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Walking Dublin in the footsteps of James Joyce


James Joyce and Dublin are practically synonymous. Indeed, the writer claimed to have put so much of the city’s character into Ulysess that he once said if Dublin were to disappear from the face of the earth we would be able to reconstruct it using the pages of his book as a reference guide.

Reading those opening the pages, it’s easy to feel as though one is stepping foot into something made more of bricks and mortar than pulp and ink. Like Joyce’s novel, the city twists and turns, morphing and reshaping itself as it rolls along. Just as Ulysses‘ 780 pages can be read and re-read year upon year and always reveal something new, Dublin’s streets continue to offer up excitement and intrigue at every turn.

The Dublin immortalised in Joyce’s fiction is a far cry from the city we know today. In Ulysses, he offers up a geographically accurate rendering of Dublin’s winding streets at a time when the city was just 4.25km from west to east and 3.5km north to south. His depictions of Barney Kiernan’s pub or the bustling red-light district in the ‘Circe’ episode reveal a city populated by breweries, distilleries and lonely sailors looking for a warm bed.

It’s a curious thing, then, that the same writer who immortalised the city of Dublin, spent much of his young life abroad. He declared himself an exile when he was in his 20s and fled to Europe in an attempt to shake off his native Ireland’s impoverishment, its relentless catholicism, its and unerring oppression of anyone who attempted to imagine a life beyond the status quo. So, like all artists looking to broaden their horizons at the dawn of the 20th century, Joyce settled in Paris, the intellectual hub of the western world.

Here, he spent 20 years caught in the self-induced fever dream that produced Finnegan’s Wake. And yet, even as he was in the midst of writing that novel; deconstructing centuries of literature and history as he went, it was Dublin that he returned to. It was a city that haunted him his entire life, so much so that when he was asked if he would ever return, he replied: “Have I ever left it?”.

Exploring Dublin in the footsteps of James Joyce:

Belvedere College

Address: 6 Denmark Street Great, Rotunda, Dublin 1, D01 TK25, Ireland.

After being sent to Clongowes Wood College, a boarding school known as the “Eton of Ireland” at the age of six, James Joyce’s father, a man with a habit of neglecting his finances, began the slow slide towards poverty. Joyce was subsequently forced to leave the idyllic surroundings of County Kildare and return home to Dublin, where he attempted to educate himself for two years.

Then, in April 1893, he and his brother Stanislaus were admitted to Belvedere College, a Jesuit grammar school in Dublin for lay students. He excelled academically, but, despite being elected the president of the Marian society on two occasions, struggled with his Roman Catholic faith in private and was subsequently expelled. Both Clongowes Wood College and Belvedere College would go on to feature prominently in Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which itself traces the spiritual awakening of Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ego.

Belvedere College which James Joyce attended from 1893-1898. (Credit: Alamy)

The Gresham Hotel

Address: 23 Upper O’Connell Street Dublin 1, D01 C3W7.

A seven-minute walk via Rutland Place will lead you to the setting of arguably one of the greatest short stories of all time, James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, the final story in his 1914 collection, The Dubliners. It is this ornate Georgian hotel in which the tales’ protagonist Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta stay after attending his aunts’ New Years dinner on the windswept Usher Island.

In ‘The Dead’, Joyce described the hotel as a place of the sanctuary: “As they stood 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.” In reality, however, The Gresham was far from a safe house. In the first week of the civil war of 1922, for example, the hotel was bombed and subsequently consumed by flames. In 1927 it was rebuilt, and it is this Gresham Hotel that stands on Upper O’Connell Street today.

(Credit: The Gresham Hotel)

Davy Byrne’s pub

Address:  21 Duke St, Dublin, D02 K380.

No walk is complete without a visit to the pub, just as no trip to Dublin is complete without a pint at Davy Byrne’s. Located just off Grafton Street, there are few places in Dublin more synonymous with James Joyce, making it the place to be on Bloomsday, an annual celebration of James Joyce’s life and legacy that takes place on the same day the events of Ulysses are said to take place, June 16th.

Joyce frequented this cosy establishment many times and immortalised it and its namesake owner in his masterwork, Ulysses, in which Leopold Bloom describes his surroundings with all the familiarity of a man who has had many a meal there: “Nice quiet bar. Nice piece of wood in that counter there. Nicely planned. Like the way it curves,” he observes.

(Credit: Alamy)

Sandymount Strand

Address: Sandymount Beach, Beach Road, Dublin.

This large stretch of coastline, which forms the last natural barrier between Dublin and the Irish Sea, is one of the most important Joycian locations in the city. Two of the 22 episodes that make up Ulysses are set here, including the infamous ‘Nausicaa’ episode, which sees Bloom spend a summer evening on Sandymount Strand with Cissy Caffrey, Edy Boardman, and Gerty MacDowell, who watch the fireworks burst above their heads as the sun slowly dips into the sea. It is in this same passage that a risque masturbation scene takes place, one that led to Ulysses being banned in the US on grounds of obscenity.

Walk halfway along the strand and you’ll come to Sandycove, a seaside resort that also features in Ulysses. It is here that you’ll find Martello Tower, one of the last remaining watchtowers built during the Napoleonic Wars, and which has since been transformed into the James Joyce museum.