15 Usher’s Island, The House of The Dead

Text © Shane O’Toole. Fuller version of the piece first published in The Sunday Times, June 13, 2004, as “Back from The Dead”

Brendan Kilty, host and owner, is literally run off his feet. For four years he has struggled to resuscitate the last house on Dublin’s western quays – “the dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island” that provides the hospitable setting for the main action of James Joyce’s greatest short story, The Dead. “It has been scary,” he says. “Everything has been so labour intensive.”

When Kilty, a barrister and arbitrator, appeared on the scene, 15 Usher’s Island – “the solid world itself,” to paraphrase Joyce – “was dissolving and dwindling.” Almost a century had passed since people had stood “on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music.”

During that time much of Joyce’s Hibernian metropolis, including Leopold and Molly Bloom’s house at 7 Eccles Street, was lost to demolition. With each passing decade, it becomes ever harder to see Dublin as Joyce and his characters saw it. But although conservation work will continue at Usher’s Island for some time yet, Joyceans throughout the world can breathe easily this centenary Bloomsday: Kilty has saved the house of The Dead from falling down and disappearing altogether.

15 Usher’s Island, built in 1775, “is a fine house but is not, perhaps, of the first architectural interest,” said Senator David Norris in a Seanad debate on the Architectural Heritage and Historic Monuments Bill in March 1999. 30 years earlier, Norris had identified the four-storey-over-basement house as the scene of The Dead. “It acquires a significance from a broader perspective than the purely architectural,” he said, “although it is a fine house architecturally and has a particularly fine fanlight.”

By the following year, fanlights, fireplaces and folding doors had all disappeared from the protected structure. The place was a wreck. The top floor of the house had been removed during the 1970s. The back wall was falling out, its foundations probably undermined by one of the rivers and millstreams that defined Usher’s Island until the 17th century. The interior had been ransacked and vandalised by squatters. Fires were lit. The once-fashionable address was reduced to a den for prostitutes and junkies. “When we got possession, we filled two buckets with used syringes,” says Kilty.

What made him take on the property in such a deplorable and disastrous state? Tongue in cheek, he likens what he is doing to “the thinking man’s Blues Brothers,” referring to John Landis’s 1980 comedy, in which Jake and Ellwood Blues, played by John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, are “on a mission from God” to save the old orphanage where they were raised.

It has been a bumpy ride at times. “That’s why you have to have a bit of fun,” he says. Early on, he held candle-lit, “black-tie-and-hard-hat” dinner parties in the smoke-blackened house to “see what people wanted from the place.” The invitations read: “Brendan Kilty invites you to an evening of wonder. Bathroom facilities are limited, so go before you come.” Guests arrived in carriages. He laid on a snow machine to replicate the snowfall in the story. “We served wine in jam jars. There was music and we reproduced the meal from The Dead. People weren’t rushing to go home.”

Kilty can date his Joycean epiphany precisely. Twenty-five years ago, on Bloomsday 1979, a classmate in Trinity College invited him along to 15 Usher’s Island. A key had been obtained through a friend of a friend. “There were eight of us,” he says. “I’d never read Joyce, although Patrick Kavanagh’s work was a major inspiration.” It was a quiet evening. Someone read from Joyce.

“I was very much on the shoulder of the meeting. At 11.15, as we were coming down the stairs to leave, I suddenly got a warm sensation that one day I’d own this house. That was eight years before John Huston made his great film of The Dead. I was standing on the same step, just below the half landing, that Gretta stands on in the movie when she is transfixed by Mr Bartell D’Arcy’s singing of The Lass of Aughrim. It was only after I saw the movie that I began reading Joyce.”

Kilty has grown used to the slings and arrows of some Joycean snobs. “I laugh when people introduce me as a Joycean scholar,” he says. “I’m more of a structural Joycean, obsessed with bricks and mortar.”

Another house in which he took an interest was 2 Millbourne Avenue, Drumcondra, one of many unexceptional houses Joyce’s peripatetic family lived in when he was a boy. It was here – in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – where the family, having descended into considerable poverty, drank tea from jam jars and sang Oft’ in the Stilly Night.

The house was illegally demolished one weekend in November 1998 to make way for a block of flats. As soon as he heard the news, Kilty made for Drumcondra. “I was there by 10.30 that morning, expecting to find a huge protest.” Instead, the rubble was being carted away. “I negotiated its purchase on the spot,” he says. “The impetus was simply to hold the line and stop it going to the city dump. It was shocking that the city would accept into its bosom the rubble of a house it was meant to protect.

“By buying that rubble, I established my credentials,” he says. Instant Joyceana, the bricks from Millbourne Avenue became Kilty’s calling cards. He gave one to the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who suggested it should be incorporated into a public seat in Griffith Park, Drumcondra. The Zurich James Joyce Foundation has another, as does Santiago Calatrava, whose James Joyce bridge, declared open last Bloomsday, leads to Kilty’s hall door.

“15 Usher’s Island was not on the market, but I bought it from Terry Devey with a handshake. I think he thought, if I was mad enough to buy the rubble, then I deserved to buy the house.” Devey had acquired the house in 1992, when he was developing the adjoining apartment complex, Viking Harbour. A planning condition stipulated that the house should be restored. Around 1995, Devey read an article referring to Joyce’s Dublin by Sean O’Laoire of Murray O’Laoire Architects and asked him to oversee the restoration of the most evocative Joycean vestige left in the city centre.

O’Laoire and his partner Bernard Gilna worked with Joycean expert Gerry Dukes to, as O’Laoire puts it, write a script for the house and its conservation. “Our brief was to replicate its likely decorative state in 1904,” O’Laoire says.

Evidence in The Dead makes it possible to date the events to January 5 – the eve of the Epiphany or, as it is known in Irish, Lá Nollag na mBan (Women’s Christmas) – of that year, however. The ground floor of 15 Usher’s Island was occupied, in fact and in fiction, by a corn-factor. The Misses Morkan, who hosted the story’s annual dance, were modelled after Joyce’s great-aunts who ran a music school from their home at that address and gave an annual Christmas party at which Joyce’s father, like Gabriel Conroy in the story, carved the goose and made a speech. Gretta Conroy is based on Joyce’s lover, Nora Barnacle, who came from Galway.

“It seemed more important to capture the atmosphere of the story than to attempt its physical recreation with actors, for example,” says O’Laoire. “The geography of The Dead tells you how the house was used, but it’s fiction, not a piece of recall. John Huston’s movie had a good crack at replicating the house – they rebuilt the interiors in Hollywood – but there remains some debate about where the dancing and dining took place.”

Joyce’s writing may be meticulously rooted in topographical facts, but it is not a prisoner to them. The writer who famously once said of Ulysses, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book,” was stretching the truth. Architects would find it hard to glean from him any valuable information about the actual physical makeup of the city. Joyce presupposed that people knew what the buildings and the streets looked like.

The touchstone for the conservation of the building’s fabric was a 1994 postgraduate study prepared by John Heagney, the deputy Dublin city architect. “I was looking around the city for an old building under threat that had much of its original detail still intact, to record something that was in danger of disappearing forever,” he says.

Planning permission was sought by Murray O’Laoire on Bloomsday 1996. Additional information, requested by the city council, was lodged on the Feast of the Epiphany in the following year. When Kilty bought the house, O’Laoire passed the blueprint on to him.

Kilty’s expanded vision is to locate his legal chambers on the top floor and recreate the aunt’s sleeping accommodation on the floor below. “It would be the only Joycean house in the world where you could visit and spend the night,” he says. On the piano nobile he already hosts dinners based on the menu described by Joyce. The ground floor is an art gallery.

Without Heagney’s detailed survey drawings, decorative elements that were subsequently stolen from the house could never be replicated. “The stucco and joinery was really outstanding,” Heagney says, “but when I did my survey, the house was vacant and pretty derelict. The back wall – more a series of brick piers than a wall – was quite ropy. It’s very pleasing to see it being rescued by Brendan and restored in what I would call a scholarly fashion. It’s hard to know where to draw the line between making a place liveable and attractive and keeping its history and authenticity. It requires a bit of thought every time you do something.”

Kilty agrees: “If you bring it back to 1904, you’re not being true to 1775. Each bit must be allowed to tell its own tale. We’ve tried very hard not to make it twee. We want to keep the imperfections. Change it too much and you’re depriving the visitor of their imagination.”

Imagination is requisite for all who would gather together under this hospitable roof. A century on, Joyce would surely be moved to know that “The tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us and which we in turn must hand down to our descendants, is still alive among us.”



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