One of my favorite things about Dublin is its relationship with words. History is embedded deep in language here. A lot of Dublin communities are tight-knit, with roots that go back centuries, so the dialect is sprinkled with words and phrases that have been passed down over the generations, even after they’ve vanished everywhere else. In Dublin, “my girlfriend” is still “me mot,” from the Victorian English “mort” for “woman” — long gone out of use in England, but still alive here.
What should I read before I pack my bags?
“The Commitments,” by Roddy Doyle. I can’t think of another book that would do as great a job of putting the rhythms of Dublin into your head. Dublin talks fast, it snaps banter back and forth, it’s funny and cutting and profane, and it has the best insults (I’ve heard people called everything from a muppet to a golf ball to “that bleedin’ gazebo,” and those are just the ones fit for print). If your ear isn’t tuned in, you can miss the best bits. “The Commitments” will take you halfway there before you ever get on the plane.
What books should I bring along with me?
Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-Two-Birds,” a meta-novel (written under a pseudonym by Brian O’Nolan) about a Dublin student who spends his time lazing around, drinking and writing — except his characters won’t do what they’re told, and his stories keep getting mixed up with each other. It’s one of the great classics of Irish literature: gleefully surreal and chaotic, bursting with the author’s love for Irish mythology, and a lot of fun.
What books can take me behind closed doors?
“Skippy Dies,” by Paul Murray, is set at an elite boys’ school in a wealthy part of Dublin. Fourteen-year-old Skippy (surprise!) dies, and the rest of the book explores the last months of his life and the dynamics of the school. It captures all the heightened intensity and confusion of being a teenager, and it’s infused right through with the kind of passionate, razor-sharp social satire that you only get when the writer is white-hot furious at the terrible things being done to a place he loves.
And what should I listen to while I walk around?
For a wander through Dublin, there’s no way around it: You need “Ulysses.” I’m going to be a heretic, though, and say that you don’t need to read the whole thing. The language is so dazzling and multifaceted that it’s still got plenty to offer even if you just dip in here and there. Read — or listen to — passages about the places you’re passing through, or stopping in for a pint, for small illuminated windows into the city’s past. If you go for an audiobook, try the RTÉ 1982 version with full cast.
What literary pilgrimage destination would you recommend?
Jonathan Swift was the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, which is one of my favorite places in the city. There’s a door with a hole that was cut back in 1492 so that two warring families could shake hands and make peace, a 10th-century gravestone that covered what may have been the original St. Patrick’s Well, the nave where Oliver Cromwell (may have) stabled his horses because he was being an edgelord … and that’s just for starters. It’s over eight centuries of Dublin’s history, layered into one magnificent building.