Dublin's bookish ways

Independent shops finding it harder to compete in a richer city

Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Staff / November 12, 2006

DUBLIN -- Whenever they would bump into each other at McDaid's or any number of pubs -- that is, literally bump into each other -- the writers Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh would go at it like tomcats.

They were chalk and cheese: Behan, the streetwise, working-class child of Dublin's inner city; Kavanagh, the bogman bard of rural Ireland. Behan was an extroverted raconteur who loved to be outrageous; Kavanagh was a circumspect poet who loved to follow horse racing.

But if they traded insults and punches in the pubs, Behan and Kavanagh were on their best behavior in Parsons, the Baggot Street bookshop where May O'Flaherty and her all-female staff presided over the premises like nuns steeped in diplomacy and the martial arts. Behan and Kavanagh were barred from myriad pubs across the city, but they would never risk being banned from Parsons and some of the other great Dublin bookshops.

Alas, Behan and Kavanagh are long dead, and Parsons is long gone. It's a juice bar now. Gone, too, are many of the quirky, quaint independent bookshops that dotted what once was a dirty old town, when Behan, Kavanagh , and the rest of the Dublin literati wrote of an Ireland that was depressed, repressed, and poor. Ireland is now rich, and Dublin now gleams, like any other Western European capital, its bookshops big and shiny and, sadly, far less idiosyncratic than anything like Parsons.

But inside Cathach Books of Duke Street, between Grafton and Dawson streets, you can still find Behan and Kavanagh, their images stenciled onto the walls, their books penciled into the inventory. And you can still find a bookshop that harkens back to an era when Dublin booksellers were people, not corporations.

Enda Cunningham was working as a schoolteacher in his native Carrick, in the remote northwest county of Donegal, when he opened the first Cathach Books some 40 years ago . He named it after the ancient manuscript of psalms that dates to the sixth or seventh century. A battle over the ownership of the original book, amounting to the first copyright dispute, led to a war. The Irish, fighting over words, seemed an appropriate theme, Cunningham reasoned.

Cunningham moved to Dublin 27 years ago, and opened the first Dublin incarnation of Cathach in Market Arcade. But 18 years ago Cunningham moved his shop a few blocks to its current location -- just down the street from Davy Byrne's pub, where Leopold Bloom had a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich in "Ulysses." Nearby is the Bailey, a pub where Behan spoke for the last time to his fellow writer and estranged friend Anthony Cronin before dying of chronic alcoholism in 1964. And just around the corner is the Royal Irish Academy, where the remaining pages of the original Cathach manuscript are preserved.

It's a great location, in the heart of Dublin's most fashionable shopping district, but the rent isn't cheap.

"We're hanging in there," Cunningham says, referring to the daunting challenge of maintaining a small, independent bookshop in affluent, modern Dublin.

The caricatures that line the wall -- Heaney, Swift, Goldsmith, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats, O'Casey -- are of the authors whose books dominate the shelves. But you can also find a younger generation of Irish writers, from Roddy Doyle to Anne Enright to Hugo Hamilton. Cathach has many titles in the Irish language. Cunningham grew up in the Gaeltacht of Donegal, one of the Irish-speaking regions, where Irish has always been the everyday language of the locals. His business card lists his name as Eannna Mac Cuinneagain, with its anglicized version in parentheses.

There is a large selection of antiquarian and rare books -- I picked up a second edition of Behan's "Borstal Boy" for a little more than $100 -- and some exquisite maps in the downstairs gallery.

David Cunningham, who with his sister Aisling helps his 79-year-old father run the shop, says most of their customers are local. But he says Americans and Europeans often stop in the shop, especially between April and September.

"The problem here," David confides, "is that it's just so expensive to trade."

Many of Ireland's independent bookshops have simply folded, while some, including Kennys of Galway, have recently closed their premises and moved to a strictly on line business. Cathach is trying to straddle both worlds, keeping its quaint shop open while increasingly relying on the Internet to reach a wider audience that could help the business survive well into the 21st century. The website contains a search engine that can check the shop's stock.

There are a few other quirky, independent bookshops in Dublin: Books Upstairs, across from Trinity College's front gate at College Green; the family-owned Dublin Bookshop on Grafton Street is still hanging in there against the conglomerates; and Greene's near Trinity's back gate, which has been a bookshop since 1843 and owned by the Pembrey family since 1912. But Cathach remains the jewel in Dublin City.

Thomas O'Gorman , a Chicago writer and civil servant, shudders to think of the city without it.

"I've been coming to Dublin regularly for 40 years, and this is the last of the great, small bookshops," said O'Gorman, standing in the shop as Enda Cunningham sat in a nearby office nook, working away on his computer. "We've lost so many, it would be tragic to lose this, too."

Cunningham has faith in his son and daughter, and faith in people who appreciate how special his shop is, just as he had faith in his instincts in striking out on his own as a bookseller 40 years ago in the wilds of wild Donegal.

"I hope the shop is around a lot longer than me," he says.

Contact Kevin Cullen at .

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