App for The Dead: new life for Joyce's Dubliners

THE 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s short-story collection, Dubliners, is marked this year by an iPad app dedicated to its famous coda, ‘The Dead’.

Barry McGovern reads The Dead on the app

The free download is available via Apple’s App Store today, on the Feast of the Epiphany. This was also the date on which the maiden aunts of Gabriel Conroy, ‘The Dead’s’ main character, held their annual dinner party at their “dark, gaunt house” on Usher’s Island on the south bank of the Liffey.

The app, which will soon be available in iPhone and Android versions, includes a reading of the story by Barry McGovern, a new setting of the text, and archive images of early 20th-century Dublin. There will also be talks by experts on ‘The Dead’ — a fitting addition to a story steeped in folklore, music, autobiography, politics and Dublin City.

The app is a collaboration between UCD’s Humanities Institute and two Dublin production companies: Athena Media, which contributed sound recordings; and Vermillion Design, which released a Books of Dublin app, based on rare manuscripts from Marsh’s Library and the Edward Worth Library.

Like the Books of Dublin app, ‘The Dead’ app contains material that might otherwise only have been available to scholars. This is key for Geraldine Meaney, of the Humanities Institute. “This is about opening out the university,” she says. “That’s always been part of the humanities’ remit: we do have a sense of being transmitters of cultural heritage across generations, and one of the ways to do that is to use the best technology available to communicate and pass on, in a dynamic way, that cultural heritage.

“The remit of Humanities Institute,” says Meaney, “is to push the boundaries of research and of communication. UCD can feel remote from the city, but we want a dynamic relationship with it. This app is about opening up and engaging the public.”

Joyce finished ‘The Dead’ remote from Dublin, too –— in Trieste, in northern Italy.

But the imaginative place of the story remained rooted to the Dublin of 1904 — its politics, its culture, its music and its controversies.

The setting, on Usher’s Island, symbolises the decline of Georgian Dublin into the “centre of paralysis” that the rest of Dubliners explores.

It’s not a fashionable part of the city, and, far from owning the property, Gabriel’s aunts, the Morkans, rent the building’s upper floors from a corn merchant. This geography echoes across the years, even to the present: the site is no more fashionable now, and the house itself was derelict and used for rough-sleeping until it was bought, and restored, by a barrister, Brendan Kilty, in 2004.

Meanwhile, a spat between Gabriel and a patriotic Gaeilgeoir, Miss Ivors, alludes to the uncertain emergence of nationalism, with Gabriel scolded for saying, “Irish is not my language”.

The West, too, looms large. As a geographical place, but also a dark place of the Irish unconscious, of the history Gabriel yearns to transcend, and even death itself. Music in the story is deeply symbolic — of Joyce’s own exile, but also of the remote past of Gabriel’s wife, Gretta. The Conroys stand for an alternative James Joyce and Nora Barnacle: the stay-at-home, upwardly mobile couple, who are respectable, but live in a dead marriage.

Such are the images, themes, layers of meaning that build up in this remarkable story, until that most famous allegorical passage, when, after realising his wife cannot love him as much as she loved a young boy from Galway who died for her years ago, Gabriel notices “the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland”.

Here is a story rich in meaning; no detail is incidental. The app is a great way of opening all this up, of exploring the story’s resonance and of connecting 21st century Dublin with Joyce’s Dublin, and even earlier.

“This project is grounded in Dublin,” says Meaney. “It’s part of the cultural heritage of the city, of its identity as a UNESCO City of Literature, but also about its people. The audio and images give an added layer to our enjoyment and understanding of the story.

“A lot of Dubliners are interested in the story,” she says, “but they might be intimidated by a full-length academic article, or might not have the patience for a full academic lecture. Here, you can click and hear eight minutes about the music in the story, or eight minutes about the history, from a professor, from a historian. You have this fresh appreciation of the story, either for people who have never read it and are curious, or who know the story and want to experience it in a new way.”

Apps like this are an excellent for reintroducing canonical works to contemporary audiences. They bridge, entertainingly, what might be an off-putting gap between now and then, contextualising a narrative that might appear remote and strange.

“People can need encouragement to approach these classic texts,” says Meaney, “and this new technology can really reach people in a new way.

“What we are doing is trying to combine cultural heritage with new media and technological innovation to communicate with a new audience. We are at the cusp of using technology to communicate in a new way with the Irish public and the global audience at large.”



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