Art museums in Dublin

On Tuesday we went to two museums: the National Gallery of Ireland and Irish Museum of Modern Art. This was an interesting day, because not only were the discussions more frank about the culture we saw but there was some open disagreement about what makes good art and bad art.

Before we went to the gallery, Michael talked about Irish art in a broader historical context, comparing its quality to other countries’ art, and openly questioned the quality of art in a national museum and whether it was good.

I tend to sidestep the questions of good and bad—I’m more interested in the artist’s intent, the work’s reception, and the relationship to both (to be fair, Michael agrees with me I think on these points, but his talk was geared on getting students discussing).

We asked to students to find a painting they liked and one they didn’t and be able to tell us why. We met up after a while and the students presented. Many of them, as been my experience, chose abstract or contemporary art as paintings they disliked and more traditional ones they liked—contemporary art requires a type of faith in your own interpretation (and less concern with craft) that is often difficult to generate. We didn’t browbeat them into reconsider their choices, but I felt obligated (being a professor and all) to challenge them a bit, which they seemed to take in good humor. 

We then went to the contemporary museum, or tried to, as the museum was largely closed for renovations and the new gallery in between exhibitions. But we did see a beautiful building and lovely gardens, as well as some outdoor sculpture.

I asked them the next day about what was Irish about the gallery, and aside from the presence of Irish work there, it was hard to determine. There were a few paintings that directly embraced Irishness, but many of the Irish works were more concerned with keeping up with more universal artistic trends rather than expressing Irishness. We don’t know (or at least I don’t) what other works the curators might have chosen, but we did find it interesting the choices that curators made—to focus on Irish talent rather than Irish content.

Ulysses in Dublin

On Friday, we followed Leopold Bloom, one of the protagonists of the novel, around Dublin. Of course Bloom doesn’t exist. Or does he?

We focused on a few chapters—ones where Bloom goes to his work, heads to the post office where he receives a dirty letter, buys things from a chemist, and then ends up in Davy Bynes’ pub.  And we weren’t the first ones there: there were markers on the sidewalks commemorating the book and acknowledging the part of the book this place came from, and the actual chemist shop from the fictional story was there as a shrine to Joyce (the yellow soap was for sale, and the store has mixed the lotion Bloom meant to buy for Molly but couldn’t sell it because of government regulations).

The students, Michael, and I talked about the effect walking had both on the ways we viewed the book and the city—it made the book come alive and seemed imbue the landscape with more importance. It took us to parts of the city we would not have gone to and showed us both the continuous nature of the city and its various disjunctures from the past.

We ended up in Davy Byrnes for lunch, and I ate Bloom’s lunch, much as it was portrayed in Ulysses. 

We have been talking a LOT about authenticity, but we did not come to conclusions about this particular subject. We do appreciate as a group the way Ulysses seems to understand human nature in general and the type of scattered thoughts that the city seems to inspire.


For many of us in our generation, the name Belfast conjures up bombings and war, and ultimately despair.

But most of those connotations have faded since a peace was brokered in the late 90s. Now, Belfast is in the process of reinventing itself as a modern city.

Michael led us up to Belfast yesterday, but prepared us by talking about the sectarian conflict, commonly (and somewhat understatedly) called The Troubles through two films, Elephant, and Shellshock Rockthe first a stunning and disturbing film about the violence in Northern Ireland and the second about the punk scene.

Elephant goes through a series of 18 killings, with no dialogue or narration—just a brief lead up to the killing and short aftermath. It’s a very difficult movie to watch, and feeling a bit protective of my students, probably unnecessarily so, I initiated a conversation about the film as we were watching. We found it hard to process, but understood that the horror it conveyed was the horror that people experienced to some degree in this period. 

(I recommend the film highly—nothing shows the senseless rhythm of murder better than Elephant, which was a strong influence on Gus Van Sant’s movie about Columbine of the same name.)

The punk rock documentary pointed to music as a third place outside of the conflict to locate a conversation. Michael pointed out that the punk rockers seem normal compared to the craziness going on at the same time, and we agreed.

It’s interesting to try to imagine a city before we get there, and though Michael prepared us for the difference, Belfast was almost nothing like the Belfast in the film—it’s very modern, by necessity, as Michael pointed out; the Troubles had damaged much of the city.

We walked along the river from the train station to downtown and saw the newness of the city. (We also saw a seal swimming, and as Michael has noted, the Americans seem to be unusually interested in the animals here.)

We had lunch at a pub Michael knew. The pub had been torn down and reconstructed after a huge downtown mall took its place. Michael said the mall was the same in name only, and it was interesting to think about how his memories were so entwined in this area of the country where he grew up and only abstractly in our own minds. 

At lunch, the students admitted they had been nervous about the trip up but were now not so.

For me, the highlight of the trip was the photography exhibition about Northern Ireland in two city galleries. It showed the Troubles in a wide variety of contexts and for some reason, came as a relief to me—it somehow made me nervous to see a city that had been so full of strife with little evidence of it in the landscape. 

Dubliners in Dublin

Yesterday, Michael took us around Dublin as part of a discussion about Joyce’s Dubliners. We went to various places, including Phoenix Park, the large city park in London, Belvedere School, where Joyce was educated, and a few other sites. 

But our most interesting encounter occurred in and around North Richmond Street, where “Araby” is set. Michael pointed out that Joyce viewed Dublin as a “center of paralysis” on a variety of levels, and this dead end street was a metonym for such ideas.

As we were on our way there, we saw a disturbing conflict play out in front of us—three women, one carrying a baby, were crossing the street, when a woman confronted them, took their stroller away, and threatened them by saying she would “box” them if they stole her stroller away.

The women seemed surprised by the encounter, and we were unable to determine who was in the “right”—whether the stroller was in fact stolen or whether the woman had any justification for threatening the group of women. 

But we did note that this type of conflict brought a type of realism to the conflicts inherent in Dubliners (though it was not staged for our purposes of course). We talked about how conflict was a common denominator between the fictional Dublin of Joyce’s time and the one we were walking around today.

CSI: Bog Bodies

The students and Michael and I went to The National Museum of Ireland and the James Joyce Tower and Museum on Thursday and Friday. We began Thursday first by talking about our experiences on Wednesday, what we learned about Ireland, and what were we surprised by. 

The two things that came up a few times in talking about the expectations for Ireland were its lushness, particularly its greenness, and the presence of beer. And on Wednesday we did see a lot of “drink tourism,” pubs advertising “Irish coffee” and Guinness. Students reported that one pub had an “American night,” encouraging fraternities to show up.

This discussion, like many of ours so far, led to discussion of authenticity—what constituted a real Dublin experience. We don’t have an answer.

The post’s title refers to our experience at the National Museum of Ireland, which wasn’t really about Ireland as it was an archeological museum. The most intense part of the exhibit was the display on some well preserved bodies that have been discovered in Irish bogs, part of a greater series of discoveries of these bodies across Europe.

We enjoyed the museum but felt that it didn’t quite live up to its name—it didn’t feel particularly National or Irish.

On Friday, we took the train out to Sandycove to see the the Joyce Museum, located in the tower that begins Ulysses.

The most surprising thing that happened in the tower is that we ran into a retired UMass Lowell professor and his wife, in town for a wedding. David was so nice—he is a big fan of Ulysses (having read it three times). He had also been to talk I’d given at the university on Johnny Cash.

The students were obsessed with the “murder room” on top of the tower. I’m reading Bowker’s biography, which recounts the way Joyce was scared from the tower after being shot a few weeks there. 

We discussed why Joyce might have decided to begin the book with that incident, even though he was only there for a week. As English majors, we often read metaphor into things, so it’s possible that Joyce saw this incident as a crucial juncture in his life (Michael pointed out it was right before he decided to leave Ireland). 

Next week, we talk about Dubliners, head to a play, go to Belfast, and do an Ulysses walk. 

First day

The students and I made it through travel process smoothly and were pleased with the dorm space at Dublin City University.

Three of us had an interesting cab ride over—our driver was born and raised in Dublin. He had some not-so politically correct observations about the changing landscape of Dublin, though he conceded that the city had changed for the better. We ended up our discussion with him talking about  a pub in Yonkers that his uncle and aunt had owned, another example of the connections that the Irish have with Americans.

The students met Michael for the first time, and he led us through a brief tour of downtown Dublin, where we began to ponder Dublin’s identity, and then Michael graciously invited us to his home for dinner.

I’ll be back with more later….

The first post

Hi world, it’s the UMass Lowell study abroad trip. We’re at Logan Airport and students are completing their third contact hour—we have already discussed the type of work we are going to do as a group: reading (interpreting) Dublin and its environs.

Students have read some of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and we talked about that. But mostly we have chatted about the semiotics of travel. 

My co-teacher, Michael, wanted students to imagine their idea of Ireland, so that’s what we’re doing now as we wait for our plane. I’ll share some of their responses soon.