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A Dublin Gem: Sweny’s Bookshop

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Sweny’s is SO much more than just a bookshop – it’s a literary gem that takes you back in time the moment you step through the door. Featured in James Joyce’s Ulysees where it is described in sumptuous detail, Sweny’s then, was a pharmacy:

“He waited by the counter, inhaling the keen reek of drugs, the dusty dry smell of sponges and loofahs.Lot of time taken up telling your aches and pains.” Ulysses, J. Joyce (1922)

Built in 1847 as a GP’s consulting room and later adapted to include an apothecary and then a pharmacy, Sweny’s has altered very little since the day Leopold Bloom pushed open it’s narrow glazed door. It has been “preserved through neglect” in memory of James Joyce. It has had several owners since the Sweny family, but the ‘Sweny’ trading name still remains, and as well as Sweny’s very special soap, second hand books, vintage jewellery and hats (of course) crowd it’s shelves. The dispensing cabinets remain though, as well as a plethora of bizarrely shaped, brown paper wrapped uncollected prescriptions from an age gone by.

F.W. Sweny and Co (Limited) opened its doors as a dispensing chemist in 1853. A fortuitous location in the heart of Dublin’s south inner city, it lies within 100 yards of the birthplace of Oscar Wilde.

In 1904 the young James Joyce called to the door and consulted with the then pharmacist Frederick William Sweny in such detail that it is possible to recreate the prescription he describes in Chapter 5 of his famous novel Ulysses.

Swenys interiorSweny’s also lies within 50 yards of the location where James Joyce was stood up by Nora Barnacle on 14th June 1904. Two days later she would give in to his pressing advances and that day, 16th June 1904, would go down in literary history as the day that forms the backdrop for Joyce’s Ulysses, arguably the greatest novel ever written. The hero, Leopold Bloom, comes into the shop, admires its bottles of potions and compounds and ponders the alchemy that the place possesses.

While waiting for the pharmacist Bloom smells the lemony soap on the counter and takes a bar with him. The soap becomes the talisman for his journey and is re-created every year on 16 June, Bloomsday.

Joyce’s works are cherished here and read aloud daily by the volunteers and visitors who take pleasure in the clarity of Joyce’s memories. Hearing Joyce read makes it incredibly accessible for even casual readers, as stream of consciousness, with the right intonation, all begins to make sense.

PJMurphy in SwenysThe sweet scent of lemon soap remains in the air today; potions lie unopened and forever mystical. Photos waiting to be collected and portraits in their frames watch while the pharmacists read aloud and recall romantic Dublin through the words of Joyce.

When I visited recently, PJ Murphy (right) greeted me at the door in his white pharmacists coat and bow tie. He offered me a most welcome cup of tea and we chatted about the shop, Joyce, learning French and chickens.

Sweny’s is a truly remarkable place and a must stop for anyone visiting Dublin. Readings are held throughout the week (check our events section for details), and readers often repair afterwards to a local hostelry to discus things literary.

In this video by Ailbhe O’Donnell, you can see how fabulous the shop is.

And if you are stuck for a gift for that keen reader, Sweny’s soap can be bought online at their website: www.sweny.ie  We covered it here in a previous post, that reveals a little more of Sweny’s history.