This is a Literary Cities post from Kirby Fenwick, whose dual citizenship led her to consider the weight of literary ancestors in another Writers Bloc post. She's since moved overseas, and today's post looks at literary Dublin.
Image source: Kirby Fenwick
I arrived in Dublin on a cold and grey Monday afternoon. Heavy clouds lingered overhead, threatening to spill their contents onto the streets below. I’d done my research - well, I’d done some research - I had a list of places I wanted to see and the week stretched out before me. My new Irish passport, its pages unmarked and its spine uncreased, was tucked into my small black bag; the physical embodiment of my tenuous connection to the city and its rich literary history. As I waited for a taxi, I pressed the bag to my belly.
Dublin, and its immense literary history, had been on my mind for months. An Irish-born grandfather and a fortuitous quirk of Irish citizenship law had granted me admittance, albeit by a side door, to the vast Irish literary family. It’s a family that I’d wrestled with being a member of, wondering what, if any, effect it would have on my words. I was trepidatious yet excited. I wanted to delve into the city, into the family. I wanted to explore, to soak up whatever Dublin, whatever Ireland, whatever this newfound literary family, had to offer.
If you like books, my taxi driver Phil says, you should go to Marsh’s Library. It’s not as big as Trinity, he says. But there’s only two guys working there, one is ninety and his apprentice is seventy. Phil laughs at his joke, the thick gold bracelets hanging from his wrist knock against each other, laughing too. You can get right up close to the books, he says.
The highest shelves in Marsh’s Library are no longer the straight, solid pieces of Irish oak they once were. After more than three hundred years they are bowing under the weight of the books that live on them; the timber, rough and grainy beneath the dark brown stain, struggles under the physical weight of knowledge and history, its middle dipping towards the ground and its shoulders hunched at the sides.
It could be a metaphor for Dublin. With so many giants of the literary world balancing on its figurative shoulders, you could forgive the Irish capital for hunching and bending at the middle. Except, it doesn’t. Unlike the Irish oak shelves in Marsh’s Library, Dublin isn’t bowing under the weight. It isn’t struggling under the significance of the literary history that seeps from every cobblestone. The city embraces the weight of its history, and it wants you to as well. In a way, Dublin has become as much a part of the story as the writers who called it home.
And yet, as a writer, it would be easy to walk the streets of Dublin and find yourself overwhelmed and intimidated by those that came before you. For me, this feeling held a greater personal relevance as I questioned my place within the Irish literary family. Did I belong here?
I stopped by the Yeats memorial garden in St Stephen’s Green, passed by the childhood home of Oscar Wilde and the church Bram Stoker was married in, before crossing the Samuel Beckett bridge. As I eased myself into the city, wading into a literary history and family that I had some tiny claim to, I began to feel some sympathy for those pieces of Irish oak.
I wandered through The Charles Beatty Library, I visited the Yeats exhibition at the National Library of Ireland, and I stared at the roof of the glorious Trinity Library inhaling the sweet smell of old books. I felt intoxicated by all the words. I found myself eager to move through the city the way I imagine those writers before me did; to place my feet on pavements they might have, to see things they might have, to feel the same biting Dublin wind.
My days in Dublin passed quicker than I imagined they would, but as I climbed the steps of the Dublin Writers Museum I felt time stand still for just a moment. Ireland bulges at the seams with storytellers; women and men whose names loom large in the world’s literary landscape. The museum, likewise, is overflowing with information and artefacts and books and letters and pieces of Dublin’s rich history. I moved through the rooms, and the enormity of Dublin’s literary past swirled around me. The history felt tangible, like I could reach out and run my hands along the words worn smooth with the passing of time.
James Joyce once said, ‘When I die Dublin will be written in my heart.’
I like to think it’s now imprinted on mine, too. I like to think that the literary family that presented me with so many questions, the family that I felt so unfamiliar with, has shuffled just a little to let me squeeze in. It’s a tiny space I occupy. And I stand precariously on the edge, digging my toes into the earth beneath me in an effort to hold on. But I’m there. I’m there with Dublin written in my heart.
Kirby Fenwick is a Melbourne writer currently living in London. She’s written for Writers Bloc and SPOOK magazine and blogs somewhat irregularly at www.thekirbybee.blogspot.com
She tweets, much more regularly, @kirbykirbybee
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.