The real Long Room Library at Trinity College, wiht the Gaia Installation (a hovering globe) in the distance

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Walking along North Earl Street on our way to O’Connell, we came to the statue of James Joyce. He was leaning on his cane, head tilted, one foot crossed over the other as he stood gazing through his iconic glasses. Literary monuments are scattered throughout Dublin, to Joyce, Stoker, Yeats, Swift, Beckett and Wilde.

Next to Joyce, a troupe of Irish drummers, clad in traditional kilts, pounded their drums as onlookers watched. The lead looked like a post-Beatles John Lennon with long hair, shaven boyish face and glasses as round as those on the statue we admired now. A woman sat on a nearby bench, foot tapping to the drumbeat as she read a book.

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The people of Ireland in general—and Dublin in particular—are a people who love to read and hold literature in high regard. Ireland boasts the world record for the most Nobel Prizes in Literature per capita. Bookstores can be found on most busy streets, from the flashy to the dusty.

People can be spotted on park benches and bus seats, café tables and even in bars, with their noses in books rather than cell phones. There’s even an Irish whiskey called Writers’ Tears.

Pub: it can be short for publications (that you read) or public houses (where you drink). Is it a coincidence that both are popular pastimes in Dublin?

This reverence for books, for writers and poets, was something Nataliya and I found in conversations with locals, in the streets and bars. And also, in the places one might expect to find it.

Marsh’s Library

Dublin's James Joyce Statue stands on the north side of the Liffey River
Dublin’s James Joyce Statue stands on the north side of the Liffey River. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Just down St. Patrick’s Close, a small pedestrian lane near the cathedral, stone gates led us to Marsh’s Library. It was the first public library in Ireland, founded by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh in 1707. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal” was an early steward of the library.

The current Director, Jason McElligott, ushered us through the ancient books upon wooden shelves. McElligott has written books on such topics as Cromwell, censorship and the theft of books. Currently, he’s working on a forthcoming volume of the lost diaries of Bram Stoker—who himself was a former frequent visitor to Marsh’s Library.

The Long Room, our first stop, unfolded like a bibliophile’s dream. Row upon row of antique books stretched from floor to ceiling, wooden ladders leaning on each shelf. The scent of old books filled the air.

McElligott pointed out a section on the supernatural that Bram Stoker frequented. It was humbling to think of the literary giants who frequented this library and read these books.

From the Long Room, we entered the Reading Room, the very chamber where Jonathan Swift read by the fireplace. Bullet holes scarred some of the book spines on the shelf opposite the windows, silent echoes of a rebellion outside these very walls.

Book Protection Past and Present

The reading cells where suspicious readers could be locked in for a reading session as a precaution against stolen books
The reading cells where suspicious readers could be locked in for a reading session as a precaution against stolen books.
Photo by Eric D. Goodman

We watched as a gentleman meticulously cleaned books, their pages bearing the silent toll of climate change. It was a chilling reminder of the library’s vulnerability and the need to preserve books amidst a changing climate.

We walked through the opposite door into another room lined with high wooden shelves. Sitting at a desk before one of the shelves, a young woman worked on using string to band a book with a broken spine—a temporary fix to hold the book together until a full restoration could be done.

Around the corner was a room that included caged chambers, almost like jail cells. This was the space for “suspicious” readers, the enclosures meant to deter them from stealing books.

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“Suspicious people like James Joyce?” Nataliya asked in jest. We laughed, knowing that although Joyce had read here, his more frequent seat was probably in a pub.

“Book theft was a real problem,” the director admitted. “It’s fascinating as we work with other libraries and collectors to track down missing and stolen books. To see the journeys that stolen books have taken and the reach our library has had.”

Rare first editions, like an original book of Robert Boyle’s principles, hold untold value, not just monetary, but historical.

Descending a spiral staircase, we emerged into a tranquil garden. Even in December it was lush and green. As we thanked McElligott and said our goodbyes, he recommended the Chester Beatty Museum for a fascinating collection of illuminated manuscripts—and a pretty good selection of Turkish Delight at the museum’s Silk Road Café.

“We’ll make that our next destination,” I said.

Chester Beatty Museum

Bust of Chester Beatty at the museum and library housing his collection
Bust of Chester Beatty at the museum and library housing his collection. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

The Chester Beatty Museum is located near Dublin Castle. It holds the private collection of illuminated manuscripts and cultural treasures once belonging to Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, a mining magnate whose passion for collecting spanned continents and centuries. In 1953, he generously gifted his extensive collection to Ireland. His smiling bust greeted us in the lobby.

In the “Sacred Traditions” exhibit, exquisite Islamic art unfolded. Intricate calligraphy danced across Qur’an pages. Miniature paintings transported us to fantastical landscapes, where prophets walked and animals spoke. We took in the intricate metalwork and ceramics, each piece radiating centuries of cultural heritage.

The “Arts of the Book” exhibit offered a different kind of magic: illuminated manuscripts, painstaking testaments to the dedication of scribes and artists. The Lindau Gospels, a jewel of Irish Christian art, shimmered with vibrant pigments and intricate Celtic designs. We glimpsed the delicate floral motifs of Japanese sutras and the bold storytelling of Persian miniatures.

We indulged in a treat at the Silk Road Café. Homemade Turkish Delight, its sweetness perfectly balanced by rosewater, washed down by hot Irish tea. This icing on the cake added to the fusion of culture housed in the building.

The cobblestones of Front Square led us into the main gates of Trinity College, its Campanile piercing the grey-blue sky. Beneath the Campanile, we met our host, Darajane, for the campus visit.

Book of Kells Experience

Images from the Book of Kells float from the page in The Book of Kells Experience
Images from the Book of Kells float from the page in The Book of Kells Experience.
Photo by Eric D. Goodman

“We’re really excited about the new Book of Kells Experience,” Darajane said as we walked across campus to a modern, modular building. “With the Old Library’s Long Room in the process of restoration and its books being taken off the shelves for cleaning and restoration, we wanted to provide visitors with an experience worth their while.”

After all, Trinity’s iconic library and the Book of Kells are among the most visited sites of Dublin—or of Ireland for that matter.

Stepping inside the sleek, modular building felt like entering a time capsule—with one foot in the past and the other in the technologically advanced future. The first room in the experience included exhibits, images and videos depicting the boxing up and restoration of the books from The Long Room.

Busts of literary giants like Swift and Stoker, Socrates and Shakespeare, Newton and Lovelace, usually frozen in stoic silence in the actual Long Room, came alive. Holographic eyes flickered open, looking at each other, and at visitors, as they conversed with one another in witty banter, discussing their place in the world and their awareness of their current state as busts in an exhibit.

Irish instruments and poetry came to life—music playing and poems forming on a page in a clanking typewriter. A large wall displayed videos and images of books from the library coming to life.

Around the corner, a colossal, pristine book sat on an alter under a spotlight like the coveted idol in the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was a copy of The Book of Kells, the ancient, illuminated manuscript calling to us in vivid light.

Animated Illumination

The Book of Kells Experience features a projected recreation of Trinity College's Long Room Library
The Book of Kells Experience features a projected recreation of Trinity College’s Long Room Library. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Suddenly, the illuminated pages began to move, to come alive. The colorful images levitated off the page and made their way onto the walls around us, floating on air. We walked among the hovering imagery and made our way to the next room.

In the 360-degree theater, we were surrounded on all sides by an immersive film that delved into the history of the Book of Kells. The 10-minute film followed the 1,200-year-old manuscript on its remarkable journey from the island of Iona to Kells Abbey as it was hidden and protected by Monks and eventually brought to Trinity College for safekeeping.

We left the immersive theater and came to the Long Room Reimagined—digital projections bringing the old library to life. The books on the shelves were projected onto screens. Busts on pillars appeared real and three-dimensional.

People from today and from the past roamed the bookshelves before us, and imagery from books within the library came to life, from books on botany to the travels of Gulliver.

We exited through the gift shop, where scarves, sweaters and books inspired by Irish literary icons were for sale alongside refrigerator magnets and postcards. There were even tables and wine racks made of “Trinity wood” from old campus trees.

“That was amazing,” Nataliya said as we exited the Book of Kells Experience.

“Yes,” I admitted, “but I look forward to seeing the real thing.”

“There’s nothing like the real thing,” Darajane agreed, “but we’re expecting the Experience to really bring the book to life for people who might not ordinarily visit. Or who might come and take a quick look but not take the time to learn about the book and its history. And the timing is perfect since the library will be emptied of its books during restoration.”

Trinity Trails

We went to one of the campus cafeterias for a coffee break before embarking on a “Trinity Trails” campus tour. Grand halls echoed with the chattering of students. The Examination Hall featured ornate ceiling designs and a gilded oak chandelier that seemed a potential distraction to test-takers.

Inside Trinity College’s Museum Building (often referred to as the Science Building), we were greeted by the skeletons of two Megaloceros, giant Irish deer (also known as Irish Elk or Giant Deer).

These were the largest deer species ever to have lived, dating back about a million years. Their mammoth antlers spanned as much as 12 feet from tip to tip. Beyond these sentinels, the mosaic ceilings of the lobby depicted scientific themes, constellations and planetary alignments in vibrant color.

Outside, the intriguing Sfera con Sfera (Sphere within Sphere) called to us. The bronze masterpiece by Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro is one of several around the world, with variants in New York City, the Vatican, Tehran and Bologna. It’s a popular meeting ground on Trinity’s campus.

The Iconic Long Room

The real Long Room Library at Trinity College, wiht the Gaia Installation (a hovering globe) in the distance
The real Long Room Library at Trinity College, with the Gaia Installation (a hovering globe) in the distance. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Our last stop on campus was a fitting finale: The Old Library, constructed between 1712 and 1732. The library’s iconic Long Room is one of the most recognized libraries in the world.

Two long rows of wooden, two-storied bookshelves lined the long hallway. For most of the past 300 years, visitors found these shelves lined with antique books, but during our visit, nearly half of the shelves were empty as the books and the shelves undergo renovation.

Busts—these ones not speaking or blinking—stood on pedestals at the ends of the shelves, and display cases offered looks inside the pages of some books.

The Brian Harp (or Boru Harp) stood on display toward the middle of the Long Room. Dating back to the 14th or 15th century, the harp has long been a beloved symbol of Ireland. It is featured on the coat of arms for both Trinity College and Guinness Brewery.

When the Republic of Ireland wanted to include the image of the harp on the Irish Euro coins, they were not able to because Guinness held the trademark. Officials solved the problem by inverting the image. You can put a pint of Guinness and an Irish coin next to one another and you’ll see mirror images.

Toward the far end of the Long Room hovered the Gaia installation: a mesmerizing projection of Earth using NASA imagery to showcase our planet as it would look from space. Suspended between the shelves, rotating in mid-air, the contrast between the dark, wooden bookshelves and the bright, blue globe was uncanny.

We watched the globe spin and were reminded of all the places we’d been, all the places left to visit, and all of the possibilities within the pages of books like the ones still on the shelves around us.

The Book at the End of the Tour

Book of Kells
In The Book of Kells Experience, illustrations from The Book of Kells lift off the pages.
Photo by Eric D. Goodman

We’d seen the posters, coffee-table books and digital images of the Book of Kells. Now was our opportunity to see the real deal, encased in glass like the Crown Jewels or Hope Diamond. We were in luck: curators turn the page each week, so what you get to see depends on when you visit.

We happened to be here for the Gospel of John’s gloriously illuminated pages. Vibrant pigments of red, blue, yellow and gold colored the vellum pages, stitches holding them together. On the left page, a portrait of St. John, a halo with intricate Celtic knots, looked directly at us with a gospel book in one hand and an exaggerated quill pen in the other. On the right page, the opening letters of the text were illustrated with snakes and peacocks, lions, harps, and intricate designs. “In the beginning was the word, it began in Latin.

Photography is strictly prohibited, so we don’t have any to share. However, anyone can view the entire Book of Kells digitally

The pages we witnessed are here

Literary Pub Crawl

Dublin's James Joyce Statue stands on the north side of the Liffey River
Dublin’s James Joyce Statue stands on the north side of the Liffey River. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

What better way to end a day of literary adventures than with a Literary Pub Crawl? Nataliya and I approached the meeting place, nestled on Duke Street. The pub’s Victorian façade of aged brick displayed a wooden sign with gilded lettering that read, “The Duke.”

Inside, on the second floor, is where our literary evening began in a private room. We were greeted by our hosts for the evening—two actors and a musician—and offered two pints of Guinness.

The two actors looked around at each of us, taking stock of the audience before drawing a deep breath and launching into a scene from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Our wait was over.

“Let’s go,” one said.

“But we’re waiting for Godot,” the other responded stubbornly.

A few scenes, stories and songs later, our guide announced, “tonight, we’ll tread the very cobblestones walked by Beckett and Joyce, drink in the pubs they haunted, and raise a toast to the ghosts of literary giants.”

We left the private room and entered the crowded pub below. After a pint in this 1820s pub, we exited to make our way to the next.

Ulysses

Dublin Libraries
Davey Byrne’s was in Ulysses. Now a first edition of Ulysses is in Davy Byrne’s.
Photo by Eric D. Goodman

The stories went on as we walked. “In Ulysses, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom ponders that it would be a good puzzle to try to cross Dublin without passing a pub,” our guide said. “Tonight, we won’t succeed.”

Our evening crawl took us from pub to pub, to the Maggie Malone statue, a private walk across Trinity College’s campus, and to the final destination of the evening. Stories flowed as smoothly as stout.

We entered Davy Byrne’s, a pub immortalized in Joyce’s Ulysses. Here, we were treated to a literary treasure to accompany our Guinness: behind a glass, next to a bust of James Joyce, a first edition of Ulysses glowed under a light like a sacred relic.

So, not only was Davy Byrne’s in Ulysses … Ulysses was in Davy Byrne’s.

If You Go:

There are countless flights from U.S. cities to Dublin. We opted for an affordable Icelandic flight from Baltimore-Washington Airport to Dublin with a layover in Reykjavik, Iceland.

There are many lodging options, and most tourists opt to be south of the Liffey River. However, there are safe, clean and affordable options in Georgian townhouses on the north side of the river—and close to the Spire, which makes for a great landmark to hone into home every evening.

While it’s true that the Spire is also known as “the Stiletto in the ghetto,” most of our guides and the locals we spoke with said that they lived north of the Liffey. Gardiner Lodge provided a full Irish breakfast each morning and a very helpful, 24-hour front desk clerk. 

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Author Bio: Eric D. Goodman is author of seven books. His most recent is Faraway Tables, a collection of poems focused on travel and a longing for other places. His novels include Wrecks and Ruins (set in Baltimore and Lithuania) and The Color of Jadeite (a thriller set in China). Hundreds of his stories, poems, articles, and travel stories have been published. Learn more about Eric and his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com.

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