Letter to the Editor: Prioritise the living over the house of ‘The Dead’

Letter to the Editor: Prioritise the living over the house of ‘The Dead’

I am writing in relation to an intervention by Irish and international writers, artists and academics who signed a letter calling on Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan and Dublin City Manager, Owen Keegan to “save” the house at 15 Usher’s Island known as James Joyce’s house of ‘The Dead’.

The signatories to letter are of the opinion that turning the building into a hostel would “destroy the uniquely valuable interior” which still “maintains the character of the house so splendidly described in the story”.

In an interview on RTÉ Radio, one of the signatories suggested that the house is one of our national treasures like the Book of Kells and must be preserved. Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland, it was said:

“Anyone coming to Dublin can see this is not just where the story was set, but it hasn’t been reconstructed on the inside, it’s intact.”

While Ulysses is a summer book, ‘The Dead’ is a winter story, so it happens inside. The story is filled with the way the rooms are configured. It is suggested that “56 rooms for a youth hostel will simply ruin that interior”.

What the speaker failed to add is that there is adequate space in Coppice Acre Memorial Park to accommodate young homeless people among the existing number of homeless already in tented accommodation there within the cultural quarter overshadowed by National Museum of Ireland and adjacent to Coppice Memorial Park housing Anna Liva, the bronze statue representing the River Liffey and from where transient residents could view the house on Usher’s Island and imagine what it would be like to have a home and create the story of their lives as 15 Ushers Island becomes a site of literary pilgrimage?

I respectfully suggest that educated people and especially budding authors could use their imagination in revisiting the period when the upper floors of 15 Ushers Island were rented by Joyce’s great-aunts in the 1890s and when the writer himself often visited there and where is the setting of ‘The Dead’.

But in honouring ‘The Dead’ it is important to give consideration to the living especially the living dead who exist on the margins of society and may not have been privileged to experience the splendour of Victorian interiors and enriching environment to have Christmas dinner and dance.

The number of adults, children and young people in Ireland who are experiencing poverty, homelessness or accommodation insecurity and associated educational, social and health-related impacts is on the rise. In particular, there is growing evidence of the incidence of child homelessness and poverty in Ireland.

Official statistics from the Department of Health showed 6,480 adults and 3,784 children/dependents accessed emergency accommodation during the week beginning February 18, 2019, a total of 10,264 people.

Reports indicate that the rate of child homelessness rose by 287% in three years and that child homelessness accounts for one-third of the country’s homeless population.

According to Peter McVerry Trust (2018) the number of people accessing State-funded emergency accommodation rose from 7,167 in January 2017 to 9104 in January 2018, an increase of 27%.

Poverty figures published by Central Statistics Office (2017) taken from survey on income and living conditions in Ireland indicate that in 2016, 11.1% of children lived in consistent poverty which equates to approximately 140,000 children.

Consistent poverty can mean going 24 hours without a substantial meal or being cold and not having a warm jacket or two strong pairs of shoes and that families are not able to replace worn-out furniture or have people over for a meal.

These deficits can cascade into further impacts on health, behaviour, educational and economic outcomes throughout one’s life. A study into adverse childhood experiences (ACE) provides insight into the impact of early adverse experiences on children’s health and developmental outcomes (Felitti et al, 1998).

It found that 87% of respondents who had been exposed to one type of adversity reported being exposed to at least one other type and that exposure to multiple adversities is more likely to have a negative impact on children as they grow up.

The incidence of poverty, homelessness or accommodation instability increases the likelihood of children, and young people experiencing stress and lack of an enriching environment which may adversely affect their development on many levels, including attention, memory, cognition, executive functioning and language development.

As a result children and young people face poor social, emotional, educational and behavioural outcomes and neurobiological research highlights that poverty negatively impacts brain development (Lipina and Posner, 2012).

In circumstances where homelessness and accommodation insecurity is a national crisis it is incomprehensible that any agencies of the State would be asked to fund the preservation of a building as a National Monument over prioritising the accommodation needs of our youth population.

I respectfully suggest that the exterior of the building be preserved and perhaps a reception room and another room could be set aside to house photographs and visual display of interior as it existed in the 1890s in order for literary pilgrims to get a sense of the period which informed Joyce’s writing while also making a contribution to the hostel within which it is contained.

As such visitors might be inspired by the lives and circumstances of the living while reflecting on ‘The Dead’ and allowing for the re-enactment of historical events to take place in our theatres performed by our gifted and inspiring producers and actors.

Denis Murray


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