Controversial plans to develop James Joyce house into hostel approved

Sian Cain
·2 min read

Dublin city council has greenlit a controversial plan to convert the house made famous by James Joyce’s story The Dead into a hostel, with a campaign group supported by writers including Sally Rooney, Colm Tóibín and Edna O’Brien saying they will appeal the decision.

The property, at 15 Usher’s Island, was built in 1775 and was once home to Joyce’s great aunts. Known locally as “the House of The Dead”, it is the setting for the Irish writer’s 1914 short story, widely considered a masterpiece of the form.

Dublin city council passed on the opportunity to buy the property, which Joyce called the “dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island”, in 2017, with two private investors, Fergus McCabe and Brian Stynes, acquiring it for €650,000 (£560,000).

Related: Joyce fans mourn loss of Dublin’s soul as developers buy House of the Dead

When plans to develop the property into a 54-room hostel were revealed in 2019, the backlash was swift. Ninety-nine writers signed a letter against the proposal, including Rooney, O’Brien, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. In a separate letter of objection, Tóibín claimed the development would “destroy an essential part of Ireland’s cultural history”.

Ireland’s department of culture, heritage and the Gaeltacht also objected to the plans, saying it would “undermine, diminish, and devalue a site of universal cultural heritage, importance and part of the Unesco City of Literature designation”.

“Dublin can build all the hotel/hostel rooms it likes, but if it continues to disregard and demolish its unique cultural heritage it will obliterate what remains of the heart of the city and there will be little left for visitors or indeed for Dubliners themselves to appreciate,” John McCourt, a Joycean scholar and part of the campaign group against the development, wrote in the Irish Times.

But last Friday, Dublin city council granted planning permission, concluding that while the building was of “special interest”, “its current condition is of concern and the proposed change of use will be the best way to secure its long-term conservation”. The developers had also revised the plans to omit a contemporary extension at the rear, which had provoked fears that the building’s character would be irrevocably changed.

When the Observer visited the property last November, reporter Rory Carroll observed: “All the cries of cultural vandalism, of defilement of literature’s great temple, cloud a melancholy fact: the building is already vandalised, already defiled, victim of a century of neglect … it fell into disuse and decay, its roof broken, its interiors ravaged by squatters, the whole building almost destroyed by fire in the mid-1990s.”

On Sunday, McCourt told the Sunday Times that the campaign group would be lodging a formal appeal to An Bord Pleanala.

“Destroying our literary heritage to build another hostel during a pandemic beggars belief,” he said.