,  Eavan Boland, Dermot Bolger, Patrick McCabe, Salman Rushdie, Richard Ford, Edna O’Brien, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Carlo Gébler, Michael Ondaatje, Paul Muldoon and Tobias Wolff.

Here's Brendan Kilty, former owner, showing us the most important dining room in world literature.

On 8 November, Colm Toibin, one of the letter's authors, told RTE's Morning Ireland why this house is so important

'You go in now, and it is the same house, especially on the ground floor and first floor, as in the story. The corn factor mentioned in the opening - you can see where that was. The hallway and then the rooms upstairs where the dance happened, where the meal happened, where the coats were put.

So anyone going into the building is seeing how life inspired this story, how a real place where James Joyce’s grand-aunts lived, a party that his parents went to, a house he was in during his life, was used in this way.

Anyone coming to Dublin can see this is not just where the story was set, but it hasn’t been reconstructed on the inside, it’s intact....The Dead is a winter story, so it happens inside. The story is filled with the way the rooms are configured. It’s a very unusual thing to be still in existence in that way. 56 rooms for a youth hostel will simply ruin that interior. What other city would do that? It’s not being done deliberately, it’s happening sort of by accident.

If the world is still there in 1,000 years time, The Dead will be known still, and that house will be an essential element in the fabric of Dublin. It’s a wake-up call to the nation to say we have a piece of treasure, please don’t let’s regret this in 50 years time when people ask, how did you let this happen?'

On the same day, the Irish Times carried this appalling headline.