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At Home With... David Norris

In the run-up to Bloomsday, gay rights activist Senator David Norris explains why he hates iPods and he wouldn’t have wanted James Joyce as a neighbour.

Jackie Hayden, 16 Jun 2008

South African-born Senator David Norris lives in a house he’s owned for 30 years in North Great George’s Street in Dublin city centre. He rents the basement of this listed building to a couple who look after his garden, “and the window boxes” he adds proudly. “Every year we win the window-box competition in the street. Gerry does all the work and I get the certificate. A perfect arrangement!”

The first time he saw this street he was captivated. “It was the 1970s and nobody lived in the inner city at that time unless they absolutely had to,” he says. “Yet here were these stunning 18th century houses, a lot of them in terrible disrepair, but one or two beautifully restored. So I bought one.”

Up to then he’d been living in Greystones, but his political activism had him travelling “up and down to Dublin on that dreadful road,” as he puts it, so a move here had many attractions, especially being bang in the middle of everything. The Senator also owns a remote house in the mountains in Cyprus, but Dublin is very much his home, not least because of his well-publicised literary interest in Joyce. Not surprisingly, his house is full of books, with a library upstairs and bookcases all over the house. “Yes, that’s a problem,” he admits. “I have a room that was once full of all sorts of things connected with the one-man show I do, theatre posters from all over the world, documents about Georgian preservation, the gay movement, my political career, Joyce and all that. So when the National Library said wanted to buy my papers, I told them they could have them on condition that they took the whole bloody lot. Giving them all the junk cleared an entire room, so I then put an Adams-style bookcase along one wall. But now the room’s completely full again!”

Joyce is one of his favourite authors. “I had a huge collection of Joyce books at one time, but I gave them all to the Joyce Museum to help them start their library. He was a most fascinating man, a man I very much relate to, and the subject of one of the world’s greatest biographies, by Richard Ellmann, which I put on a par with Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson. Joyce was the kind of man you could identify with, because although he had this extraordinary intellect he saw himself in one sense as a completely ordinary man. He liked dealing with chambermaids and waiters and this sort of business. He didn’t put on affectations.”

But would he have liked Joyce as a neighbour here in North Great Georges Street? “No, I don’t think so. It’s not that I find anything unpleasant about him, but I think he might have been a quite awkward person to deal with and I doubt if he would have killed himself maintaining the house.”

Other writers to figure in Norris’ collection include the late Anthony Powell, author of the twelve book novel sequence A Dance To the Music of Time. “It’s one of the great masterpieces of English literature,” he says, but when I mention that’s it was recently serialised on BBC radio he erupts with disappointment, “Was it? How did I miss that? Oh, bollocksology to that! It’s such a rich work with memorable characters like Widmerpool.”

Another favourite is the Irish writer Mary Lavin, of whom, he reckons not enough fuss is made. “She’s one of the great short story writers. Then there’s Sean O Faolain, Frank O’Connor, John McGahern. I have everything they wrote. Regarding McGahern, my roots are in the bog, as my mother was from Laois. In That They May Face the Rising Sun McGahern absolutely captures the Irish Midlands that I know.”

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