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On Last Looking into Greene’s Bookshop

Sign of the time

Sign of the time

It was with considerable regret that I learned of the closure of one of Dublin’s oldest bookshops. It was a place of comfort – a second home – to those who spent time browsing the crammed shelves and enjoying its unique bookish smell. Oddly, there was a Post Office at the bottom of the creaky stairs and that meant there were always people about. And, of course, the familiar green book trays that were carried outside the shop each morning and left under the glass canopy. These were packed with bargains and never failed to attract eager readers. I often sought shelter under the protective canopy when it rained, and dipped into the rows of books as the rain rat-tat-tatted on the glass above. The place was a sanctuary for both mind and body – something that is badly needed in these hectic times.

The shop, opened by John Greene on Clare Street, had been selling books since 1843, and that’s an awful lot of books however you decide to measure it. Whether one was buying schoolbooks for the next academic year, something that usually involved joining a queue that snaked its way around onto Merrion Square, or just looking for something to read while on holiday, Greene’s was the place to begin. And, due to its great selection, often where the search ended.

A familiar front

A familiar front

The moment of discovery was everything and I will never forget coming across a signed copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. I was only twelve or thirteen at the time and had just begun reading her stories. Since then I have read many of her books with her character Hercule Poirot being a particular favourite.  My book was a source of pride for years until I met a professor of English who was keen to see it. A week later when I visited him in college he burst my literary bubble when he turned the front cover over.

‘Ahh,’ he said and grimaced. The author’s ‘autograph’ was not like the real thing, he told me. It was a fake!

And the book was worthless!

Except, of course, that it wasn’t, as it had been my entry into the works of a great author with all the pleasure that it brought. Old and cheap, maybe. Worthless – never!

Like all institutions, and for many of us Greene’s was one, the time had come for it to close and turn the final page. It had brought joy and happiness to generations of booklovers and now proudly takes its place in Irish literary history. Oscar Wilde lived across the road and often dallied there, as only he could, amidst the musty tomes stacked precariously on creaking shelves. Patrick Kavanagh was a regular, as was Samuel Beckett who, for a time, lived in an attic above his father’s office across the street.

The story ends, and like all good ones we are left with a sense of wonder, enjoyment and of something satisfying. Sadly, the bookshop is gone, but the story of Greene’s will live long in the memories and hearts of those who entered its friendly embrace, and therein found new worlds to explore, experience and enjoy.

Greene's Bookshop - finally closed

Greene’s Bookshop – finally closed

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St Stephen’s Church – The Pepper Canister

St Stephen's Church

St Stephen’s Church

Nicknames are something that Dubliners are good at handing out, usually to friends and acquaintances, but it is rare that buildings are so honoured. So, I was really looking forward to visiting St Stephen’s Church, a place that I had passed many times but never entered and, like most people, called ‘The Pepper Canister’.

By the early 1800s with the city spreading out into new suburbs there was a need for a church to serve the growing community beyond Merrion Square. The Earl of Pembroke, a significant local landowner, gave the site for the church for free and an additional £700. And he, like many other parishioners, had their family pew, indicated by a brass nameplate. Over the years some of the well-known church attendees included; the poet and Senator WB Yeats, writer Sheridan La Fanu, a young Duke of Wellington, wit and dramatist Oscar Wilde and Thomas Davis who founded The Nation newspaper and wrote the ballad  A Nation Once Again. The church’s address is Mount Street Crescent and this too has an interesting story to tell. The word mount is derived from the mound at the junction of Baggot Street and Fitzwilliam Street where a gallows once stood!

Pembroke Family Pew

Pembroke Family Pew

St Stephen’s was one of the last Georgian churches built in Dublin and was designed by John Bowden who also responsible for the church of St Philip & St James, Booterstown. Sadly, he died during construction and the work was completed by Joseph Welland. It was consecrated by the Archbishop of Dublin, William Magee on 5th December 1824 and the final cost was £5,169!

The original building was rectangular and the colourful apse (East end) was added in 1852. But it is the front (West end) that is the most attractive and giving an unbroken view, across Merrion Square south side, to Leinster House. It is a beautifully realised feature, unchanged in almost two centuries. The cupola at the top of the church is a model of the Choregos of Lysicrates in Athens and where we get the familiar nickname.

Apse

Apse

Inside, there are wonderful stained glass windows which were not original features but added in Victorian times. A piece by the renowned Beatrice Elvery and another in honour of Dr Joliffe Tufnell, a former President of the College of Surgeons, look great in the sunlight. The organ dates from the 1750s and the carved rosewood pulpit is particularly attractive. Upstairs I noted a plaque in honour of Captain Charles King a man who survived the Battle of Balaclava (1854). I definitely hadn’t been expecting that. Wonderful.

Downstairs

Downstairs

 

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Dublin Writers’ Museum – It’s about words!

Dublin Writers' Museum

Dublin Writers’ Museum

For a city that has given the world so much fine literature the Dublin Writers’ Museum tells a story through its collection of letters, books and personal possessions of many great writers. It was setup in 1991 and with an interesting, chronological layout it is easy to follow the development of Irish writing from the late 17th to Samuel Beckett who died in 1989.

The building, at 18 Parnell Square, dates back to 1780 when Lord Farnham was its first occupant. It changed hands a few times until George Jameson (of the Jameson distilling family) bought the house in 1891. Over the years he made major refurbishments, including the creation of the wonderful Gallery of Writers on the first floor.

Dracula - First Edition

Dracula – First Edition

In the first room you can find out about the beginnings of Irish poetry and storytelling with the emergence of Swift, Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan whose play The Rivals gave the world the word malapropism. There is a unique document with Jonathan Swift’s signature and a first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And you can find out about Oscar Wilde, Sheridan Le Fanu  and the songs of Thomas Moore.

The second room concentrates of the works from the Irish Literary Revival at the end of the 19th century. The opening of the Abbey Theatre in 1904 was a pivotal moment with its productions of plays by playwrights WB Yeats, JM Synge and Sean O’Casey and there are many original programmes from the time. The signed copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses is worth the visit for any Joycean fan. There is plenty of interesting stuff to enjoy on Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain, writers whose short stories elevated the art form. An original Cruiskeen Lawn column (from the Irish Times) by Brian O’Nolan (Myles na gCopaleen) was a delight.

Upstairs in the Gallery there are some fine portraits and glass cabinets with letters, papers and other personal items. The telephone that Samuel Beckett had in his Paris apartment that allowed him chose whether to speak to a caller or not is quirky. There is the piano that Joyce played regularly and the chair that GF Handel sat on when conducting Messiah at the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street in 1642!

James Joyce's piano

James Joyce’s piano

The museum is a popular visitor attraction and it’s easy to see why. It’s a wordy place.

 

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Bram Stoker – Creator of Count Dracula

BSCAbraham ‘Bram’ Stoker was born in 15 Marino Crescent, Fairview, on the 8th November 1847, the third of seven children and baptised in the Church of Ireland, Clontarf on 30th December. He was a sickly child and did not attend school until he was seven. As such, he spent much time reading and he noted years later ‘I was naturally thoughtful, and the leisure of long illness gave opportunity for many  Stoker15 copythoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years.

He made a full recovery from his early illness and studied Mathematics in Trinity College where he graduated with honours. He was a keen sportsman and was awarded Athlete of the Year, as well as being Auditor of the Historical Society and President of the Philosophical Society. Oscar Wilde was a contemporary who Stoker proposed for membership of the Philosophical Society. Years later, after Wilde’s release from Reading Gaol, Stoker visited him in Paris. Coincidently, Wilde had once courted Florence Balcombe who Stoker married in 1878. She was almost the ‘girl next door’ as she lived at 1 Marino Crescent, a few doors from the Stoker household.

Stoker was always interested in theatre and became the Dublin Evening Mail’s (co-owned by the great Gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu) theatre critic and respected for his incisive reviews. After seeing Henry Irving, the greatest actor his generation play Hamlet in the Theatre Royal, and writing a review which the actor liked, the two met for dinner in the Shelbourne Hotel. Irving invited him to London to run the Lyceum Theatre and be his business manager, and he and Florence moved there in 1878. He acted for Irving until the actor’s death in 1905.

He travelled extensively with Irving, met many famous people, and all the time kept writing. He produced a dozen books, countless articles and short stories, but it is Dracula (1897) for which he is best remembered. The book has been a favourite since its release and is considered to be one of the most widely read books ever. It has never been out of print. More than 200 films have been made about Count Dracula and he has also featured in numerous stage and television adaptions. Stoker, himself, produced the first stage performance in the Lyceum Theatre on 18th May 1897 (8 days before the book’s publication) which Irving  thought was ‘dreadful’. Maybe the fact that it took fifteen actors four hours to perform had a lot to do with that! However, it is a magnificent achievement, and the sickly boy’s ‘fruitful thoughts’ have certainly been realised.

First editiion 26 May 1897

First edition 26 May 1897

 

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Samuel Beckett – Less is Less!

Samuel Beckett in Trinity College

Samuel Beckett in Trinity College

For someone born on Friday 13th especially as it was also Good Friday (in 1906), something special could be expected. So it’s no surprise that Beckett, who was born in Foxrock, Co Dublin, went on to become one of the most important writers of the 20th century and an inspiration to dramatists like Vaclav Havel, Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. His influence on the Beat Generation and their ‘experimental writing’ was vital for Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and many others.
Beckett was educated originally in Dublin before attending Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (Oscar Wilde had once been a pupil) and then entering   Dublin University (Trinity College). He was a bright a student and an excellent athlete, excelling at cricket. He played two first-class matches against Northamptonshire and, as such, has the unique distinction of being the only Nobel laureate (1969) to be mentioned in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac – cricket’s ‘bible’.

College Park - Beckett played cricket

College Park – Beckett played cricket

He went to Paris in 1927 to teach English and was soon introduced to James Joyce. Over the next two years, and with Joyce’s failing eyesight, he did much research on what would become Joyce’s last work Finnegans Wake. He was greatly impressed with the older man, and his first published work was a critical essay in support of Joyce.
After a short return to Dublin he went back to Paris when WWII began. He helped the French Resistance and in 1942 was lucky to escape capture by the Gestapo. His commitment was recognised after the war, when he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government.
This was Beckett’s most productive period, highlighted by the completion in January 1949 of his play Waiting for Godot. This play is considered by many as one of the greatest works of the century and, like all masterpieces, has any number of interpretations. The critic Vivian Mercier commented that ‘Beckett has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.’ Or more succinctly – less is less!

Gate Theatre - long relationship with  Beckett

Gate Theatre – long relationship with Beckett

 

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Oscar Wilde – an original!

Plaque at 21 Westland Row

Plaque at 21 Westland Row

Of all the great writers born in Dublin, Oscar Wilde is one whose life and work still fascinates people. He was unique, brilliant and ultimately suffered the mightiest fall and died penniless at only forty-six years old.
He was born on 16th October 1854 at 21 Westland Row to Sir William Wilde  and his  wife Jane. William was one of the leading eye-and-ear surgeons of the day, and his free dispensary was the forerunner of the current Royal Eye and Ear Hospital. Due to his outstanding work with the Irish Census from 1841, he received a knighthood in 1865. And with an increasing medical practice and improving financial position the family moved to a bigger house, a short distance away, at No. 1 Merrion Square. (Today, a colourful statue of Oscar looks at the house from the NW corner of Merrion Square.) Jane wrote poetry for The Nation under the style Speranza (Italian for ‘hope’) and was famed for her parties, where the young Oscar met the great and good, namely; the writer Sheridan La Fanu, the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton and the painter George Petrie among others.

1 Merrion Square

1 Merrion Square

Me & Oscar in London

Me & Oscar in London

He went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen and won a scholarship to study Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1874 he won another scholarship and went to Magdalen College, Oxford where in 1878 he achieved a double-first in Classics.
In 1891 wrote his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which brought Wilde notoriety. In it Gray makes a deal with the Devil to remain young while his picture ages, and this was considered perverse and scandalous. Modern readers take a lighter view, and the story has been made into film on many occasions.  From 1892-1895 Wilde had a run of  unprecedented success with his plays Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, all playing to full houses. However, after losing a bitterly contested court case he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and sent to two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol. He was so unsuited for this punishment that his health suffered, and it hastened his death three years after his release, in Paris on the 30th November 1900. Always one for the witty remark he is reported to have said when lying on his deathbed after being handed a glass of champagne ‘I am dying beyond my means’. Well said, Oscar!

Oscar - still a colourful character

Oscar – still a colourful character

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Second Hand, First Class!

Although the city has lost many of its favourite, second-hand bookshops in recent years, it’s good to see that quite a few have sprung up to fill the gap. In these straitened times it’s great news that readers can buy books at the ‘right price’, and long may it continue. These second-hand bookshops serve a growing need  and, in the process, are establishing themselves with their appreciative and growing, customers numbers.

Sweny's Pharmacy

Sweny’s Pharmacy

Some shops sell a range of genres while others serve a niche market. One such shop is Sweny’s in Lincoln Place  which  specialises in Irish books, where you can get anything from Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry to William Trevor, James Joyce or Oscar Wilde. The shop was, in a previous life, a pharmacy and it still retains many of the original features. It has its own unique place in Irish literary history as it is mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses. In fact, they hold weekly readings of the great man’s work, which is worth considering if you, like many others, have trouble in getting to grips with reading the difficult but ultimately rewarding book. And, there’s always a complementary cup of tea on offer!

Sweny's - living history...

Sweny’s – living history…

All these shops have their own unique atmosphere, something which makes browsing all the more interesting. Some are small, almost hidden away upstairs in old shops or markets, all vying for much-needed attention and trade. On the other hand, Chapters (Parnell Street) is probably the biggest of them all, and it has plenty of reduced new titles on sale. Upstairs is the second-hand section and it is well laid out and stuffed with books. The shelves are full and there are a few seats where readers can sit and ‘dip-into’ a  book before buying. It’s a nice feature, and something that I have often taken advantage of. Also, the shop will do ‘trade-ins’ of your old books, either for cash or credit, and that can’t be bad.

Chapters

Chapters – stuffed with books!

So, check out the second-hand shops, either in town or in your locality, they are worth a visit and, more importantly, worth supporting.

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