Dublin - “Snow was general all over Ireland,” the noted Irish stage actor Barry McGovern intones while reading the famous line from James Joyce's The Dead in a free app for iPads that seeks to bring the heart-rending story to life for the high-tech age. In some quarters technology is seen as the death-knell of literature, but the Joyce app developed by University College Dublin (UCD) is a runaway hit. It was downloaded 5 000 times in 48 hours - five times the sales of Ireland's best-selling work of fiction that week, Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart.
“He's our boy, he went to UCD, so we've always had this special relationship with the Joyce tradition,” said Gerardine Meaney, leader of the project and director of the humanities institute at UCD.
“It was great to think of them all sitting down and enjoying it,” she said of the thousands of downloaders.
The Dead, often rated one of the best short stories of the 20th century, joins other works including Shakespeare's sonnets, T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland and children's classic The Wind In The Willows as early adaptations to an app format for Apple's iPad that may change the way people read and appreciate literature.
Released on the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Dubliners, the acclaimed collection which includes The Dead as its final story, the app includes the full text as well as McGovern's reading - plus a whole lot more.
Joyce's words are set alongside commentary looking at music and history in the narrative, where music plays a crucial role, as well as images of Dublin during Joyce's time and the background of the house on Usher's Island where a lavish dinner party is hosted by the Morkan sisters.
Readers can delve deeper into the early 20th century setting, from the opening Epiphany party at the house on the banks of the Liffey to the snow-bound horse-carriage journey to the plush Gresham hotel where the main character, Gabriel Conroy, realises his marriage is an empty shell.
Some consider the tale not only as a marker of its times, with its debate of Irishness as the question of independence became ever more important, but also a ghost story, along the lines of Henry James's The Turn Of The Screw, about how the dead can haunt the happiness of the living.
The app cost more than 70 000 euros to develop over more than four years but is available for free, in part thanks to funding by Ireland's Higher Education Authority.
“The concept is quite simple - to use technology to try and generate an audience beyond the stereotypical,” said Marc Caball, a senior lecturer at UCD's School of History and Archives.
Other apps have tended to focus on poetry, because it lends itself to being read out loud, but the release of The Dead, where Joyce's use of prose verges on the poetic, indicates that other works are also suitable.
“User experience is incredibly important - you don't want people getting lost or bored,” said Anne Brady of technology firm Vermillion Design, which worked on the app with UCD.
In Dublin, Vermillion has already worked on an app to showcase rare manuscripts and printed books from the historic Marsh's Library, giving the general public access to material people would not otherwise be able to read at their leisure.
Travel books could also adapt well to apps, allowing more interaction between readers and the place they are visiting, provided that wireless Internet is available, said John O'Connor, head of art and tourism at Dublin Institute of Technology.
“There's a challenge and there's an opportunity, and I think more and more people are looking at it,” O'Connor said.
UCD's Meaney meanwhile has something immensely more ambitious - and Irish - in mind.
“My dream project is to do 'Ulysses',” she said, referring to Joyce's epic novel about one day and night in Dublin that in some editions is 1 000 pages long. - Reuters