DUBLIN — James Joyce famously left his native Dublin at the age of 22 and then spent the rest of his life writing about the city, sending characters to wander its slums, back streets and faded 18th-century grandeur.
A century before search engines and online street views, the exiled Joyce would bombard Dublin-based friends with postcards and letters, checking every detail of the city’s micro-geography, every shop front and street number. Not long before his death in Zurich in 1941, he was asked whether he would ever go back to Dublin. His reply: “Have I ever left it?”
But if Joyce died in love with Dublin, does Dublin still love Joyce? Last month, despite vigorous opposition from prominent writers, artists, academics and heritage groups, Ireland’s planning authority approved a proposal to convert one of Dublin’s most iconic Joycean landmarks into a tourist hostel, dashing hopes that it could be preserved as a museum and cultural space.
Located on the banks of the Liffey river near the Guinness brewery, the 18th-century townhouse at 15 Usher’s Island was the setting for “The Dead,” the final story in Joyce’s collection “Dubliners,” often cited as the greatest short story written in English. It is certainly more accessible to general readers than Joyce’s great trio of modernist novels — “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake.”
It takes time and commitment to read “Ulysses,” said Colm Toibin, the celebrated Irish author, who organized a petition to preserve the house for the public, “and it’s very rewarding if you give it those, but ‘The Dead’ — anybody could read it.”
“Some of the stories in ‘Dubliners’ are very bleak,” he added, “but this one also celebrates hospitality, and it’s really extraordinarily beautiful.”
It was in the upstairs rooms of the Usher’s Island house that Joyce’s great-aunts ran, for a time, a small musical school. Their annual get-together each Jan. 6 — the Roman Catholic feast of the Epiphany, also known in Ireland as “Women’s Christmas” — was the model for “The Dead’s” haunted dinner party, which confronts Gabriel Conroy, Joyce’s fictional avatar, with the swooning mysteries of love and mortality.
The house was also a setting for John Huston’s 1987 movie adaptation of the story, his Oscar-nominated swan song.
But now the house’s original room plan, which a previous owner restored before going bankrupt, is to be converted into spaces for 56 beds, with a public cafe in the basement.
Mr. Toibin’s petition was signed by such renowned Irish writers as Edna O’Brien, Anne Enright, Sally Rooney, John Banville, Pat McCabe and Eoin McNamee. Richard Ford, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Tobias Wolff and Ian McEwan were among the overseas signatories.
Ireland’s main heritage bodies added their pleas. But the planning authorities accepted the argument of the developers — two Irish businessmen who bought the house in 2017 for 650,000 euros (about $785,000) — that commercial use would preserve its structure from dereliction. Its history will be commemorated in the new hostel, perhaps by a display in the cafe.
“This is like selling the family jewels — like giving them away, really,” said John McCourt, the president of the International James Joyce Foundation, who led the campaign to preserve the house. “The cost of that building was a pittance by Dublin standards. If the government had bought it when it was up for sale, or did a compulsory purchase order now, I think we could easily raise the money privately to have it done up and reopened as a cultural venue.”
The ministry for tourism and culture said in a statement that it had considered the house’s cultural value when the proposal was before Dublin City Council in 2019 and that it had no further comment. The national planning appeals board would not comment beyond drawing attention to the detailed decision on its website. An agent for the two developers, Fergus McCabe and Brian Stynes, said they had no comment beyond what was stated in their planning application.
For many Dubliners, the decision to redevelop the literary landmark is symptomatic of a wider erasure of the city’s street life and townscape by commercial development.
In recent years, a long series of established theaters, exhibition spaces, performance venues, low-cost warehouses and edgy bars have been razed to make way for hotels, offices and high-end housing. A report last month showed that Dublin was the fifth most expensive city to rent a home in Europe. Even Paris is cheaper.
Una Mullally, a columnist who champions Dublin’s lively but embattled cultural fringe in the Irish Times newspaper, said the de facto government policy was “to offer cookie-cutter entertainment and hospitality for tourists and people who live in the suburbs, and high rents for landlords that make it impossible for creative people, or even people with ordinary jobs, to live or create in the city.”
Yet in doing so, she said, it was destroying the city the tourists came to see.
Joyce himself has long been used to promote Irish tourism, at the head of a pantheon of great Irish writers. Every year, encouraged by state and city tourism organizations, a swelling army of Joyce fans travel to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday, the anniversary of June 16, 1904, when the story of “Ulysses” unfolds. Joyce remarked that if his Dublin were destroyed, it would be possible to recreate it from the details in his novel.
It sometimes seems the city is determined to test his claim. The house at 7 Eccles Street — the fictional home of Leopold and Molly Bloom, the Everyman and Everywoman at the heart of “Ulysses” — was demolished in 1967 to make way for a private hospital.
And while the Joyce Tower in Sandycove, a decommissioned coastal fort where the novel begins, is a successful museum, its ownership, funding and management are currently uncertain, and it operates mainly through the work of volunteers, said Terence Killeen, a research scholar at the James Joyce Center of Dublin.
Some dare to wonder whether Joyce, his life’s work done, would have been resigned to the loss of his physical legacy. At the end of “The Dead” he wrote: “the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.”
Thanks to silting and reclamation in the tidal Liffey, Usher’s Island itself has for centuries been joined to the mainland. Had he lived long enough, Joyce might himself have relished the legend, passed down among Dublin journalists since the 1960s, of a local photographer who was commissioned by a big London newspaper to provide photos of a murder on Usher’s Island: He is said to have charged the unwitting Brits a small fortune for “boat hire.”