“He left his friends at a quarter to ten… turned to the left at the City Markets and walked on into Grafton Street. The crowd of girls and young men had thinned and on his way up the street he heard many groups and couples bidding one another good-night” writes acclaimed Irish author James Joyce in Dubliners.
As I reflected upon my own travels over the recess to Dublin, I wondered whether Joyce had secretly accompanied our group. This particular excerpt from his 1914 account mirrors our incredible trip to Dublin in 2023, over a century later.
Joyce’s “undramatic” recollection of 20th-century Dublin spurred a dramatic career as one of the world’s most famous and talented English-language novelists. Cornell’s Rare and Manuscript Division happens to own a “significant” portion “of the private papers of James Joyce, focusing on his life and works before 1920” according to the collection’s description.
Though unlike the Dublin Joyce once resided in, the city I visited enjoys economic prosperity, the current absence of a functioning governing coalition in neighboring Northern Ireland and other remaining vestiges of last century’s distress threaten to reanimate elements of the island’s difficult past.
Even still, my experience in Ireland endorsed the view that a productive life is one that seeks betterment at the expense of historical remorse, a belief Joyce shared at one time. As a student of history at Cornell, as much as I think lessons from the past should inform the future, my travels have proven to me that life is best lived by the spur of the moment.
As we stood at the edge of the towering Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s western coast, we waited for a break in the wind and took tiny steps to sit on a rock jutting right above the seven-hundred-foot drop. We ventured along the cliffs, taking in the stunning views of the Irish coastline and watching as seabirds soared above the crashing waves.
When we hailed an Uber to take us to the Airport from the river Liffey, the driver, a gruff but friendly man with a thick Irish brogue, struck up a conversation with us as we drove through the city.
He revealed that he had been a fighter in the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles, a period of intense conflict between Irish fighters and British authorities. My friends and I were initially taken aback by his nonchalant admission of such behavior. As he detailed his story, we could sense conflicting themes of both regretful disappointment and steadfast passion in his words.
He spoke of the struggles he had faced as a young man, fighting for a purpose he had genuinely believed to be noble. He described the bond he had formed with his fellow soldiers and the sacrifices they had made for their country, ending in criminal convictions and time served in British prisons. And yet, despite the hardships, he also spoke of the hope he had for the future, the success of the Republic of Ireland and its EU-oriented economy in the century following its independence and his pride for his children.
I listened intently as he shared his story. He felt indebted to the Good Friday settlement ending the Troubles and affording him a release from prison decades earlier. In his novel Ulysses, Joyce writes: “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” referencing the need to forge ahead in the shadow of a troubling past. The man’s past, first-hand participation in violent resistance and his current hope for peace and economic stability reminds me of Joyce’s quintessential commentary about overcoming the sins of history in order to live a fruitful personal life.
As the man’s story indicates, reconciling personal ideologies and convictions often at odds with one another is essential and also immensely difficult.
On the third day, we journeyed to the Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate, a landmark overshadowing the city in its own right. The building’s sleek glass facade marked quite a large departure from the city of Joyce’s depiction. Nonetheless, the bottled product of the original roasted barley is still carted off into the city for the enjoyment of the many “public-house” patrons like those described in Dubliners. We made our way through the museum, learning about the history of the iconic Irish beverage. The rich, creamy scent complemented the panoramic cityscape bookending the tour on the seventh floor.
Throughout the rest of my trip, I encountered many other unique characters and experiences. I listened to local musicians lining Grafton Street and chatted with friendly locals and visitors from abroad. Following our hearty Irish breakfast, we wandered through the cobblestone streets of the city, finding our way to the National Museum of Ireland and later scoffing at a 100 Euro copy of Dubliners on display at a local hole-in-the-wall bookstore.
As students at Cornell, one of the most beautiful university campuses in America, we were excited to compare Trinity College with our own. The campus boasted an impressive location in the heart of the bustling city, with lush lengths of ivy adorning the campus housing and elegant architecture at every turn.
After experiencing its great history, wonder and cheery way of life, I knew that I would always be drawn back to this special city. While I now treasure quoting from Joyce, I was originally attracted by Ireland’s vibrant culture, breathtaking landscapes and oversized presence in American society. As I returned to Washington, I awaited the opportunity to return to a city that has left such an indelible impression with its carefree attitude amidst the backdrop of a sophisticated, solemn history.
Aaron Friedman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Honest AF runs every other Tuesday this semester.