History is very close in Dublin, much closer than in London. Fifty yards from my hotel was a bank with huge posters of the faces and stories of the seven leaders of the Easter Uprising executed by the English: Éamonn Ceannt, Thomas James Clarke, James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, and Joseph Mary Plunkett. Plunkett, I learnt as I looked from my stationary taxi, married Grace Gifford while in Kilmainham Gaol and was executed the next day.
I saw their faces everywhere, in the windows of pubs, on tall buildings, in the streets. Across the street from the bank was the Ambassadors Theatre, telling the story of the uprising. I walked 300 yards down O’Connell Street and ran my fingers over the bullet holes shot into the General Post Office during the uprising.
In the evening I ate my Irish Stew in the Parnell Heritage pub and Grill under a huge picture of Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish Nationalist politician whom Gladstone called “an intellectual phenomenon.” A J P Taylor said that “More than any other man he gave Ireland the sense of being an independent nation.” Beside him was an equally large picture of Kitty O’Shea, his eventual wife. O’Shea was married, although separated, when they met, and they began an adulterous affair that led to three children. O’Shea’s husband filed for divorce citing Parnell, and the scandal destroyed his political career.
Parnell and O’Shea lived together in Eltham, close to where I lived as a child—and in my mind a singularly unromantic place. As I chewed on my Irish lamb I thought of Chesterton’s lines:
For the Great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.
The next morning I went to the James Joyce Centre and felt him, his wife Nora, Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom and his wife Mollyvery close. It was two days before Bloom’s Day. I saw the door of 7 Eccles Street, the house that had inspired Ulysses and the home of Bloom. I saw a recreation of the room in which Joyce wrote. He moved constantly and lived in some 20 places in Dublin. Joyce left Dublin in 1904, 12 years before the uprising, but Ulysses has “infected” Dublin in a way that no other pairing of book and city can match. I vowed to reread Ulysses, another book I’m sure that will make much more sense to me now than when I first read it.
On my way to the glittering conference centre I passed the Famine Memorial, six starved figures cast in metal. Lasting from 1845 to 1852 the famine killed a million and caused a million to emigrate, fuelling the Irish diaspora that means that there are many more “Irish” outside Ireland than in it.
I’d been less than 24 hours in Dublin, but I left with a strong taste of its tragic and poetic history. I hope to return, but my days for returning anywhere are growing shorter.