The Dublin Writers Museum

A Choice Beyond Joyce

The Dublin Writers Museum basking in morning sunshine
••• The Dublin Writers Museum basking in morning sunshine. © Bernd Biege 2017

The Dublin Writers Museum is a whole house, in a central location, dedicated to keep the memory of famous (and some not quite so famous) Irish authors alive, all of which have one unifying entrance in their CV – time spent in Dublin. With many actually being born in Ireland’s capital, and some buried in Dublin cemeteries. As to fame, they range from the pantheon of Joyce, Yeats, and Behan to more obscure writers.

Why a Dublin Writers Museum?

Isn’t it obvious? Dublin is a UNESCO City of Literature, and no less than three winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature were born here: W.B. Yeats (though often more associated with Sligo), George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett. To top it off, the fourth Irish prizewinner, Seamus Heaney, at least died in Dublin, where he lived for nearly forty years. And then there are the prizeless others, like the man who made Dublin his main theme, James Joyce. Who also manages to dominate the Dublin Writers Museum a little bit – at least there seem to be more portraits and mentions of him than of any other writer. So dedicating a building in central Dublin to writers, with the neighbor, the Irish Writers’ Centre, complementing it as a place of education, and the showcasing of contemporary literature, was almost inevitable.

In 1991, Dublin Tourism (now part of Fáilte Ireland, the national tourism marketing agency) stepped up to the plate, and created the museum in a converted townhouse at No.

18, Parnell Square. Next to the imposing Abbey Presbyterian Church, almost rubbing shoulders with the Hugh Lane Dublin City Gallery on the other side, just across from the Garden of Remembrance with its evocative statue of the Children of Lir. A cultural vortex Dublin would like to suck you into. Yet a bit off the beaten track for the usual punters looking for craic agus ceol, fun and music, or at least the cheapest Guinness and a party.

And party central the Dublin Writers certainly is not – it has a stayed atmosphere, a quiet dignity, and in concept is lightyears away from more modern, and far brasher, attractions like Epic Ireland and GPO Witness History, both within easy walking distance.

Visiting the Dublin Writers Museum

What now can you actually expect in the Dublin Writers Museum? Obviously not the writers themselves, as that would be more than spooky (though Bram Stoker might just be up for it, after all he gave the undead a new lease of life through his “Dracula”). Instead you’ll see portraits, lots of them. And books, though not for you to leaf through (unless you buy them in the bookshop at the back, that is). And memorabilia. All taking you on a journey though Irish literature, with a Dublin focus, and aided by a very good audioguide.

A focus that seems to mellow a bit right with the first exhibit, a facsimile of the Book of Kells – while the original is kept in Trinity College Dublin, in their Old Library, the book was not even created in Ireland. But this Scottish tome stands in for medieval illuminated manuscripts. After this, Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” makes an appearance. With rights, as the Elizabethan English poet actually started to compose his allegorical fantasy in Ireland.

And spent time in Dublin. The first true “Dublin Writer”, however, is Jonathan Swift … and with him the natives seemed to begin to take to producing literature like ducks to water. “Gulliver’s Travels” could be seen as the first classic actually produced by a Dubliner. And it already had the hallmarks of successful Irish writing – imagination run wild, with an eye on reality, and an often scathing wit.

Highlighting any author after these initial ones would be futile, mainly because the museum does not highlight them that much either. So you will discover more obscure Dublin writers as well as the heavy-hitters you came to expect. And discover connections you maybe did not know existed. It is more a journey of discovery than a visit to old friends. A journey for which you should take time, rushing through the big names only will not do.

This, according to curator Robert Nicholson, is how the Dublin Writers Museum works: “We are trying to provide an all-round experience, not bite-sized highlights with big arrows pointing to them.” Helped by the unashamed old-fashioned-ness of the whole attraction. No fancy multi-media, no special effects, no sounds. Though that recording of Joyce reading from his works, preserved on vinyl, certainly would deserve a spin occasionally (you can listen to a short excerpt on the audioguide).

Which neatly brings us to the memorabilia, the real highlights of the museum if you will. Because potted biographies, portraits, and even first editions will more than likely not hold the general public’s attention for long. But those aviation goggles, once owned and worn by Oliver St. John Gogarty, certainly put the author and politician in a new, daredevilish light (as if his shooting at Joyce wasn’t enough). The same with the pricey piano Joyce bought, even when struggling with day-to-day-expenses. Patrick Kavanagh’s death mask and typewriter side by side, Seán Ó Faoláin’s meerschaum pipes, Brendan Behan’s NUJ press pass and Painters and Decorators Union membership card – they all bring the visitor nearer to the human behind the writing. And to their quirks, at times.

Asked for his favorite object, curator Nicholson has a hard time singling one out, having grown fond of all of them. But then he wistfully mentions Beckett’s telephone, “by which the great playwright kept contact with the outside world”. Funnily enough with an extra only a true introvert would understand in these days of 24/7 social media … a red button which could block all outside calls. Shaw had his phone adapted in a similar way. Maybe we should take heed?

The upper floors hold a “Writers Gallery” with more portraits and exhibitions, in a stunning room refurbished to a high standard – the doors alone, with their paintings representing the months of the year, are worth taking the steps (no lifts here). In another large room dedicated to children’s literature you’ll explore writers that focused on young readers, with some very imaginative staging. A library room is also open to the public, but alas, the bookcases are not. Which, all in all, might be a very good thing. Veteran bibliophiles and those new to Dublin literature might get their fix in the bookshop at the back of the building, which sells all the seminal works of Irish literature. Plus some souvenirs which fit right in. Like mugs with Joyce quotes, saying “I will” quite out of context.

Is the Dublin Writers Museum Worth a Visit?

Yes, absolutely … and no, not necessarily. It is a bit of a curate’s egg in that parts are excellent (witness the wonderful collection of memorabilia), and parts might just leave you lukewarm. Like discovering that many of the portrait paintings in the gallery are not originals, though there are enough originals to feast you eye on. Albeit somewhat hidden along the walls of the halls and staircases at times.

At the end of the day it very much depends upon your interest in literature, and in Irish literature especially, how much the Dublin Writers Museum will captivate you. If you can appreciate the first editions on show, despite them often being used, or if the surrealistic quality of André Monréal’s painting “Beckett by the Sea” can get you thinking, by all means go. Even if you just have a passing interest in literature, go for a good introduction into the Irish writers’ world.

If, however, you are not that much into books, expect some fun entertainment, and restrict your Irish reading to witty quotes by Oscar Wilde, then you might well wonder what the fuss is all about. Because this museum is not for you. You might get more out of a tour of the literary pubs of Dublin.

Essential Information on the Dublin Writers Museum

  • Location: 18 Parnell Square, Dublin 1.
  • Public Transport: Connolly is the nearest rail station, Abbey Street would be the closest LUAS station. Local buses stop in Parnell Square. Long-distance buses terminate at Busaras, within ten to fifteen minutes walking distance
  • Parking: car parks and (limited) on-street parking are available in the area and signposted.
  • Opening Times: Monday to Saturday 9:45 AM to 4:45 PM, Sunday 11 AM to 4:30 PM (public holidays like Sunday, closed Christmas day and Saint Stephen’s Day).
  • Admission Fees: adults 7.50 €, children 4.70 €, concessions available.
  • Estimated Time Needed: if you want to see (and read) everything at a moderate pace, you may as well budget for a few hours, two at least.
  • Food & Drink: available locally, but the café in the Dublin Writers Museum is now closed permanently.
  • Souvenir Shop: yes and no, as a bookshop also selling some souvenir items (with a literary twist) is located at the rear of the building, with a good selection of Irish literature. Note that you may actually visit the bookshop without paying the entrance fee, just ask at reception.
  • Website: Dublin Writers Museum
  • Phone: 01-8722077

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary entry for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, TripSavvy believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.