Saturday, 11 October 2014
The old pharmacy
For many decades chemists – what we would today call pharmacists or druggists – created their own materials; they ground, distilled and filtered chemical essences from stones and herbs, using the elegant glassware that has served as shorthand for science ever since. From 1847 until 2009, the chemist for the neighbourhood around Trinity College was Sweny’s, mentioned by James Joyce and since then a place of pilgrimage for his readers.
When it closed its doors as a pharmacy five years ago, they tiny shop – smaller than some toilets I’ve seen -- was purchased by a group of volunteers who maintain it as a kind of volunteer, miniature museum to Joyce, to Old Dublin and to the chemist shops as they once were. The volunteer behind the counter said a group gathers there several nights a week to read the works of Joyce --- a section of Ulysses, a section of Finnegan’s Wake and so on – and then all go out for a pint at one of the local pubs, also looking very much as they did centuries ago.
On the counters lie books of many Irish poets and authors, and all along the walls sit the same bottles as fifty or a hundred years ago – lovely crafted, grooved and embossed glass with labels like “Spirit of ammonia,” “Liquor of digitalis” or “Essence of mercury.”
“The ones with the grooved sides are the poisons,” the man said. “They had to go to the cellar with a candle, and pick a bottle in the near-darkness, so they needed to know poisons at a touch.”