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Arts & Culture

Going Wilde: Celebrate A Literary St. Patrick's Day

The always-dapper James Joyce in 1926.
The always-dapper James Joyce in 1926.

It was the spring of 1979 when Dennis Wills first invited a group of friends to his cozy La Jolla bookstore for an open reading of poetry and prose. Huddled together on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, Guinness in hand, the group took turns reciting passages from some of literature’s most prolific Irishmen: Samuel Beckett, William Yates, and James Joyce.

“The earlier years were definitely wilder,” says Wills with a laugh. “And with a bit more booze.”

Three decades (and countless pints later) the reading has now become tradition, guests lining up outside the D.G. Wills' Girard Ave storefront regardless of the weather every March 17.


The day of the event, the locally-beloved bookstore (which has hosted the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Oliver Stone, and Gore Vidal) boasts a cast of characters rivaling any found in an Oscar Wilde novel (full name, by the way: Oscar Fingal O'Flaherty Wills Wilde). Internationally-lauded professors, attorneys, editors, and even an opera singer have read aloud after placing their name on a sign-up sheet Wills keeps by the door.

The recitations operate on one rule: the author must be Irish, and not completely obscure.

“This isn’t a formal and polite event,” says Wills. “People can do whatever they want, but sometimes someone’s voice is so compelling it demands silence.”

One such captivator: Professor Denis Callahan, who passed away in 2006.

“(At the event after he died,) we set up a T.V. that played a VHS tape of him reading, and placed a Notre Dame cap on top,” says Wills. “I think we all teared up a bit after that.” (The video, by the way, is posted on the store’s YouTube page, a new addition which chronicles its numerous events).


You never know who’s going to show up, Wills says. He adds that some even bring their children along for a reading – though that’s not recommended once the evening, which is organized into three stages, reaches its final round. As a grand finale, the daring can volunteer to narrate unearthed x-rated love letters from Joyce to his wife, Nora.

“Oh, they’re dirty,” says Wills. “There aren’t many people brave enough to read these letters – though we usually find a woman who’s had enough to drink or a newspaper editor who’s willing to.”

All right, so the Irish know how to write. But what about the other favorite St. Pat’s pastime?

“We usually have Harp Lager, Guinness Stout, and Bushmills on hand,” says Wills, who encourages attendees to bring their own brew (bread, potatoes, and “more stuff that can’t spill” will be on offer to temper imbibing on an empty stomach).

As for the ubiquitous green beer, which will surely flow steady through the streets of the downtown Gaslamp… any of that on tap?

“No, no, no,” laughs Wills. “Absolutely not.”

The Thirty-First Annual St. Patrick's Day Open Reading of Irish Poetry and Prose at D.G. Wills happens this Wednesday, from 7 p.m. - "till it ends."