As the Dublin of James Joyce disappears under an avalanche of skyscrapers and sushi bars, one ghostly relic survives like a message from the past. High on the gable-end of a red-brick building overlooking Trinity College, large painted letters proclaim Finn’s Hotel. The sign advertises the dingy hotel on South Leinster Street where Nora Barnacle, red-haired and 20, worked as a chambermaid in 1904, when she was courted by the 22-year-old Joyce.
Their first date was 103 years ago today. Joyce considered it the turning point of his life, so much so that he set the entire action of his great novel Ulysses on June 16, 1904. Joyce-lovers around the world now celebrate June 16 as “Bloomsday”...
Joyce often came to Finn’s Hotel to collect Nora in the summer of 1904. They were in love, and she had agreed to leave Ireland with him. But, as she later told a friend, when he entered the hotel, shabbily dressed in canvas shoes and an old yachting cap, she wondered if she was right to entrust herself to him. But she did. As they left Dublin by boat on October 8, 1904, one of her main thoughts was of what people at the hotel would say when they found out that she had gone.
Five years later, when they were settled in Trieste where Joyce taught English, he returned to Ireland with some businessmen to found Ireland’s first cinema. Without explanation, he booked the men in to Finn's Hotel. It had not changed. “The place is very Irish,” he wrote to Nora. “The disorder of the table was Irish.”
Missing her, he was moved to tears by the sight of the room. In his emotional letter, he told Nora how he pictured her as she had been in 1904, “standing silently by the fire, or gazing out of the window across the misty college park”...
In time Trinity College came to own the five-storey building. Recently, however, Trinity sold it, along with several others, to the Dublin Dental College. The Dental College has just appointed the Dublin architects McCullough Mulvin to redesign the upper floors, paying special attention to preserving and possibly enhancing the lettering. But how to protect an alfresco icon? It is a difficult assignment. Repainting the words would take away their charm, yet time and the weather must take a toll.
Half a million visitors a year jostle past the Trinity railings to see the Book of Kells. They would be well advised to turn away from the tourist shops and to raise their eyes and cameras for a good look at Finn’s Hotel while it is still there.
- Brenda Maddox