Chris Morash explores the literary past of Dublin, and Trinity

Posted on: 23 March 2023

In a new book Prof Chris Morash, School of English, explores Dublin’s literary past and investigates the extent to which Dublin, and Trinity, has been reflected by, and created by, its authors, poets and dramatists.

Prof Chris Morash, Mairead Owens, Dublin City Librarian, Vice-Provost Prof Orla Sheils, and Anne-Marie Kelly, UNESCO City of Literature Officer, Dublin City Libraries.

‘Dublin: A Writer's City’, published by Cambridge University Press, was launched in MoLI (Museum of Literature in Ireland) earlier this week. The book contains a chapter focusing on the many writers associated with Trinity. Below Chris, has written an abridged extract focusing on the authors, poets and dramatists associated with Trinity.


'Dublin: A Writer’s City' is not so much a history of Dublin’s literary heritage, but more kind of literary map of Dublin, organised spatially around parts of the city – the North Inner City, the Southside suburbs, etc.  What fascinates me is the way in which writers from very different times seem to inhabit the same urban space, all at once.  So, the world of Jonathan Swift shares a streetscape with the 19th-century poet James Clarence Mangan or the contemporary crime fiction author Tana French – all very different writers from different times, and all somehow all leaving their traces in the same space.  When I was planning the book, it became clear that there were so many writers associated with Trinity that the campus itself was going to require its own chapter – from which the extract below has been taken. 

‘Very pleasant to be away from the noise of the streets, which makes but a dreamy hum in the distance,’ observes an account of student life from 1892. ‘The place, despite its gloominess of face, has the charm of stillness and seclusion in the heart of the city.’  Stephen Dedalus (who attends the rival University College Dublin, on St. Stephen’s Green), passing the Front Gates in Joyce’s  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man  (1916), registers ‘the grey block of Trinity on his left, set heavily in the city’s ignorance like a great dull stone set in a cumbersome ring.’  His counterpart, Leopold Bloom in the ‘Lestrygonians’ episode of Ulysses  (1922), notes Trinity’s ‘surly front’ as he passes by the Provost’s House, well protected from the lower end of Grafton Street by a high wall. Bloom passes by the House on 16 June 1904, five months after the Provost of the time, George Salmon, had passed away in the house on 22 January. ‘Provost’s House,’ thinks Bloom to himself. ‘The reverend Dr Salmon: tinned salmon. Well tinned in there. Wouldn’t live in it if you paid me’ – after which his thoughts turn towards lunch in a more congenial public space, Davy Byrne’s   ‘moral pub’ on Duke Street, where a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola cheese sandwich await him – not salmon.

The sense of Trinity’s campus being defined by its walls and gates lingers in more recent writing, even though the grounds are now effectively public parks, where nearby office workers eat their lunches, and tourists photograph themselves on the cobbles. In Louise Nealon’s campus novel Snowflake (2021), for instance, her narrator, Debbie, recalls that before becoming a student, when she would visit Dublin with her uncle Billy, from rural Kildare, he always ‘pointed at the high stone walls and spiked railings at the side entrance on Nassau Street but we never went in. I don’t think he realized that it was open to the public. I always thought of Trinity as a reverse Shawshank Redemption situation, where you had to bribe Morgan Freeman with cigarettes and tunnel your way in.’

If for the city’s flâneurs  (whether Bloom, or Debbie and her uncle Billy), the granite bulk of Trinity acts like a rock in a stream, forcing them to flow around it, inside there is an oasis of quiet. All cities have these zones of quiet, where a revolving door seals behind you, or you step into the hushed, air-conditioned atrium of an office foyer. So, for instance, in one of the many of nineteenth-century novelist Charles Lever’s works in which Trinity features, The O’Donoghue (1845), a character visiting a friend in college is struck, on stepping through the Front Gate, by the ‘sudden change from the tumult and noise of a crowded city to the silence and quietude of these spacious quadrangles.’  George Birmingham’s 1906 novel Hyacinth compares ‘the material fabric, the actual stone and mortar’ of Trinity to Oxford  and Cambridge,  where ‘shops jostle and elbow colleges in the street.  In Dublin a man leaves the city behind him when he enters the college, passes completely out of the atmosphere of the University when he steps on to the pavement. […] The rattle of traffic, the jangling of cart bells, the inarticulate babel of voices, suddenly cease when the archway of the great entrance-gate is passed. An immense silence takes their place.’ Oliver St. John Gogarty, who studied medicine at Trinity, describes a similar effect of walking into the college from one of the busiest intersections in the city: ‘The way through the Front Gate divides the great quad of Trinity College, which opens on a large cobbled space. In the lawn of each stands a great oak. Old grey houses with windows framed in lighter stone shelter the immense trees. In front, the graceful campanile stands between the Library and the Graduates’ Memorial.’    

Gogarty is writing this in 1937, in his memoir  As I Was Going Down Sackville Street, and he goes on to imagine that, having passed through Front Gate, he sees a Provost of the College from earlier in the century, John Pentland Mahaffy, emerging from the discreet internal entrance to the Provost’s House in the corner of the square, ‘over six-foot and over seventy, unbowed, with head slightly inclined, I see him talking to some attentive Fellow.’   The key word here is ‘talking’: Mahaffy was not only a famously witty and opiniated talker, he had written a serious academic treatise on the topic:  The Principles of the Art of Conversation (1887). ‘There can be no doubt,’ begins this study by a scholar of classical civilization, ‘that of all the accomplishments prized in modern society that of being agree-able in conversation is the very first.’  Mahaffy’s world was one that took conversation seriously; and, in some senses, Trinity’s role in the urban streetscape of Dublin is to provide an oasis of quiet in the very heart of the city in which conversations could at least be heard, the quiet snug in the great pub that is Dublin.

Extract from: Dublin: A Writer’s City  by Chris Morash (Cambridge University Press, 2023).  


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