Ireland has one of the oldest literary histories in Western Europe. It has a cultural history that spans time from beautifully illustrated 9th century manuscripts to 1800’s poetry to contemporary fiction. If you are a bookish sort keen on literary cultural traditions, there is no better way to find them than on a Dublin literary tour.
I will not let you go into the unknown alone
Your Dublin Literary Tour
Like Ireland’s Bram Stoker, I will not let you go into the unknown alone—I’ll hook you up. What follows is an itinerary for a largely self-guided literary tour of Dublin. If you hustle, you may be able to do this all in one action-packed day. But better to get your bookish fix over several days by mixing this itinerary up with other Dublin sites.
Illustrated History at Trinity College
The library at Trinity College houses one of Ireland’s most precious national treasures- The Book of Kells. This beautifully illustrated manuscript dates back to ~800 AD and it contains the four gospels of the New Testament. It’s a miracle that the manuscript even managed to survive given the successive waves of Viking plunder that went on in the 10th century. But survive it did and the library’s permanent collection includes a display of the manuscripts and exhibits regarding their artwork and history.
When you finish up with the Book of Kells, a treat awaits you in the library’s Long Room. It was built in 1712 and comprises the main chamber of the library. It houses 200,000 of the library’s oldest books. If you are like me, you will audibly gasp when entering the room. The light streaming in from the windows illuminates row after row of books, all connected together by a beautiful curved ceiling. I’m a nut for libraries and this one is a stunner.
Visit Trinity College
- Where: The College is located in central Dublin, easily walkable from many of the more popular tourist sites.
- When: The library is open 7 days a week, usually from 9:30-5.
- How: The library is popular so you’ll want to cut the line by purchasing tickets in advance on the library’s website.
Lounge Around at the Oscar Wilde Statue
Walk just a few blocks southwest of Trinity College and you will find Oscar Wilde lounging about in Merrion Square. His wry expression and relaxed posture captures that period of his life when he was having fun subverting Victorian life by poking at convention.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”
Learn about Yeats at the National Library
The National Library’s collection includes materials on Ireland’s history and heritage. As a researcher, you can work on family genealogy or review Ireland’s printed history.
Visitors to the library have a few options. You can visit their extensive semi-permanent exhibit on the life and times of William Butler Yeats. The exhibit takes you through his career and family story.
You can also go up to the second floor and observe the beautiful library rotunda in the reading room– although access to the room itself is somewhat restricted. I didn’t see the signs and just marched into the reading room as if I owned it and the librarian politely yelled at me and frog stepped me to the door. Oops.
Visiting the Irish National Library
- Where: Just a block south of Trinity College and east of Merrion Square.
- When: The Yeats exhibit is open Mon-Wed 9:30-7:45, Thu-Sat 9:30-4:45, Sun 1:00-4:45.
- How: The exhibit it free and self guided– so just walk right in.
The Art of the Book at the Chester Beatty Library
If you love illustrated manuscripts like the Book of Kells, then continue your literary walking tour of Dublin at the Chester Beatty Library. This library will deliver even more illustrated eye candy. It houses one of the largest private collections of books and manuscripts to be found anywhere. Beatty was particularly interested in religious texts and he amassed a vast collection of works from a variety of cultures and religions.
There is an entire room dedicated the beautiful calligraphy and illustrations of Islamic texts. And another room is dedicated to biblical papyri, bindings and manuscripts. And yet another traces the illustrated histories of various East Asian cultures. The library is a visual love letter to the book and it’s free!
Visit the Chester Beatty
- Where: Located right next to Dublin Castle. While you are in the neighborhood, you can also double up and visit the Dublin Castle.
- When: Open Mon-Sat 10-5p and 1-5 on Sundays. More info here.
- How: I’ve visited twice and never experienced a crowd, it’s the kind of museum that truly allows you to move at your own pace
300 Years of History at the Marsh’s Library
Marsh’s is an eighteenth century time machine and ALL of their books are at least three hundred years old. Their rare manuscripts, maps and prints are available for serious researchers. Serious book nerds are welcome to peruse the stacks and view, but not touch or photograph the books. Visiting Marsh’s is less about learning and doing and more about feeling raw delight that these works have been so loving preserved.
That said, they do have rotating exhibits of their works and while I was there, they had a display on pieces that had been stolen and subsequently recovered (or replaced). The staff there is beyond friendly and will happily answer your questions about their collection and the literati who have visited there.
Visiting Marsh’s Library
- Where: Next door to St. Patricks Cathedral.
- When: Normal hours are Mon, Tues-Fri 9:30a-5:00p, Sat 10a-5p. But they do have periodic closures so check the website.
- How: The library is small and won’t take more than 45 minutes, unless you start chatting with the librarians and then…anything goes. Be sure to visit the deeper stacks beyond the first room, they have that heavenly leather and old book smell.
- Bonus: After the library, duck into the St. Patrick’s park adjacent to the cathedral. They have a memorial wall devoted to Irish authors.
When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him
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Meet the Authors at the Dublin Writer’s Museum
Many of the authors celebrated at Dublin Writer’s Museum were indeed geniuses, and as you will learn there, the dunces (of illiteracy and/or censorship) did occasionally conspire against them. The museum offers a history of Irish literature and the trials, tribulations and successes of its authors. The displays are arranged with a chronological history of Ireland’s literary culture and they offer an eye-opening look into literary life.
The authors featured represent the panoply of Dead White European Dudes who stock summer reading lists and Lit 101 classes. The Who’s Who includes Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Yeats and Bram Stoker. But possibly even more interesting was the generous list of lesser-known writers whose works have helped to elevate the reputation of literary Ireland.
Visit the Dublin Writer’s Museum
- Where: North of the Liffey and the Mary Street shopping district.
- When: Times vary but usually Mon-Sat 9:45-4:45 and Sun 11-4:30. The cost is €7,5 and you can find more info here or check out reviews on Trip Advisor.
- How: The museum wasn’t crowded during our visit. But some of the exhibit rooms are small and could easily get crowded. Go early or late.
- Bonus points: If you’d like to continue your Dublin literary tour with a buzz on, then feed your inner drunk author (per the list above) and hit the Jameson Distillery. Conveniently located about 12 blocks away from the museum.
Channel James Joyce in Sweny’s Pharmacy
It’s one thing to visit museums and learn history by passively viewing exhibits. It is another thing entirely to go all in with the full immersive. Sweny’s Pharmacy is the full immersive. The pharmacy was featured prominently in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s an 1850’s throwback that has been lovingly preserved and maintained by volunteers.
The Sweny’s program offers an ongoing group-reading experience. You just show up, they hand you a book and you take your turn reading Joyce along with the other book nerds. Doing the full immersive is more difficult than it sounds. It’s hard enough to read Joyce silently, but harder still to read his tongue twisting prose aloud. We all fumbled along, laughing and having a great time.
Visit Sweny’s Pharmacy
- Where: Central Dublin, just a block east of Trinity College.
- When: Check their schedule because it’s a little complicated. They usually offer something between 1-2pm most days and in the evening three days a week. It’s free to attend.
- How: If you can, do the evening event because they often go out for a beer after.
“I write about life with the lid on and what happens when the lid comes off”
— Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Brown
Take the Icon Walk
The Icon Walk is a public works installation that celebrates significant historical figures in Irish Culture. The alley is a gauntlet of illustrations and written panels profiling artists, writers and musicians. Most notable is that the artists represented go beyond the “dead white European males”, prevalent throughout this piece and often touted as the touchstones of Irish culture.
Wandering the alley will teach you about female authors who bucked the Church, government censorship and Victorian attitudes to tell their own stories about life in Ireland.
The Icon Walk is located on Aston Place just off Temple Bar.
Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub
—–James Joyce, Ulysses
Guided Literary Pub Crawl of Dublin
Well, now that you’ve had your hand performing Joyce, perhaps you’d like to see someone else do it. And maybe drink some beer. And maybe walk around a little. If this sounds good to you, then your Dublin visit should definitely include the literary pub crawl.
The literary pub crawl is hosted by honest to goodness actors who perform an act featuring Ireland’s literary icons. The tour lasts a couple of hours and hits four pubs. The actor/tour guides stop at some key literary spots along the way and perform some bits from Joyce, Beckett and other that authors you learned about at the Writer’s Museum. It’s a really fun way to bring to life what you learned at the museum. And you know…drink beer.
Take the Pub Crawl
- Where: The Drake Pub, two blocks south of Trinity College.
- When: 7:30 pm, every day in the summer. Thu/Fri/Sat/Sun in the winter. Cost is €12. Times and tickets are available here. Or check out reviews and book from Trip Advisor.
- How: Just show up with a comfortable pair of shoes and a powerful thirst.
Self-Guided Dublin Literary Pub Crawl
If you prefer to wander around on your own, you can also do a self-guided literary pub crawl of Dublin. These three pubs each offer something special for the imbibing book-lover.
- The Palace Bar
The Palace was built in 1823 and is located on the west end of Temple Bar. It passed through a number of hands before landing with the Aherne family in the 1936. It’s still a family joint and is currently being run by the third generation of Aherne’s. The bar is located just a few blocks from the Irish Times’ offices (and around the corner from Icon Walk). During the 40’s-60’s it was the local “office” for the journalistic likes of Bertie Smiley. The reporters would hang out there, looking for leads and racking up large bar tabs. Go in, sit at the bar and chat with the bartender and he’ll tell you stories.
- The Library Bar
The Library bar is located in the Central Hotel on Exchequer street, just a few blocks west of the Chester Beatty library. Many pubs in Dublin are crowded and noisy but the Library Bar is a quiet oasis furnished with cushy sofas and bookshelves. It would be a great place to read a book while sipping some Irish Whiskey or a gin and tonic.
- Davy Byrns Pub
The Davy Byrns pub is a beautifully restored pub just a block south of Trinity College. It’s claim to literary fame is that it was not only a favorite watering hole of James Joyce, but it was also frequented by his Ulysses character Leopold Bloom.
“He entered Davy Byrnes. Moral pub. He doesn’t chat. Stands a drink now and then. But in a leap year once in four. Cashes a cheque for me once”
—Leopold Bloom vs James Joyce
The Gutter Bookshop
There are over fifty bookshops in and around Dublin. I encourage you to visit as many as possible. But if you are pressed for time, I highly recommend the Gutter Bookshop. It’s one of those great independent bookshops with a well-curated inventory and great staff-pics tables. It’s the kind of place where you can engage in a conversation on censorship or the latest in Irish literary fiction.
Visit the Gutter Bookshop
- Where: Just west of Temple Bar on a quiet part of Essex street west.
- When: Most days from 10-6:30. Get a more specific schedule on their website.
- How: Just walk in and ask the bookseller for a recommendation. You won’t be disappointed.
The Gutter bookshop is just one of many great indy shops. If you want to explore more, check out this guide to the best bookshops in Dublin.
Take this Dublin literary tour and it will fulfill your book lust with history, art, performance, contemporary fiction and…beer. Please comment below with any additional suggestions to round out this itinerary. Cheers!
“If there is a heaven, Jane Austen is sitting in a small room with Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, listening to Duran Duran, forever. If there’s a hell, she’s standing.”
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