My arrivals to Dublin have always been personally significant. From my first in 2000, when I was still a teenager, I only remember a few details: I remember the bus journey from the airport to Heuston station and the few hours wait before my train to Westport would leave. Dublin seemed quiet and grey to me, the rain descended as a dense mist rather than drops.
I remember the river Liffey, the closed gates of Guinness brewery and some bridges reaching across the river. I didn’t make it all the way to the Ha’Penny Bridge, I think I only went to Capel Street – worried that I’d get lost and miss my train. As I was walking along the northern shores of Liffey, unconscious of the distinction between south and north, suddenly a man holding a book popped out of a colourful pub. He strolled past me with the book in front of his nose, totally ignorant of his surroundings, absorbed into the pages. This would be a great place to live in, I thought.
My next visit to Dublin was rather chaotic and hasty so it would take another posting altogether to cover it, but I returned in more serene state of things just over a year ago, when I was on my way to my that’s summer’s summer home in Donegal. It was a sunny spring day, I had arrived to Ireland determined to do some serious writing, and I decided that a visit in Sweny’s Pharmacy would be in order as I am an ardent fan of James Joyce and his Ulysses.
I remember the visit clearly: I stepped into the old Pharmacy in the middle of a reading group meeting (it was James Plunkett’s Strumpet City). I was encouraged to stay in and listen, and I sat down sipping on some tea as quietly as possible and listening and taking in the atmosphere. It was great to hear a Dublin book being read in a Dublin accent (although, if I remember correctly, there was also a Spanish or Italian girl in the group).
I bought a few books and a piece of lemon soap, as is the custom when visiting Sweny’s. To my horror I discovered that I didn’t have enough cash on me, but the friendly lady, Wendy, behind the till insisted on accompanying me to a near-by Spar where she could get her lunch and I some money. As we walked I blabbered about my Joyce enthusiasm and Wendy invited me to read, in Finnish, the part of Ulysses where Leopold Bloom visits Sweny’s to buy some lemon soap. I admit that I was over the moon about the prospect of this already, but on top of this it was also agreed upon that I would do the reading the 16th of June, that is to say, on Bloomsday. The summer in Ireland couldn’t have started any better: this would be my first time celebrating Bloomsday in Dublin, and I’d be reading the Saarikoski translation of Ulysses in Sweny’s Pharmacy for their international readings. For so long Dublin had been the literate Mecca for me, and Bloomsday some sort of pilgrimage in my dreams: I took all this as a good omen for my summer’s stay, and as a sign that Dublin really would be a perfect city to live in.
This happened two summers ago, and recently I celebrated my one-year anniversary of living in Dublin. Sadly, in two weeks time it is time to pack my book boxes again, and move on. Ironically,to London: a city that has been considered the evil of all things gone wrong what it comes to the history of Dublin and Ireland.
Luckily I had just recently visited Sweny’s, for the last time for now as it turned out few days later. The Pharmacy is next to a busy crossroads, just around the corner from Merrion Square. But the noises from the street are shut out when you close the old door behind you: the scent of the old pharmacy takes you back in time hundred years. It is a fact that scents trigger our memories most efficiently of all the senses, and I for sure will remember Sweny’s Pharmacy and the sunny Dublin (as it has always been sunny when I’ve visited Sweny’s) every time I will smell this extraordinary mixture of old wooden boxes and counters, odours of chemical potions, books and lemon soap – if ever I manage to find this kind of mixture somewhere else!
“He waited by the counter, inhaling the keen reek of drugs, the dusty dry smell of sponges and loofahs. Lot of time taken up telling your aches and pains.” – James Joyce, Ulysses
The pharmacy was built in 1847 as a GP’s practice, and F.W. Sweny and Co (Limited) opened its doors as a pharmacy in 1853. During the year 1904 the young James Joyce visited the chemist often, and it is located just around the corner from the spot where his sweetheart Nora Barnacle stood him up on one June day. Two days later, 16th of June, Joyce managed to pursue Nora to have a date with him, and later commemorated the date in his masterpiece. On an ordinary Dublin day, 16th of June, Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses, visits the pharmacy on his journey across the city and buys lemon soap.
“He strolled out of the shop, the newspaper baton under his armpit, the coolwrapped soap in his left hand.”
Dublin is filled with these non-places: that is, places where in reality nothing out of ordinary has happened, but places that are living in people’s imagination all over the world because of the imagination of others. But Sweny’s is also an interesting piece of Dublin’s history for those who are only interested in the real world: all the items on the shelves are from the original pharmacy. Photos that were never collected, lipsticks that were never used. Joyce became one of Dublin’s most famous tourist attractions only in the 1990s when many locations related to the writer had already been lost from the cityscape. Sweny’s Pharmacy was one of the lucky ones: forgotten, it survived.