MoLI Blooms: the new Museum of Literature Ireland

The Newman Buildings on St Stephen’s Green, that house the new Museum of Literature Ireland.

By Peter McNamara

The new Museum of Literature Ireland, also known as MoLI (a reference to the legendary character Molly Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses) opened its doors this September. MoLI is located on Stephen’s Green, in buildings which housed UCD before its move to Belfield in 1970.

This new museum is a joint venture of UCD, the National Library and Fáilte Ireland with additional funding from the  philanthropic Naughton Foundation. MoLI welcomed its first visitors on Culture Night, on Friday, September 24th. Over 1500 people queued up to take a look around – a testament to the potential of this new cultural offering.

I sat down with museum director Simon O’Connor, to chat about the story so far, and his plans for the future. 

“We really wanted to get MoLI opened on the right foot,” he tells me, “so we ended up doing a few launch events. We wanted to let people in, and get a sense of how they moved through the museum space, to see what worked, what needed tweaking. It was really helpful, and Culture Night was great. There were queues down to Leeson Street. We could have had twice as many in.”

O’Connor’s passion is clear. He’s already had great success as the founding curator of the Little Museum of Dublin, building the museum from scratch in 2011. Under his tenure the Little Museum increased its visitor numbers year on year, and won numerous awards, even being shortlisted for the European Museum of the Year. 

A student of English Literature, he has a background in graphic design and publishing, and is also a composer of music. It’s a combination that makes him uniquely positioned to help design exhibits, appraise the museum as its professional director, but to also enjoy the space as an artist himself.

A first look inside

The Museum of Literature Ireland is located at 86 St Stephen’s Green, on the quieter part of the square, opposite and across from the Shelbourne side. Walking in from the street, I was greeted warmly by those manning the ticket desk. MoLI is staffed by a combination of part-time workers and volunteers and they are encouraged to engage visitors in conversation. In fact, this might be one of the museum’s most unique qualities: in every room I entered, I found there was a low hum of chatter, and even laughter at times. The atmosphere isn’t over-precious, or reverent. Visitors are given the freedom to react, to discuss, to enjoy what they encounter. 

The first exhibit is dedicated to the history of UCD, and its connection to the buildings that house the museum. Whatever about the exhibits and artefacts on show, the rooms are themselves steeped in history. In 1854, in these fine Georgian buildings, University College Dublin – then called the Catholic University – was established.

Named after Cardinal John Henry Newman, a key figure in the founding of UCD, Newman House has been witness to much history. Once the family home of Thomas (Buck) Whaley, the famous gambler and member of the Irish House of Commons, the house was sold to Charles Bianconi, but Bianconi didnʼt want the house for himself.

The Italian-Irish entrepreneur, who had opened up the Irish countryside with his network of horse-drawn coaches, was buying it for the Catholic University, now UCD. As Whaleyʼs father was a notorious anti-Catholic, Bianconi stepped in to pose as the buyer. 

Famous alumni and residents of Newman House include Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Lavin, Kate OʼBrien, Flann OʼBrien and Maeve Binchy. James Joyce had his graduation photographs taken under the ash tree in what is now one of Dublinʼs few accessible historic house gardens.

A river of language… an old town alive…

Coming from the UCD room, you encounter a wide collage of portraits of Ireland’s writers, male and female, living and dead. Across this “Constellation” each writer appears as a face and a name, and in that way they are presented with a certain measure of equality, the famous and the more obscurely revered appear side by side. 

Next is the Kate O’Brien room – a room that will house changing exhibitions, dedicated to a different writer every time. This exhibit is curated by O’Brien’s grand-niece, herself an actress. Through objects, audio, images, and text, we are told the story of O’Brien’s battle with censorship, shame, and her exile to Spain. 

From here you enter the Riverrun of Language. Taking its name from a quotation in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, this “riverrun” is evoked by a large screen on which phrases and fragments of language appear and mingle and are voiced over the sound system.

Amid ambient nature sounds, the snippets might arise from an old Irish story, a Heaney poem, or a new prize-winning novel. The intention of the piece is to suggest the fluidity and variety of the Irish use of language, be it as Bearla nó as Gaeilge, yesterday or yesteryear.

The next exhibition is “Dear, Dirty Dublin”, a run-down of the historical and cultural milieu in Ireland and the wider world from the mid 19th to 20th century. A timeline of interwoven events runs along the wall, featuring notable artists, writers, politicians, activists, and rebels of the day, while in the middle of this large room, a physical three-dimensional model of Dublin is spread, with notable locations highlighted here and there. 

Here is another welcome aspect to MoLI: there is a nice mix of high – and low – tech in each of the exhibits. Having come from a large digital screen and sound system, through a corridor lit with neon, I find the tactile shapes and blocks of this 3D map of Dublin, set amid the bright tapestry-like timeline that runs along the walls.

It’s the same all over the museum. Screens and displays are complemented by objects and artefacts, and you’re never far from a piece of paper. This mixed approach helps keep your interest and attention, by not overwhelming you. Taken together, it gives a lightness to the rooms at MoLI – the visitor is invited to engage with the exhibits, but in each spacious room is also given the opportunity to lean back, reflect, relax. 

Upstairs is an exhibition on Ireland’s history of censorship. It takes a wider view of the repressive Irish approach to social change, presenting it as perhaps an inevitable outcome of the effort to form an identity as a poor and fledgling nation. 

In the floors above this there are several more exhibits, featuring writers, old and new. At the top of the building you’ll find an extensive display of Joyce’s notebooks and papers, as well as a glass-housed copy of the first ever printed copy of Ulysses – which Joyce immediately gifted to his publisher, Sylvia Beach. There is even a chance to get your hands on pen and paper, and do a bit of writing yourself. Visitors are invited to take a seat, and listen in on the advice and encouragement of famous writers. Written on the walls are the helpful words tús maith, leath na hoibre: a good start is half the work!

Late nights, a family focus, and the learning programme

Director Simon O’Connor is brimming with ideas about how to grow MoLI, to make it somewhere special for the young and old, and how to ensure its longevity as a cultural institution.

“One thing we never do in Ireland,” he tells me, “is late-night museum offerings. In London, on the continent, dozens of museums have later hours – they’re a place you might go to before heading out for dinner. This late-night aspect is also great for tapping into a younger audience, which every museum hopes to do.”

The Museum of Literature Ireland’s 2020 programme is soon to be announced. O’Connor is planning a host of evening events at MoLI, featuring a mix of music, theatre, film, and more. He’s interested in the writers of today as much as those of the past, not as subjects, but as curators themselves.

The director is also putting together an extensive range of family-friendly events and exhibits. “It’s important to give children a positive experience of cultural institutions from as early an age as possible. We want kids to feel connected to this place, and to their city. To feel a sense of ownership of it.”

O’Connor has also organised a “Learning Programme”, an arrangement with primary schools to bring children in for tours, and to make available special rooms for on-site teaching and interaction.

“If you can get the youngest generation on board, you can help ensure your longevity. I want MoLI to be here in 100, 200 years. I want it to be thought of alongside the National Library, the National Gallery, the Chester Beatty Library. It’s something that Dublin, and Ireland, needs and deserves.”

Overall, the new Museum of Literature Ireland is a wonderful addition to the cultural scene in Dublin. Unfortunately, entry costs €8 – that said, there is a free opening on the first Friday evening of every month, and with more state support, that price might come down, or be abolished altogether. 

MoLI also features a cafe in the basement floors, which look out onto a beautiful garden. This green space is lined with benches, and planned in such a way as to be filled with birdsong and blooms year-round. This space also opens out onto the Iveagh Gardens. It’s a fine place to absorb the ideas, dramas, and dreams offered up within the walls of this exciting new Museum of Literature. 

The new Museum of Literature Ireland is located at 86 St Stephen’s Green. Check out for information on daytime and evening events, free openings, and family activities.