Literary Dublin: Places, Faces and Famous Works
The Dublin Writers Museum
The Dublin Writers Museum is situated at 18 Parnell Square in an elegant eighteenth-century house. Here, visitors enjoy looking at a great deal of memorabilia, gathered from Dublin’s—and Ireland’s—rich literary heritage.
Among the ephemera are first editions of famous books, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In addition to the museum rooms are a library, gallery, coffee shop and, of course, a book shop.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, a grandson of playwright Richard Brinsely Sheridan, was born in 1814. In the same year, his father Thomas was appointed chaplain of the Royal Hibernian Military School in Dublin's Phoenix Park, and the family moved there to live. In later years, the nearby village of Chapelizod was to feature in Le Fanu's novel, The House by the Churchyard.
Curiously, Le Fanu's life parallelled that of his contemporary, Charles Dickens, by having a father who was constantly falling into debt. However, helped out by relatives, Le Fanu went to Trinity College Dublin to study law and in 1838, began contributing ghost stories to the Dublin University Magazine.
In time, the family moved to Limerick where Thomas took up a rectorship and there, Le Fanu met and married Susanna Bennett. The newly-wed couple returned to Dublin, and settled in a rented house in Merrion Square. Today, the house is the office of the Irish Arts Council.
Many family troubles followed that, combined with Susanna's death in 1858, prevented Le Fanu from writing for a number of years. However, in 1861, he became editor of the Dublin University Magazine and made use of his post to serialise his first two novels. Eventually, he signed a contract with a London publisher.
Le Fanu died of a heart attack in 1873, aged only 58 (the same age that Charles Dickens was upon his death). Since then, his short stories have influenced Henry James, MR James, Oliver Onions and other writers of supernatural tales. No doubt, the novel about female vampires, Carmilla, had a profound effect upon his colleague, Bram Stoker.
Bram Stoker was born in Clontarf, in 1847. He remained bedridden until the age of seven, when he recovered from his illness and went to a private school. He studied mathematics at Trinity College Dublin where Oscar Wilde featured among his acquaintances. Eventually, he graduated with a BA in mathematics. His first job was in the civil service, but he gradually established himself as a theatre critic, writing for the Dublin Evening Mail.
In 1876, his review of Henry Irving's production of Hamlet caught the eye of London stage producer Henry Irving, and he invited Stoker to dinner. By now, Stoker's short stories were finding an audience in books and papers.
Following his marriage to Florence Balcombe, the Stokers moved to London, where Bram worked for Irving as manager of the Lyceum Theatre. Stoker travelled widely with Irving's theatre company, all over the world, in fact. One place he stayed at was Whitby in Yorkshire. Among the people he met was Hungarian writer, Armin Vambery, whose dark tales of the Carpathian mountains no doubt set Stoker's imagination alight.
In the 1890s, he began writing Dracula. Somewhere, from the recesses of Stoker's mind, fuelled by his years in bed, his association with Sheridan Le Fanu—who was editor of the Dublin Evening Mail—his sojourn in Whitby and, of course, his meeting with Armin Vambery, emerged the best-known of all vampire tales. Dracula has provided fodder for countless imitation stories and stage-plays, movies and entertainment events, ever since.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in 1854, the son of a very successful eye surgeon and a mother who wrote and published poetry under the name, Speranza. With a steady stream of society and literary figures, such as writer Sheridan Le Fanu and mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, visiting the Wilde’s smart home in Dublin’s Merrion Square, a stellar career was practically guaranteed to the young Oscar.
It was but a short step, both literally and metaphorically, from the family home to Dublin’s Trinity College, to where he had won a royal scholarship to read the classics. In the longer term, Oscar graduated from Magdalen College at Oxford University, with a double first. Following graduation, he traveled the US, lecturing on art and politics.
By the 1880s, Wilde’s short stories were appearing in magazines and in 1888, he published The Happy Prince and Other Tales. He published his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey, in 1890. By 1894, his four plays, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, were all in production on London stages.
But in spite of his literary success, Oscar’s personal life brought him disgrace and debt. He died in Dieppe in 1900, and he is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was born in Dublin, in 1882. He attended a series of good schools in his youth, culminating in University College Dublin. His writing did not draw upon any traditions, but became part of a growing number of modernist writers whose works concentrated on the thoughts or “stream of consciousness” of the individual, as much as plotting narratives and creating characters. In addition, Joyce became a virtuoso exponent of the craft of onomatopoeia, the technique of writing sounds as opposed to words.
Characteristically, all of Joyce’s works are set in Ireland’s capital, from Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), to Ulysses (1922) and Finnegan’s Wake (1939). Unlike Oscar Wilde, whose plays lampooned the morals and manners of London’s fashionable set, Joyce drew his settings and characters from his immediate surroundings. Supposedly, he drew on the characteristics of fellow Dublin writer, Oliver St. John Gogarty for Buck Mulligan of Finnegan’s Wake.
Joyce eventually married his lover, Nora Barnacle, and went to live in Trieste, Italy, with their two children. He died in 1941 and is buried in Switzerland.
William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, Dublin, in 1865. From his earliest years, Irish legends and folktales fascinated him. Eventually, he went to London for his education, but he never forgot his roots. Oral storytelling had long been a tradition in Ireland, but Yeats knew that in order to gain an international audience, it was essential that tales and sagas be committed to the pen.
In 1888, his mythical anthologies began with Fairy Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. In tandem with a growing nationalist awareness and a compulsion to establish a literary tradition, Yeats joined forces with a number of luminaries, including Lady Gregory, and formed the Irish Literary Revival. Eventually, they founded the Irish Literary Theatre. In 1889, Yeats produced his earliest volume of poetry, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw was born in Upper Synge Street, Dublin in 1856. Determined to be a writer, he moved to London when he was 20. Eventually, he established himself as a music and theatre critic. In 1884, his play Arms and the Man struck a note with the public. Shaw’s own socialist ideals imbued plays such as Major Barbara and The Doctor’s Dilemma.
One of his most famous plays, Pygmalion (1913), concerns the social experiment of linguist Professor Henry Higgins and his efforts to transform street-savvy flower seller Eliza Dolittle into a society lady by simply coaching her in elocution. In 1937, Pygmalion became the screen-play for a movie. Eventually, the Lerner and Loewe song-writing team used it as the inspiration for a stage musical, which in turn became the movie, My Fair Lady (1965).
The fairy-tale nature of the narrative caught the imagination of the public, and many of the songs are still recognisable today. More profoundly, the narrative serves as a starting point for debates on social inequality, nature versus nurture, and gender politics. A committed vegetarian, Bernard Shaw died at the young age of 94.
Oliver St. John Gogarty
Born in 1878 in Dublin, Oliver St. John Gogarty was descended from a line of physicians and he, too, studied medicine. However, Gogarty’s real interest lay in literature and he numbered Lord Dunsany and WB Yeats among his friends. Gogarty belonged to WB Yeats’s Irish Academy of Letters. In 1924, Gogarty published An Offering of Swans, a book of poetry that won him a gold medal at the Tailteann Games that year.
By the 1930s, he was publishing poetry; his works include As I Was Going Down Sackville Street and Tumbling in the Hay. In 1939, he embarked on a lecture tour of the United States. He remained there and eventually, became a citizen, supporting himself solely by writing.
In his later years, Gogarty suffered heart disease and he is buried in Renvyle, Co Galway. Every year, a literary festival in his name takes place there. Nonetheless, Dubliners revel in the public house named after him—the bohemian Temple Bar.
Samuel Barclay Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Growing up, he had associations with modernist artists and writers, including James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp and Alberto Giacometti. Today, he is regarded as one of the foremost modernist writers in the English language.
Born in Dublin in 1906, Beckett attended the same boys’ school as Oscar Wilde, the Portora Royal in Eniskillen. Later, he studied European languages at Trinity College Dublin and worked as a teacher before returning to the university as a lecturer.
In the years that followed, Beckett’s poems, novels and short stories became canons of Irish modernist literature. He lived in Paris and met Left Bank intellectuals, among them Jean-Paul Sartre. During the war, he took on the role of courier for the French Resistance. In the 1950s, his romantic partner, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, helped him to find a producer for his play, Waiting for Godot. Eventually, the BBC broadcast his play, All That Falls.
For the remainder of Beckett’s life, notable actors, including Jack McGowran and Billie Whitelaw acted in his plays on the London stage. He died in 1969, the same year that he won the Nobel Prize. He is buried in Paris and many of his earlier works have been published posthumously.
Maeve Binchy was born in Dalkey, Dublin, in 1939. The author of many novels, novellas and short stories, her works have been translated into 37 languages and have sold over 40 million copies worldwide. An inspiration for television and cinema, Hollywood made her novel Circle of Friends, into a movie. Following gaining her BA degree in history from University College Dublin, she became a teacher.
Her life-changing experience came about when she availed of an opportunity to go to Israel and work for a while on a kibbutz. In 1968, she began working as a journalist for the Irish Times. In the 1970s, Maeve met and married BBC television producer, Gordon Snell. They really did live happily ever after, an experience that she has undoubtedly channeled into her many romantic sagas.
Maeve published Light a Penny Candle in 1982, followed by Echoes in 1985 and Firefly Summer in 1987. Her last published novel was A Week in Winter, in 2012. She died later the same year.
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© 2020 Mary Phelan