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James Joyce Readings @ Swenys

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by Nadine Cresswell-Myatt (subscribe)
Freelance writer exploring Melbourne and beyond. If you enjoy the following article click on the Like button, Facebook it to your friends or subscribe. I'll update you with yummy and often free events. Like my photos? I instagram @redbagwilltravel
Published August 11th 2018
A tourist attraction that ends with a pint at the pub
Sweny's Pharmacy Dublin James Joyce Bloomsbury Day
Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


Dublin is obsessed with their native writer James Joyce. If you can coordinate being in the Irish capital on June 16, you can celebrate Bloomsday named after Leopold Bloom, the central character in Ulysses.

Residents dress up in full Edwardian garb and boater hats and mount vintage bikes and cycle to all the places mentioned in the classic novel.

Sweny's Pharmacy Dublin James Joyce Bloomsbury Day
There is a reverence in reading Joyce -photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


For those who make the effort of dressing up pubs offer them drinks at 1922 prices. So it ends up quite a wobbly ride.

But most of us can't be there precisely on that date, so the next best thing when visiting Dublin is to do something a little less touristy and visit a musty old pharmacy called Swenys.

Chapter 5 of Ulysses is set in Swenys of Lincoln Place, an apothecary F.W. Sweny and Co (Limited) that first opened its doors as a dispensing chemist in 1853.

Sweny's Pharmacy Dublin James Joyce Bloomsbury Day
Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


This is where the main character of Ulysses Leopold Bloom calls in to collect a prescription for his wife Molly. As Joyce writes, 'He waited by the counter, inhaling the keen reek of drugs, the dusty dry smell of sponges and loofahs.'

Bloom also smells the bars of lemon soap and takes one with him almost as a talisman for the rest of his day's journey around Dublin. And it is this journey that is re-created every year on Bloomsday.

Sweny's Pharmacy Dublin James Joyce Bloomsbury Day
Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


Today Sweny's remain just as it was in the novel, quaint and untouched. It has been preserved almost through neglect. It has shelves with evocative old apothecary bottles and drawers full of age-old treatments such as willow bark wrapped in crinkling brown paper tied with string. And it still sells the exact same blocks of lemon soap. Buy a block to transport your olfactory sense back to a different era.

But preserving the old pharmacy has been a dedicated act of love. In Feb 2009, Swenys closed and was due to be converted into an extension to the cafe next door until it was saved by Joyce devotees.

Having heard of the experience, I wandered in at the appointed time and was met by two of the volunteers who could have been pulled out of a Time Machine from Back to the Future Dublin Style.

Sweny's Pharmacy Dublin James Joyce Bloomsbury Day
Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


P.J in particular with his shock of white hair, bow tie and white pharmacy coat looking quite the mad professor.

The lovely female volunteer wore a beautiful hat from the period. One thing about the Irish is they can always keep a conversation going whilst also getting their new found friends (you always feel like a friend within minutes) to chat.

In a short time frame, I had gone from stranger to telling them my life's story.

As each new tourist walked in they accomplished the same feat of embracing each as if they were old friends. They remembered everyone's name and introducing us all to each other. Such an air of conviviality!

There are various second-hand books for sale and it reminded me very much of my former occupation of working in a second-hand bookshop. It wasn't Black Books but it well could have been with all the wonderful eccentrics that worked there and called in there usually for a chat rather than with any serious intent of spending money.

Similarly, Sweny's was also soon filled with characters. There was a French philosopher with very laboured English who started propounding the theories of Descartes to me. With my lack of any French language, I had to strain to follow his every word. 'Do you comprendre' he said after a long philosophical ramble that I could not keep up with "I think therefore I am?' I said scratching my head and pulling out the only philosophical saying I knew. He looked appeased if also slightly exasperated with this Philistine Australian.

There was a maths professor from Ilinois, Swiss students studying in London who had come over to Dublin for a weekend in a bid to visit Joyce haunts. One told me that when she visits a new city, she simply wanders and stumbles across gems and it is advice I have often heeded ever since in my own travels.

Sweny's Pharmacy Dublin James Joyce Bloomsbury Day
Photo opportunity with P.J photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


Then there was a whole crew-cut of Boston boys who looked like they had come to play touch football but taught me a life lesson of not stereotyping as they too had come as they were majoring in literature.

Sweny's Pharmacy Dublin James Joyce Bloomsbury Day
Crew-cut of Boston boys studying literature - Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt


We were all handed a copy of Joyce's Dubliners and began to read one of the stories taking it in turns to read a page each. There was a barrage of different accents and mispronunciations. So it was hard to keep track of the story but still an enjoyable exercise of international cohesiveness.

At the end, I thought we would sit and have a cup of tea and discuss the story but instead, books were snapped shut, Sweny's was locked and we were herded to Kennedy Pub which is just across the road.

This was partly P.Js bid to show us the real Dublin through the bottom of the glass. But a visit to the pub was also a chance to fo a further literary pilgrimage.

Established in 1850, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett had all frequented this building. Formerly a grocer, the young Oscar Wilde lived only a 100 metres or so away and even earned his first shilling stacking shelves on Saturday afternoons.

In Joyce's day, it was the Conway's Pub and is mentioned In Ulysees but is now called Kennedy's Westland Row.

P.J our host ordered a round of Guinness. It was my first ever sip of the black gold. Of course, I disgraced myself by taking a sip without first letting the storm clouds settle. But when I waited, it was a magical turning from clouds to black velvet before my eyes and with the thin layer of creamy froth. It was a velvetine experience to drink.

Sweny's Pharmacy Dublin James Joyce Bloomsbury Day
There is a reason why this Sebel bear is with me in Dublin large image


Friends had told me that many pubs in Ireland claim to have the best pint of Guinness, but that it's hard to go past Mulligans close to Trinity College, a pub that also holds Joyce associations. But after drinking my first pint at Kennedy's and later a one at Mulligans, I would argue that Kennedy's has Ireland's finest pint!

An hour was spent sipping our Guinness and chatting. It was a truly remarkable experience and certainly a highlight of my few days in Dublin.

What's more, P.J wouldn't even allow us to pay for our drinks. They were on him. In Australian terms, he 'shouted.' True Irish hospitality.

And unlike my uneducated self, he spoke at least four languages and could converse with people from around the world and slipped easily into French with the philosopher I was having such a laboured conversation with.

Sweny's is a truly remarkable place and a must stop off point for anyone visiting Dublin who is interested in literature, history or culture.

You will usually find a reading at Sweny's most commonly at 1 pm. but this time changes according to the day. I have put in the present reading times and programs below but do check their website before visiting. The film clip below will also introduce you to Swenys.



Monday 1 pm-2 pm Finnegans Wake
Tuesday 1 pm-2 pm Dubliners
Wed 1 pm-2 pm A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Thursday 1 pm-2 pm Dubliners
Thursday 7 pm- 9 pm Ulysses
Friday 1 pm-2 pm Dubliners
Saturday 11 am-1 pm Ulysses
Saturday 3- 4:30 pm Ulysses (in Portuguese)*
Saturday 6:30- 8 pm Ulysses (en Francais)*
Sunday 3 4:30 pm Ulysses (in Italiano)*
Sunday -8 pm Finnegans Wake (in Joycish)
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Why? Enjoy reading Joyce and a pint with P.J
When: Daily - see article
Phone: 087 7132157 ( 11am 5pm every day) 085 8146713 ( after 5pm.)
Website: sweny.ie/site
Where: 1 Lincoln Pl, Dublin 2, Ireland
Cost: Free or a donation
Your Comment
So, Mulligan's has lost the crown :) I must check out Kennedy's, and Sweny's, the next time I visit Dublin. Thanks for the great article.
by elivi (score: 1|73) 279 days ago
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