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James Joyce Martello Tower Museum Dublin Ireland
As part of my recent research into the background and context of the short stories of James Joyce I decided to commune as far as is possible with the author by visiting his birthplace and the local environment of his formative years in Ireland. The James Joyce museum housed in a martello tower in Dublin was therefore a must-see on the writer list. This museum was a studenty ‘hang-out’ of Joyce’s when it was a rented property and he wrote other works there - for example the ground-breaking ‘Ulysses.’ For that reason it is a popular tourist destination for Joyce devotees of all types, novel fans, essay fans and short story collection fans alike. All want to achieve similar objectives - a real feel for Joyce and his times and a glimpse into his emotional life as offered by the displays of love letters and other ephemera.
Thankfully this precious resource was purchased by other devotees who preserved it for the nation and for posterity, and the tower (common along the shores of England and Ireland as defences in Napoleonic times) has been refurbished and tastefully decked out as a museum whilst preserving it’s original spartan, bracing atmosphere. In fact, one of the most enduring memories of the venue that most visitors have, is of the sea-sprayed, gusty atmosphere of the rocky agate shoreline visible all around from the tower top, complete with dark black pools and rusty orange climbing ladders to ‘gentlemens bathing areas’ such as the famous ‘The Forty Foot’ where Joyce and his plucky classmates dived and swam and which features in ‘Ulysses.’ It is no surprise that he and his friends enjoyed the location - from there the view encompasses almost the whole of Dublin Bay and visitors can imagine poor Eveline from the ‘Dubliners’ collection lining up at the docks wondering whether she should board the ship berthed at the sea wall, bound for Buenos Ayres.
The museum itself is easily accessible by the ‘Dart’ light railway which runs along Dublin’s rocky coastline, or by bus, but we chose the atmospheric ‘writer’s walk’ from village to village through rocky coves and little vintage Victorian suburbs with lovely irish names such as ‘Glasthule’ and, from the other direction ‘Dun Laoghaire.’ En route, visitors can see some Victorian buildings, typical of the time, and can imagine the characters of ‘Dubliners’ living in them, perhaps the priest in the presbytery and the ruling classes in the still-chandeliered drawing rooms of the seaside villas. Of course, the trip makes a lovely cycle route too!
Once at the martello tower museum, visitors are greeted by warmly welcoming and knowledgeable Joyce devotees - volunteers who explain to visitors from all over the world that they are on hand to introduce or add background detail to the many fascinating exhibits. A favourite was the letter written by Joyce to Nora Barnacle, his sweetheart. It could hardly be called a love letter however, as it seemed rather cold and selfish, though honest. It was a strange experience to see the actual handwriting of an author trying to transmit his real self-serving intentions for a relationship. The letter appears to suggest that Nora initially went along with his cold conduct of the relationship but reading between the lines of the letter it seems there was a misunderstanding and some sort of row one evening. Joyce’s reply the following morning seems to be an attempt to rationalise his behaviour. It is difficult to describe how the immediacy of such visitor contact with author memorabilia can transport the reader into his world and mind.
Likewise the upper floor of the museum, which houses a mock-up of a famous backdrop to Ulysses (the sparse and spartan bunk-room where Joyce and his friends slept on basic wooden beds and cooked fried bacon on a greasy old fashioned stove in the half-light) can transport the visitor. Stools are provided for truly dedicated Joyce fans who wish to sit a while and soak up the sun striped dusty atmosphere before moving on.
A visit to the James Joyce museum is highly recommended for all James Joyce fans who want to understand the author better and to gain unique insights into his work.
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