Paging Through Ireland

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A book lover finally finds the time to read what she wants.

By Katie Haegele | “I hear they’re bringing back the floozy in the jacuzzi,” my friend Rob said one day, out of the blue. We were sitting at the kitchen table in his rented house in Dublin, drinking tea.


“The hoo-er in the sewer,” he said, trying to suppress a smile.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s from the Wake,” he said, meaning Finnegans Wake, the famous and famously obscure novel by James Joyce. One of the ones that no one’s read but everyone—everyone in Ireland, anyway—refers to with the easy familiarity and fond disregard you’d use to talk about a crackpot cousin’s get-rich-quick schemes.

“It’s a statue of a woman in the bath, one of the characters from the book. They took it down a few years ago but they’re putting it back up.”

“I don’t see why she has to have derogatory nicknames,” I sniffed. “It’s only because she’s a woman.”

He considered this for a second, then let the smile bloom. “Maybe, but you know what people call the statue of Joyce where he’s leaning on his cane? The prick with the stick.”

I’d moved to Dublin to attend a graduate program in modern English literature at University College Dublin—the same school, incidentally, that Joyce graduated from in 1903. Trinity, also located in Dublin, is the finer school with the fancier reputation. But since it was founded in 1592 as a Protestant-only institution, Joyce, as a Catholic, wasn’t allowed by the Catholic Church to attend.

That’s not the reason I went to UCD, naturally. I went there because I wanted to study literature and I wanted to live in Ireland—because after a weeklong visit there the year before, I knew it was a place I had to get back to. After I’d opened my acceptance letter and had stopped jumping up and down and throwing kisses to my cat, I went online to look for a place to live. On a real-estate website I found an ad for a room in a “worker’s cottage,” so called because it was one of many built in the mid-1800s by Guinness to house its employees. Could it have been more perfect? A little over a month later, I was on Stu’s doorstep.

Stu was a portrait painter from Liverpool, a floppy-haired man in his 40s who owned the house and rented out the warren-like back bedroom for extra income. It was a teensy place—I could walk from the front door to the little step out back where we hung our clothes to dry in six, maybe seven big strides. Our row of cottages was just down the road from a big, ugly housing project, which in England and Ireland are called, improbably, mansions. He warned me to avoid the mansions, saying that teenagers had once flung flattened tin cans at him from behind the wall as he walked by. The littler kids from the projects were sweet, though. A pack of them used to come down and bang on Stu’s front window to ask if his cat could come out to play. This one boy Shane absolutely killed me. He was around seven, but little, with a long, solemn face and a fantastic Dub accent. “I bet you’re American, isn’t it?” he asked me when he heard mine.

Stu and I got along pretty well—in a house of that size it was either get along or relocate—and for my birthday the next month he gave me New Dubliners, a collection of short stories by contemporary Dublin writers published in honor of the Bloomsday centenary.

When I got to Clare Boylan’s hilarious story about the antics of a few rollicking neighborhood kids, I heard Shane’s voice on every page. (“The sisters was bigger than us,” her main character Francie says. “They were turning into real mots. Even though they were still stupid and scaldy, there was older guys making eyes at them.”) I was thrilled and moved to find myself living in a story—and a good one at that.

Three times a week I took the notoriously unreliable number 17 bus from my neighborhood to campus. At the first meeting of our Theories of Modern Literature class, we broke up into groups of four to prepare a presentation on an avant garde poem that went on for several pages and, for many, many lines, repeated the mystifying “ribble bobble pimlico.” My group spent the 15 minutes developing plausible theories on the poem’s meaning while I made wisecracks and got sweaty armpits at the prospect of contributing something useful. That might have been my first clue that I wasn’t a match for the program. I did have a good time at the pub afterwards, though.

My professors were insightful, deadpan, easy-going. Every Wednesday evening after lecture they trooped us down to the faculty lounge for complimentary drinks. It was the lecture part I wasn’t so keen on. I couldn’t get a handle on the convoluted constructs we were supposed to shoehorn into the poems and novels we read. The Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukacs liked to say things like, “Abstract potentiality belongs wholly to the realm of subjectivity; whereas concrete potentiality is concerned with the dialectic between the individual’s subjectivity and objective reality.”

I suppose I’m revealing my provincialism here, but I didn’t see what that sort of thing had to do with the beautiful poetry and prose we were reading—by Eliot, Pound, Joyce—or with any other piece of writing I’ve ever loved. My instructors, and a few of my classmates, could deconstruct this literature and the culture that had produced it in one dazzling academic flourish—and fair play to them, as they say in Ireland. I just didn’t get it.

By the time I decided to drop out of the program a couple months later, I considered Dublin a second home. People there had a certain everyday connection to their literary culture that was exciting in its ordinariness. A friend of mine from class, who dressed all in black and owned every piece of paraphernalia used to promote the movie Corpse Bride, was the daughter of a couple who owned a small bookshop in the country. Her apartment was filled with little stacks of books like ancient druid burial mounds, and she had a picture of Terry Pratchett on her cell phone.

Of course, there was Rob too, whom I’d been dating for a few months and had sort of fallen in love with. He and I met in a pub on my birthday, and before we’d even gone out on our first proper date, we bumped into each other again at the Irish Writers’ Centre, where a friend of mine from class was having a book-launch party. We had a long, very long, very sweet kiss on the stairs out front, and I was done for.

Once I’d dropped out of school, I had no compelling reason to stay in Stu’s dumpy neighborhood, so I crammed some clothes into my backpack and bought a bus ticket to the other side of the country. I cycled solo around the hauntingly beautiful Aran Islands; I peered over the edge of the dizzying, dazzling Cliffs of Moher. Out of school and on the road, I finally had time to read what I wanted.

For my journey, my goth friend gave me a somber John McGahern novel, overstock from her parents’ store. Another friend lent me a book of poems by Eavan Boland that I read on the bus, green fields and stone walls rolling by me outside the window. In Derry I went on the piss with a rowdy bunch of Northern Irish drinkers, some of whom really knew their way around a bookstore. The next morning, my head sore and stomach trembly, I opened the little notebook I carried with me everywhere and was touched to find a recommended-Irish-reading list one of them had written for me.

Back in gray, damp Dublin, I crashed with friends and read and wrote. I was tired and dirty from not having a place to live, but I tried not to care what I looked—or smelled—like and just took it in. Drifting through the city I walked past the full-color statue of Oscar Wilde lounging on a rock, past the loony street poet peddling his books with a sign that advertised “lovely poems with no hard words.” I nosed around Hodges Figgis, the beautiful bookstore whose name conjures up Harry Potter. I sneaked into Trinity’s library and looked up William Trevor books; I sat in the stacks and cried at the end of “The Day We Got Drunk On Cake,” wiping my face with my ratty sweater.

I read more in those few months than in any other few months from the rest of my life—as a student, a book reviewer, a lifelong lover of words.

I stayed at Rob’s place, too, where I drank gallons of tea and literally ran through the kitchen on my way to the bathroom every morning because the floor was as cold as an ice rink. He and I were supposed to spend my last week in Ireland together, traveling outside the city for a B&B getaway, but our relationship had unraveled by then. On the evening of its final sputtering death throes, we sniped at each other and cried, and by the end of it I was too worn out to leave and find another place to stay. Instead we lay there on his bed, sad and defeated, him paging halfheartedly through the Murakami novel I’d just finished and me hiding in his copy of John Banville’s The Sea, which, with its droll asides and descriptions like poetry, helped me keep my wits on that unhappy day.

In the morning I left his little house for the last time and took the bus downtown. I spent hours that day in bookstores—the bright and shiny Hodges Figgis, where I got my own copy of The Sea, and a cluttered used bookstore that was also a post office. I left there with a few gems, including a battered copy of The Kilkenny Magazine, Autumn-Winter 1961. Truth be told, I bought it because of the fantastic hand-drawn Guinness ad on its inside cover. A line of sad-sounding books sat on one shelf: Les MiserablesBleak HouseAnatomy of Melancholy. On the shelf below—and next to an empty pint glass—were the comically chipper titles Present Laughter and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The ad’s tagline: “Life is brighter after Guinness.”

The next day, the day before my flight home, I decided to do a few tourist things I’d put off, like visit a museum exhibit of Irish literature I’d read about in my guidebook. When I got there, I realized it was the same place where I’d toasted my friend’s book and shared a glass of wine with Rob, whom I hadn’t yet begun to love, or unlove. I lit a cigarette, sat down on the cold stone steps, and opened The Sea. It was the last piece of beauty I stole from that place, but not the only one. Not by far.

Katie Haegele works as a freelance writer. “The Dubliner,” the column she wrote about her experiences in Ireland for Philadelphia Weekly, won third place for column writing from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

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