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Book-browsing the best way

Published Dec. 2, 2006

Whenever they would bump into each other at McDaid's or any number of pubs - that is, literally bump into each other - the writers Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh would go at it like tomcats.

They were chalk and cheese: Behan, the streetwise, working-class child of Dublin's inner city; Kavanagh, the bogman bard of rural Ireland. Behan was an extroverted raconteur who loved to be outrageous; Kavanagh was a circumspect poet who loved to follow horse racing.

But if they traded insults and punches in the pubs, Behan and Kavanagh were on their best behavior in Parsons, the Baggot Street bookshop where May O'Flaherty and her all-female staff presided over the premises like nuns steeped in diplomacy and the martial arts. Behan and Kavanagh were barred from myriad pubs across the city, but they would never risk being banned from Parsons and some of the other great Dublin bookshops.

Alas, Behan and Kavanagh are long dead, and Parsons is long gone. It's a juice bar now. Gone, too, are many of the quirky, quaint independent bookshops that dotted what once was a dirty old town, when Behan, Kavanagh and the rest of the Dublin literati wrote of an Ireland that was depressed, repressed and poor. Ireland is now rich, and Dublin now gleams, like any other Western European capital, its bookshops big and shiny and, unfortunately, far less idiosyncratic than anything like Parsons.

A part of the setting

Inside Cathach Books of Duke Street, between Grafton and Dawson streets, you can still find Behan and Kavanagh, their images stenciled onto the walls, their books penciled into the inventory. And you can still find a bookshop that harkens back to an era when Dublin booksellers were people, not corporations.

Enda Cunningham was working as a schoolteacher in his native Carrick, in the remote northwest county of Donegal, when he opened the first Cathach Books 40 years ago. He named it after the ancient manuscript of psalms that dates to the sixth or seventh century. A battle over the ownership of the original book, amounting to the first copyright dispute, led to a war. The Irish, fighting over words, seemed an appropriate theme, Cunningham reasoned.

Cunningham moved to Dublin 27 years ago, and opened the first Dublin incarnation of Cathach in Market Arcade. But 18 years ago Cunningham moved his shop a few blocks to its current location - just down the street from Davy Byrne's pub, where Leopold Bloom had a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich in Ulysses. Nearby is the Bailey, a pub where Behan spoke for the last time to his fellow writer and estranged friend Anthony Cronin before dying of chronic alcoholism in 1964.

It's a great location, in the heart of Dublin's most fashionable shopping district, but the rent isn't cheap.

The caricatures that line the wall - Heaney, Swift, Goldsmith, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats, O'Casey - are of the authors whose books dominate the shelves. But you can also find a younger generation of Irish writers, from Roddy Doyle to Anne Enright to Hugo Hamilton. Cathach has many titles in the Irish language. Cunningham grew up in the Gaeltacht of Donegal, one of the Irish-speaking regions, where Irish has always been the everyday language of the locals. His business card lists his name as Eannna Mac Cuinneagain, with its anglicized version in parentheses.

There is a large selection of antiquarian and rare books and some exquisite maps in the downstairs gallery. I picked up a second edition of Behan's Borstal Boy for a little more than $100.

Fighting the trends

Many of Ireland's independent bookshops have simply folded, while some, including Kennys of Galway, have recently closed their premises and moved to a strictly online business. Cathach is trying to straddle both worlds, keeping its quaint shop open while increasingly relying on the Internet to reach a wider audience that could help the business survive well into the 21st century.

There are a few other quirky, independent bookshops in Dublin: Books Upstairs, across from Trinity College's front gate at College Green; the family-owned Dublin Bookshop on Grafton Street is still hanging in; and Greene's near Trinity's back gate, which has been a bookshop since 1843 and owned by the Pembrey family since 1912. But Cathach remains the jewel in Dublin City.


Dublin's bookstores

To place the phone calls noted below, first dial 011 and then the country code for Ireland, 353.

Cathach Books, 10 Duke St.; 1-671-8676;

Books Upstairs, 36 College Green; 1-679-6807;

Maurice Earls, the owner, and Ruth Kenny, the manager, preside over a good selection of psychology, self-help and feminist literature.

Dublin Bookshop, 24 Grafton St.; 1-677-5568; no Web site.

How this family-owned store holds its own against the chains and pays the rent is a triumph of spirit.

Greene's, 16 Clare St.; 1-676-2554; www.greenes

David Pembrey runs the shop his great-grandfather took over in 1912. Ask to see the upstairs room where the wake of old John Greene, the shop's founder, was held in 1899.