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The best books about Dublin

The best books about Dublin

James Joyce looms large, but the city has many other chroniclers. Here’s our reading list

James Joyce looms large, but the city has many other chroniclers. Here’s our reading list

Tim Martin | October 8th 2018

Yes, you should read “Ulysses”. No, I’m not going to make a huge fuss about it. In fact I don’t need to, because the city does it for me: you may duck the baleful gaze of your unfinished, shelf-shackled copy and escape into the Dublin streets, but if you pause by O’Connell Bridge or loiter outside Davy Byrne’s pub and look down, you’ll see gleaming plaques with James Joyce quotations to remind you of your shirked literary duties. It’s a lovely idea in theory – the city written in the book, the book written on the city – although John Banville’s view in his memoir “Time Pieces” is strangely difficult to put from the mind: “What indignities we consider ourselves free to visit upon the famous dead! We have named a gunship after Samuel Beckett, that most peace-loving of men, and scraps of prose from ‘Ulysses’ are embossed on miniature brass plates set into Dublin pavements for everyone to tread upon.”

What can I possibly say about “Ulysses”? It’s much, much funnier than one imagines it will be. It’s worth pushing past the “ineluctable-modality-of-the-visible” stuff at the beginning, a section on whose barbed wire many readers hang forever, and on to the romance-novel parody, and the surrealist play set in the red-light district, and the weirdly compelling chronicle of possibly imagined Shakespearan infidelity, and the mind-infecting slogan for Plumtree’s Potted Meat. (Of course everyone has their favourite bits; you, reader who has read it, undoubtedly do too.) There’s a surprisingly good iPad app from Naxos that packages the whole thing up with annotations, readings and period photos. We should all probably be reading it again.

In case you aren’t, try these:
 
John Wyse Jackson and Bernard McGinley James Joyce’s Dubliners: An Illustrated Edition with Annotations
 This wondrous edition of Joyce’s most accessible book seems to be out of print, but is entirely worth the trouble of tracking down second hand. Each right-hand page holds the text of “Dubliners”, a book embedded in the life of the city in a way that perhaps only “Ulysses” can match, but the facing pages are thronged with a bustle of notes, annotations and observations from the compilers, plus photos, documents, maps, newspaper clippings, advertisements and drawings from the early 20th-century Dublin that Joyce describes. I’ve just opened it at random to a drawing of Napoleon, a bloodcurdling passage inviting “Weak Men” to seek medical attention for “Depression of Spirits, Disturbed Rest, Blushing, Loss of Flesh”, a page from a pornographic novel, a note on Joycean symbolism… By the end, if clapped in a TARDIS and transported back to a Dublin pub in 1905, you’d be perfectly capable of holding your own. Not many works of criticism support their subject with this level of delighted enthusiasm.

Flann O’Brien The Best of Myles
Many people will point you to Flann O’Brien’s novels first (and please, let them: don’t go to your grave without looking at “At Swim-Two-Birds” or “The Third Policeman”) but I’m nominating this collection of journalism first because it’s great on Dublin, and second because it’s the only book that makes me cry great tears of wriggling, helpless laughter in public. This collection skims the cream off the Irish Times column by Myles na gCopaleen, the pseudonym of Flann O'Brien, which in turn was the pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan, a writer and civil servant. Its pages overflow with surreal humour, insane skits, wild insight and some of the best jokes ever committed to print. The running gags are most memorable. There are the stories about Keats and Chapman, each of which is an insanely laborious set-up for an excruciating final pun; there are the sullen complaints about the author’s prose from “the Plain People of Ireland” (“This sounds like dirty water being squeezed out of a hole in a burst rubber ball”); there is the appalling bus-stop buttonholer with his stories of an autocratic “Brother” at home – but there’s much more besides, as, like a jazz improviser, O’Brien takes initially simple conceits and turns them inside out and back again. A book in a class of its own.

Terence Patrick Dolan A Dictionary of Hiberno-English
Again scandalously out of print, this irresistible reference work points the way through the several varieties of English dialect spoken in Ireland, with genial stops along the way to admire the view. A former professor of Old and Middle English at University College Dublin, Dolan is a companionably thorough lexicographer, whether he’s teasing out the unique grammatical features of Hiberno-English (such as the construction “I’m after having my dinner,” which means the very opposite of what bewildered foreigners usually think) or picking out fabulous nouns like “dullamoo”, “a good-for-nothing; a foolish, idiotic person” from the Irish dul amú, or “go astray”. Also concealed somewhere in here is the near-heretical notion that craic – a quintessentially Irish word, perhaps a quintessentially Irish concept – is actually a recent import of the Middle English word “crack”, for boasting, bragging or loud talk. Track down a copy. Keep your ears pricked.

David Dickson Dublin: The Making of a Capital City
If there’s a drawback to this beefy history of the capital from prehistory to the present, it’s that it only runs to the year 2000. For the real history of the Celtic tiger and the subsequent economic down/upturn, you need to look elsewhere (perhaps to the Ross O’Carroll Kelly novels – I’m only half joking). But David Dickson’s history, impeccably researched and easily written, is one of the best sources for everything else. It catalogues the city’s many faces as the capital of English rule, centre of Irish liberation and modern metropolis, with detours into plenty more besides: Magdalene laundries, the life of the stage, Georgian building projects, revolutionary politics, contemporary schooling… Animated by an evident fascination with the city in both its physical and intellectual forms, this is one of those books that you pretty much need to read with a map in the other hand.

Anne Enright The Gathering
We’d need a separate column for modern Irish fiction, really, but it’s worth mentioning that a number of the writers I’d point you to (Lisa McInerney, Eimear McBride, Claire-Louise Bennett, Mike McCormack, Donal Ryan, Sebastian Barry, and that’s just a handful of the living ones) set their scenes outside the capital. That’s not the case for this Booker-winning stonker of a novel, in which Enright takes a literary situation of dispiriting familiarity – a far-flung family coming together in Ireland after a death – and injects it through the heart with glitteringly nuanced prose, caustic humour, hi-res social observation and an awesomely flinty form of compassion. It’s bleak stuff, unambiguously targeted at the big imponderables – death, memory, the fuzz of self-delusion and deceit – but it’s also novel-writing of a seriously high order. Famous for a reason, then. Go and read it.
 
Honourable mention:
 
Roddy Doyle Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
Whoops. For many readers, not to mention fans of the multimedia behemoth that “The Commitments” has now become, Doyle’s vigorous, direct, dialogue-heavy novels are the books to read about Dublin. Absolute newcomers, if any still exist, might want to start with “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha”, a novel about a boy coming of age (well, ten years of age) in the North Dublin of the 1960s. Starts as comedy, ends as agony.