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Roddy Doyle on the Tenement Museum


The Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side is a favourite of mine, and Roddy Doyle has written a lovely piece about it for Intelligent Life, a magazine produced by the Economist which often has really good and well-written articles.

I particularly like this quote about blue plaques in Doyle’s home town of Dublin, and how while it’s good to celebrate the famous people of a city, they don’t give any sense of all the ‘ordinary’ lives lived there. This is something that the Tenement Museum certainly does:

I live in Dublin, a city of plaques. Renowned writers, revered nation-builders—the city seems to have been full of them. I often wonder what would happen to the architectural glory that is Georgian Dublin if someone unscrewed a plaque. It might collapse. There is a plaque on the front wall of a house across the street from my suburban home: Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, lived there. A ten-minute walk away, there’s another—Erwin Schrödinger, physicist and Nobel laureate, lived here between 1939 and 1956. Bram Stoker grew up ten minutes away in the opposite direction, although there’s no plaque on the side of that house. Presumably the current occupiers don’t want to see their front garden packed, railings to letterbox, with young Japanese vampires. There is a Stoker plaque on the side of a different house, on Kildare Street.

I liked the plaques. I liked knowing that James Joyce lived here, and here, and here and here and here, and that Lord Edward Carson was born over there. I like the surprises—Sheridan Le Fanu lived here, Ernest Shackleton lived here, Ludwig Wittgenstein liked to sit and write at these steps in the winter months of 1948 and 1949. The plaques seem to add depth to the city, to make it at once more Irish and less insular. It is right to celebrate and point out the hard work, the ingenuity, the good luck and bad luck that made these names so famous. But there is the limitation: fame. I have never seen a plaque saying “Mary Collins lived here, 1897-1932; she loved her family”, or “Derek Murphy, 1923-2001, printer, sat on these steps and had a smoke on his way home from work. He liked a laugh and always tried his best.”

Read the rest of the article here:


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