Sarah Maria Griffin reveals her romance with the National Library in Dublin City and the LexIcon in Dún Laoghaire
I’d known it was there for years before I really fell in love with it, and isn’t that how any truly great romance starts? I’d hopped in and out on afternoons when I needed silence. I had a membership card with my photograph that made me feel like a secret-society member. It was just there, a silent haven tucked away in a corner of the city—in plain sight but almost untouched. Those first few afternoons spent there in 2015 when I’d just moved home from America would act as a prelude to what the space would come, in time, to mean to me. Big desk, green lamp, the dome above me a robin’s egg and forest-green scale of colour. An old, old place and me very small in it.
I injured my back in 2017, badly. I still haven’t found a way to write about it, but all of this goes to say that I didn’t leave the house a lot that year. When I wrote, I wrote horizontally, or wrapped around my house desk, contorting myself to try and unknot my discomfort. The book I was writing at the time is not a comfortable book, and the silence of working from home and roar/thrum of a ruptured disc is present in that story. But when the time came that I could leave again, when moving outside wasn’t a battle, I was drawn back there.
Elizabeth Gilbert says that, as an artist, to truly make the work, you have to show up for the work—at the desk, like you would if you worked any other job. It was showing up to those desks under that dome every day that made me feel like I had a job—a vocation. It made my life less quiet, less lonely: after a few weeks the security staff and the girls in the café would chat to me when I rose and left the huge, silent hall to stretch my body out. I felt like part of the furniture there.
The enormous reading room, crowned by that dome, has so many desks—but only about twenty or so ever feel occupied. There is a sense of privacy, as well as a sense of busyness, that libraries can give. There are people around, sure, but they are all in their own worlds. They are all reading, or studying, or inventing.
Their energy is palpable—like being plugged into a good ecosystem. The desks and chairs, though old, are strangely ergonomic—and what a funny compliment that is to give to such an ancient, beautiful building— and I could sit there for a day and never feel that bad click or pull or shift in my spine. It is a kind environment. A healing place. I snapped photographs of myself surrounded by beautiful, complicated tiles in the bathroom every day that I went to work there, as proof to myself.
You managed to leave the house today, your body is coming back. You wrote fresh words today. This is your job. Your hair looked nice. I posted them online, little love notes to the library. I was there in that space, today. This is who I was, then.
This summer, I was placed as writer-in-residence in the dlr LexIcon, a contemporary answer to the majesty of the National Library. Where the National is hallowed, ancient halls, the dlr LexIcon is endless windows that face the ocean, a buzz of community and ceilings that reach high and speak back to movement with light. I have my own office there, with a closed door and windows that look out on the sea. I have watched it change from summery blueness to white foamstriped wintery storm. I will have twelve months there, having spent so many hours there that the security staff are occasionally suspicious of me, a ghost on the CCTV who moves around too close to midnight, lighting up the enormous halls when she is just trying to go for a cup of tea. When I say that beneath these windows and by this ocean I have produced the happiest work of my life so far, I am telling the truth. The space feeds the words as well as the body, the heart.
And again, like a romance, I know my time at dlr LexIcon will close in the summer—but I know the National Library with its stained-glass windows and regal stairways will be there waiting for me afterwards, not having missed me too much. What is one woman with a pen in the context of a place like that? I’ll slip back into my desk there come summer when the next writer-in-residence takes up in Dún Laoghaire and keep working. One word after another.
Sarah Maria Griffin‘s first novel, Spare and Found Parts, was published by Titan Books in Spring 2018 and was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards that year. Her second, Other Words For Smoke, was published in April 2019. She is a columnist at the Irish Times, and her nonfiction has appeared in Winter Papers and The Stinging Fly. She tweets @griffski.
First published in Books Ireland January/February 2019