An english major’s guide to visiting dublin
By Sarah Bennett, Muhlenberg College
If you’re a book lover, go to Dublin. It’s as simple as that.
From Oscar Wilde to James Joyce, Jonathan Swift to Bram Stoker, several literary legends have called the city home. Its rich history of oral and written storytelling has had a profound impact on English literature, and its writers’ works are read all around the world. However, what makes the city’s bookish history so special isn’t its international reach, but rather, the way it is revered within the city’s walls. Walk around the city, and you’ll feel as though you’re in a literary shrine. Pubs have plaques boasting which famous authors dined at their tables, parks commemorate poets with busts and statues, and random buildings have Ulysses passages inscribed on their walls.
If you’ve been following along with my blog, you know that one of the reasons I chose to study abroad in London was because of its ties to literature. Well, I just took my first trip outside of the country, and it just so happened to be to another literary epicenter: Dublin!
While there, I tried to see as many of the famous sites as I could, from the Dublin Castle to St. Stephen’s Green to the Guinness Factory, (of course). And, because the two friends that I was traveling with also happened to be English majors (ever notice how book people always seem to find each other?) we interspersed our weekend’s activities with visits to literary sites.
So, if you like literature, drama, or combining books with beer (Dublin, I miss you already), read along!
An English Major’s Guide to Visiting Dublin:
1. Trinity College
This should be the first stop for anyone visiting Dublin. With grand, beautiful architecture, green lawns, and cobblestone paths, it’s no wonder this university is considered to be one of the most charming in all of Ireland. It’s also the country’s oldest university, dating back to 1592. Some of Ireland’s greatest writers studied there, including Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Anne Enright, and Samuel Beckett. While it was interesting walking around the writers’ old stomping ground, Trinity’s true literary gem lay in its library. Home to both the Book of Kells and the Long Room, it was definitely my favorite spot on campus. Even though they’re both located within Trinity College, they were impressive enough to earn their own entries below:
2. The Book of Kells
This 8th-century illuminated manuscript is considered one of Ireland’s national treasures. It contains the four Gospels of the New Testament, and is enriched with exquisitely detailed designs and extravagant calligraphy. The exhibit also provided information on the book’s history, as well as analyses on the book’s artwork. It was fascinating to see how the illustrations enhanced the text, emphasizing and adding layers of symbolism. Our tour guide explained that Celtic monks created the book, and that in their time, exerting one’s self to make something beautiful was considered to be a form of prayer. However, visitors do not need to be religious to appreciate the book’s beauty and the effort that went into its making.
3. The Long Room at Trinity’s Old Library
This room is straight out of a bibliophile’s dream. Stretching 63.7 meters (about 209 feet) long, the entire room is filled top to bottom with shelves upon shelves of old, leather-bound books. As soon as you walk in, you’re met with the incredible smell of hundreds of thousands of old books – and yes, old books do have their own unique smell. Next, your eyes are drawn upwards towards the tall, rounded roof, which was raised in the 1850s to accommodate the library’s increased number of volumes. While the bookshelves are roped off, visitors can still walk the length of the library, peering at the titles and viewing the 38 busts of famous men (many of whom were writers) lining the walls.
4. The Dublin Writers Museum
This little museum features a history of Irish literature from the end of the 19th century to the 20th. In addition to providing information on the different movements and famous authors, it also showcases items ranging from the writers’ books, letters, and photographs. Some of the more interesting paraphernalia include a first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a signed copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The museum is small, so you can walk around at a relaxed, leisurely pace. And, if you are inspired to buy any of the works you see on display, you can find most of them in the gift shop – just, not as first editions.
5. St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Built in 1191, this old and beautiful cathedral is a popular spot among all tourists. However, English majors might find it interesting for its ties to Jonathan Swift. In 1713, Swift became dean of the cathedral. Through this position, he learned of the poverty plaguing the Irish people, and was inspired to write several pamphlets and satires. One of his more famous satires was A Modest Proposal, in which he suggested that the Irish eat their children as a way to conquer their hunger. (If you can’t tell, he was feeling a bit bitter towards Irish society at this point.)
6. The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl
After visiting all of those museums and libraries, you’re bound to get a little thirsty! The brilliant founders of the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl realized they could create a city favorite by combining books and beer – or as they said, the pub, the poet, and the pint. Two professional actors led the tour, introducing each new pub by explaining which famous authors, playwrights, or poets had frequented them. They provided history on the writers, and entertained the audience by singing Irish drinking songs, reciting Irish poetry, and performing scenes from Irish plays. The pub crawl goes to different pubs each night, but two of the pubs we went to were Davy Byrnes, famous for its appearance in James Joyce’s Dubliners, and The Duke, an old favorite among writers such as Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan. It was a great way to learn about Dublin’s authors, and to find some of the city’s best and oldest pubs!
There are several other book-themed sites and attractions than I wasn’t able to visit during my short stay. However, if you have more time, you might also want to visit Marsh’s Library, Ireland’s oldest public library; the Chester Beatty Library, home to several Islamic, East Asian, and Western manuscripts and rare books; and the James Joyce Centre.