Sunday, May 19, 2013

In Which I Go to Ireland for Other Reasons and Accidentally Find Bookish Things

A few weeks ago, I was sent to Ireland in my capacity as a food writer. It’s too bad the focus of Book Dirt prevents me from giving you much detail about how well I was wined and dined by the folks at Good Food Ireland, so I will simply state that Ireland’s poor food reputation is vastly undeserved (The seafood! The cheese!) and leave it at that. 

I took so many notes, it's a wonder I didn't get a hand cramp. (Photo by fellow foodie Eric Cathcart.)

I didn’t expect the trip to have much to do with books other than what I read on the plane (J. S. Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a short by noir queen Christa Faust, and some long-form true crime magazine articles I sent to my Kindle for offline perusing). It turns out that, even on a food-focused trip, interesting book-related things kept happening -- or maybe I’m just particularly attuned to spotting them.

The first bookish finds were, oddly enough, at the Guinness Storehouse at St. James’ Gate Brewery in Dublin. We met Eibhlin Roche, who may have one of the coolest jobs in the world: she’s an archivist for Guinness. It’s not something I’d ever considered before, but a beer that dates back to 1759 has a lot of stuff to archive -- almost five miles of stuff, from advertising and ephemera to employee records. Eibhlin put together a selection of food-related items for our group, which is how I came to see these nifty Guinness cookbooks and vintage ads.

Guinness cookbook, 1889.
One of many pieces of Guinness ephemera at the archives.
Guinness and oysters is a thing in Ireland, and the tradition goes way back.
The famous 9,000 year lease, signed by Arthur Guinness.

Later, in the Connoisseur’s Lounge, which looked a lot like a place Arthur Guinness and his peers would have enjoyed hanging out, I noticed old books on brewing lining the walls. 

Old brewing books at the Connoisseur's Lounge.

Don’t worry. We also drank lots of Guinness. Lots and lots of Guinness.

The dim lounge cast fascinating shadows in my beer.

That same evening, before dinner at the Merrion Hotel, I took a quick walk around Merrion Square to try and work up an appetite. (I was still full from lunch and lots of Guinness.) Apparently, everyone who ever wrote in Dublin lived on Merrion Square, or it seemed that way. I ran into Yeats …

Yeats was here.

... and Le Fanu, whose novel I was re-reading on the plane. 

*Knock knock knock* Is Mr. Le Fanu home?

If I’d walked any further, I would have run into John Synge and Oscar Wilde. A lot of people forget that Wilde was from Ireland, associated so much as he is with London, but he lived at No. 1, Merrion Square from 1855 to 1876. I had to miss them, though. Hurrying back for dinner, I cut through Merrion Square Park, rather than going all the way around the block, and who should I run into but Oscar, hanging out in the park.

Oscar Wilde, just chillin' in Merrion Square Park.

The next few days were a blur, punctuated with various gluts of food and wine. When we arrived at the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, County Waterford, the room made me swoon, and not just because it was pretty. It was stocked with books. These weren’t the  trashy paperbacks and bestsellers you sometimes find in a hotel, either, and it was a really nice change from the ubiquitous Gideon Bible. I was stunned at how many Southern U.S. writers I counted.

This small bookshelf held mostly cookbooks, but also the poems of Wislawa Szymborska.

I wish I could have stayed here longer just to read.

Alice Walker? Olive Ann Burns? Am I still at home?

One of my biggest book surprises, though, came as I was leaving Ballymaloe House in County Cork. Our little gang of food writers were loading up their luggage when I spotted this van in the parking lot. I strolled over to find out more, and met Bryan, who is a driver/seller for a mobile books service. The concept is fascinating: he drops off books to sell at small shops and businesses, then pops back in later to pick up unsold books and collect his cut. He also sells books directly. He told me that in the early days of the business, the owner’s best customer was a funeral home, as the six ladies who were employed there were avid readers. I envied Bryan for getting to drive around the Irish countryside selling books.

The company relies on self-employed distributors like Bryan to deliver books.
Bryan shows off his inventory.

I mentioned earlier that I probably zeroed in on all the book-related things because I’m in and of the book world. (We had a professional harpist with us, and she kept spotting harps, so there’s definitely some truth to that.) It reminds me of being in college and going to parties where I would inevitably spot something interesting in a bookcase and end up reading in a corner, engrossed in the text and oblivious to the carousing around me.

If you’re a book person, you don’t even have to really look, I guess. The books will come to you.

Have you encountered books, authors, or stories about them in places where you least expected them?