Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press



Chris Morash

One of the most best-known conversations about Dublin took place in Zürich, when James Joyce was walking down Universitätstrasse with his friend Frank Budgen. “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete,” Joyce famously told him, “that if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” In the years since, few have taken Joyce up on the implicit wager of imagining Dublin “suddenly disappeared”. Unlike New York, for instance, that has been invaded by any number of aliens, ravaged by radioactive reptiles, inundated by tidal waves, and taken over by apes, Dublin has remained relatively untouched in our apocalyptic imaginations. When the Martians land, it would appear, they are more interested in the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, or Big Ben than in Davy Byrne’s pub or Sweny’s Pharmacy.

This should tell us that Dublin is not a city of monuments. It is not a city of architectural shapes, not a place you long to photograph at night, like the Charles Bridge in Prague, when the crowds have gone. “What a city Dublin is!”, Joyce continued to Budgen as they strolled through Zürich. “Everybody has time to hail a friend and start a conversation about a third party. Pat, Barney, or Tim. ‘Have you seen Barney lately? Is he still off the drink?’ ‘Ay, sure he is. I was with him last night and he drank nothing but claret.’”[i] More than a hundred years after Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, two of literature’s great flaneurs, set off like Joyce and Budgen, talking to all and sundry around the city, Dublin is still a city of talk, and its literature is still largely a literature of talk. Sally Rooney’s novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People both centre around the city, and while Rooney’s Dublin may look more like other cities than the Dublin of Ulysses did, they have effectively distilled even further that quality that makes Dublin what it is: it is a place where you have conversations, and not just with friends.

For this reason, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed Dublin in a fundamental way. Dublin has been fortunate enough to not see anything like the triage tents in Central Park, or the trenches dug for the dead on Hart Island in New York. But the simple act of emptying Dublin has just as surely shown us what made the city alive in the first place: it is a city of people. Of course, all cities are cities of people; but Dublin is first and foremost a city of people, and when you take the people away there is less left behind. It sounds like the cliché of tourism brochures, but part of the experience of the city was an unexpected encounter while elbowing your way to the bar of Mulligan’s pub on a Thursday evening or a chance conversation on Grafton Street on a Saturday morning – all of those little events that felt just enough like scenes from some slightly-too-nostalgic movie that the mutual recognition of their fictional quality was as much part of their pleasure as the meeting itself. As Joyce recognised, it was always about scale; Dublin has always been just big enough to have crowds that are never completely anonymous.

Right now, the most immediate impact of the pandemic has been to force us all to acknowledge the thing we usually avoid, and there is a collective experience of something akin to what Heidegger calls “Being-towards-Death.” Over time – at the moment we don’t know how much time – this will recede. What may take longer to recover is our being with others. Dublin’s gift to literature – and hence, perhaps, its gift to the world – has been to show that while the crowd in modernity has been synonymous with alienation, the crowd need not be alienating. Dublin has taught us that in crowds we encounter others, and in encountering others, ourselves. Right now, when the idea of any crowd is more than a bit frightening, Dubliners find themselves for the first time ever lost not in, but without, the crowd.

[i] Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960), 67-68.

Mapping Irish Theatre by Chris Morash and Shaun Richards
Mapping Irish Theatre by Chris Morash and Shaun Richards

About The Author

Chris Morash

Chris Morash MRIA, FTCD, is the inaugural Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing at Trinity College, Dublin; he was Vice-Provost of the university from 2016-2019. He has publish...

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