Dublin is a city of stories. I heard the tale of the man who lives in a trailer, worked as a tailor on film sets, and was studying the law, for instance; of the mystic who gave up a university post in Canada to be a gardener till the end of his days. I heard the tale of Mrs. Chairbre, who could hold 12 people spellbound with one bottle and her conversation at a pub; the day she died she was laid out at the pub itself while people stood vigil all night long by her open casket, drinking and telling stories.
As I listened to the radio while riding in cabs, it seemed as if an author was always being interviewed, and I thought of what the novelist Colm Tóibín had told me: “America may have Hollywood and Wall Street, the French may have their food, wine, and culture, but the Irish have their writers!” No. 1 Merrion Square was where Oscar Wilde lived from 1855 to 1876, and a monument, right across the street from his former residence, has him reclining in a green jacket with quilted lapels, one leg propped up, on a pink rock so huge he looks like a splayed insect. The blackened bronze figure of James Joyce—thin and wiry, in a longish coat, with a stick, thick glasses, and his crumpled, wide-brimmed hat worn at an angle—on North Earl Street is dignified by comparison. But these were just statues: I actually met a few of Ireland’s great living writers, among them the Booker Prize winner John Banville, a mischievous man in a suit and tie and a long, undulating blue scarf. His studio is just steps away from the Winding Stair, the restaurant where we met, and from the dainty, lacelike frame of the Ha’penny Bridge across which I’d walked. There really aren’t many better ways to have lunch than overlooking the Liffey with a fresh, char-grilled mackerel on your plate.
Banville was telling me about the moment when he knew that Ireland was no longer the place his American wife, Janet, had first known in the 1970’s. Nostalgic for a hamburger, she had ordered one and a “thin gray thing” had arrived. “We had little apart from potatoes, cabbage, and corned beef then,” Banville said. Things changed in 1992, “when we discovered that Bishop Casey—a big star when Pope John Paul came here—had had a mistress, that he had a 17-year old son, and had borrowed 70,000 pounds from the parish funds to pay her off. When that story broke we just said, ‘The priests are gone. Let’s start having fun.’ The Celtic Tiger was born out of Bishop Casey’s loins.” The Irish economic boom started in the mid-90’s and began to fizzle in the fall of 2008. With unemployment now at 12 percent and public debt on the rise, Ireland has suffered badly during the global recession. Nonetheless, the food was delicious—no “thin gray things” here. And no economic downturn, furthermore, is going to change the fact that conversation is the main commodity in this city.
Out the window of the winding stair the sky threatened a little rain, humidity seemed pervasive, women wore mostly black. All morning the sun had been unwilling to do more than flash itself between clouds, yet I was in thrall to its perfect light, which played like a silvery high note against rushing clusters of menacing cumuli—meant for other countries, not Ireland. Banville looked out. “I love this kind of weather,” he said. “You can get six seasons in one day.”
It seemed to me that the sky was practicing how to do with light what Dubliners do with words. No sooner had I landed at the stately and very cozy Merrion Hotel, in the heart of Georgian Dublin, than I set off to meet Antony Farrell, founder and editor of Lilliput Press, which publishes mostly Irish writers. From his roof, Farrell pointed out how much the Bay of Killiney resembled the Bay of Naples, with Sugar Loaf Mountain on one end standing in for Vesuvius. We could see the Guinness beer brewery right across the river, a huddle of tall, bulky cylinders with shining white caps producing what goes here by the sobriquet Vitamin G.