Millennium Dublin celebrates its citizens and its heroes
IF you were of a mind, you could do the day up proper and begin in the wee hours by breakfasting on grilled mutton kidneys - Leopold Bloom's favorite ``inner organs'' - at the South Bank Restaurant, Sandycove. With the summer sun winking off Dublin Bay, it would be the right proper way to usher in Bloomsday, the city's annual folk festival honoring James Joyce, Dublin's favorite son and author of ``Ulysses.'' The festival is held each year on June 16, the day in 1904 in which all the events of ``Ulysses,'' including Bloom's breakfast, took place. If any day captures the spirit of Dublin, whose unofficial anthem is Molly Malone's refrain, ``Alive, alive O,'' it is Bloomsday, an event ``without official programme,'' but with plenty of high spirits, readings, recitations, and reenactments of Joyce's tome, preferably done in Edwardian costume.
It could not be a more appropriate year in which to go by the book: in the middle, as it were, of Dublin's millennium year, celebrating 1,000 years of Irish urban history. If the date - 988 - seems rather ad hoc to some people - including Millennium staff member Jill McDermott - then never mind. It would only spoil the good crack, as they say, of this once-in-a-1,000-years party.
If pressed, Ms. McDermott will tell you that the Vikings held Celtic Dublin (Dubh Linn, or ``dark pool,'' from the peat-colored waters of the River Liffey) from 795 to 1014, but ``King Mael Sechnaill II laid siege to Dublin and won it, more or less, for the Irish in 988.'' Hence the hoopla: some 1,200 events and $9 million worth of festivities to lure an extra 250,000 visitors to Dublin's fair city.
And why not? For Dublin, with its confusing history and jumbled architecture (the original Parliament building is now a bank; the real Parliament building used to be a duke's summer home and is next to the National Library where Joyce studied, so guess which is more revered) is nothing if not its citizenry.
It is the city's enduring legacy: a garrulous hospitality that has persisted from Joyce's day on; a relaxed friendliness somewhere between British reserve and Yankee brazenness that stamps Dublin as its own. It is a city where on the annual pre-Bloomsday ``Ulysses'' walk you are just as likely to encounter a BBC camera crew as you are to find Joyce's nephew, ruddy-cheeked Ken Monaghan, who will cheerfully tell you, ``Oh, I never met the man. He never came back to Dublin while I was alive, but my mother said, `Yes, he was very different.'''
It is somewhat ironic, then, that this ``conversation capital of the world,'' according to Dublin's lord mayor, Alderman Carmencita Hederman, is hosting its first-ever International Writers Conference as a focal point of the Millennium. The mayor welcomed to Dublin more than two dozen writers: foreigners, including Nigerian poet Chinua Achebe and Israeli novelist Yehuda Amichai, plus the home-grown talent, poet Seamus Heaney and the old Irish writer Sean 'O'Tu'ama. The mayor posed again the question that has been asked since the first Celtic storyteller opened his mouth: ``Why do the Irish have such a gift with the word?'' ``If anyone knows,'' asked the mayor, ``please come up later and tell me.''
As writer Leon Uris put it, the city's history has ``been forged by men of letters and men of insurrection.'' Indeed, more ``bukes'' are bought and read here than in any other country, with the possible exception of neighboring Great Britain. Creative writers are offered - and accept - tax-free status, no mean concession when most others can pay up to 60 percent. The tiny emerald isle of only 3 million-plus people has produced three Nobel Prize-winning writers (Beckett, Yeats, and Shaw), plus all the non-prizewinning ones (Joyce and the rest). ``Only in Ireland are authors treated like film and pop stars,'' says the mayor.
And these are the most obvious of the city's literary echoes, which you can hear on any street corner and in any of the hundreds of smoky pubs. It is not that every Dubliner is a poet; it is that in a city of this size, a town masquerading as a city, its most noticeable contingent is, again, its citizens.
Whether in print or on their two feet, the Irish have been their country's most enduring export. Ever since the Great Potato Famine and again today, Ireland has faced an erosion of its people. Indeed, the Millennium falls in a decade when Dublin, and the country as a whole, face a crushing foreign debt, continued high unemployment, and almost nonstop emigration of its young. ``Boatloads of them, every week,'' says Padder Greer, wheeling his taxi along Dublin's streets. ``Nothing you can do, no work, no prospects. To the young, the Millennium is stupid. They have nothing to celebrate.''
But talk to Benedict Kiely, the author of 18 books and one of Dublin's snowy-haired bards, who in the cool recesses of his Donnybrook flat will, like any good Dubliner, quote you Yeats and talk politics. ``Why shouldn't the young leave? It's a small island. I like it fine and never left, but Joyce did, Beckett did.'' And then Mr. Kiely will invite you to tea, like any good Dubliner, and show you pictures of Maude Gonne, Yeats's true love and Ireland's doyenne of politics, and tell you, ``I was in the room when that picture was taken.'' And then come Yeats's lines: ``When you are old and gray and full of sleep, nodding by the fire....''
Or step out into the dazzling summer sun and have a word with Ann O'Neill, one of the city's official Millennium tour guides. Everyone's interested in ``the Viking aspect this year,'' Mrs. O'Neill says, just a stone's throw from the Irish Life Viking Adventure, an authentically recreated Viking village that is one of Millennium's biggest exhibits. Dublin was the largest Viking town in the 10th century and now in the crypts of St. Audeon's one can tour a modified version of that metropolis-no-longer, along with the scores of uniformed schoolchildren whose excited shouts fill the soft air.
There are ranks of other children, less in tune to the festivities but still the future soul of Dublin: children, like blond, freckle-faced Suzanne Doyle, who live in public housing projects in Ringsend, where Joyce had Bloom perambulate 84 years earlier, and where the Joyce Society took its annual ``Ulysses'' walk this year.
``Are you Americans?'' Suzanne hollers out at the odd group standing bareheaded under the sun clutching the massive volume and reading aloud the pertinent scenes. When told it's a walk celebrating James Joyce, Dublin's illustrious writer, she asks, ``Oh, is he famous, then?'' But then see how quietly she and her friends join the group, listening to Robert Nicholson, the trim, gray-haired curator of the Joyce Museum and author of the new ``Ulysses Guide Through Joyce's Dublin,'' who is reading from somewhere deep in the fifth chapter.
Mr. Nicholson is the one who will preside over that Bloomsday kidney breakfast; the very Nicholson who also heads up the Joyce Society's weekly meetings in University College, where Joyce himself studied. The group has been reading and discussing ``Finnegan's Wake'' every Tuesday since 1984, and they have now reached Page 543. In the robin's-egg-blue room, home first to Joyce and now this band of Dubliners, Nicholson and a handful of others read on - a living connection to the past and, if one of the quietest, perhaps the most fitting tribute to the city's thousand years.
``Right,'' says Nicholson as you, the odd visitor, depart after weathering the dissection of a few pages. ``Right. Look forward to seeing you on Bloomsday.'' And as you head on into the adjacent St. Stephen's Green, where the last of the sun is slipping behind Dublin's skyline and the mist begins to rise on the lawn of putting-green perfection, you think of Gabriel Conroy's toast to his fellow Dubliners in Joyce's story, ``The Dead'': ``I feel more strongly with every recurring year that our country has no tradition which it does so much honor and which it guards so jealously as that of its hospitality.''
That is, Millennium or no, something worth celebrating.