In search of lost space: Robert Nicholson on our endless pursuit of James Joyce’s Ulysses

So much of Ulysses becomes illuminated by actually being on the spot, to see which side of the street is sunniest, to check the sightlines, to find how thoughts and moods in Bloom’s or Stephen’s interior monologue are prompted by the streets around them

Robert Nicholson, curator of the James Joyce museum at the Joyce Tower at Sandycove, reads from Ulysses on Bloomsday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Robert Nicholson, curator of the James Joyce museum at the Joyce Tower at Sandycove, reads from Ulysses on Bloomsday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Following the footsteps of Leopold Bloom is a tradition almost of obligation. Early pioneers like Joyce’s friend Frank Budgen, photographer Lee Miller and academic William York Tindall found it sufficient to visit and record the principal locations of Ulysses. The historic Bloomsday odyssey of 1954 created the concept of a journey, more in a spirit of symbolic homage than with any scrupulous retracing of the routes described by Joyce. The founders of the James Joyce Museum in 1962 saw it as a matter of importance to provide visitors with a map of Dublin with a location for each of the 18 episodes of the novel. Gradually over the past 30 or 40 years there has been an increasing emphasis on joining the dots and adding detail to the trail: witness the via crucis of 14 plaques laid down in 1988 to mark out the line of Bloom’s lunchtime journey across the city centre, and the development of walking tours as a regular activity by the James Joyce Cultural Centre. The surviving locations – Davy Byrne’s and Sweny’s, the Martello Tower in Sandycove, the National Library and a few others – are still the holiest of the holy, but sanctity is now extended to the streets, the vital string that holds these beads together.

For some the motivation is simply devotional. To walk the streets described by Joyce is an act of homage and pilgrimage. Others are trying to recapture the Joycean environment, to see through the overlay of history to reimagine that sunny summer day in 1904 and set the mood for their reading of Ulysses. For some tourists the exercise would simply be an alternative way of being introduced to Dublin, like the Viking Splash tour or the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. For most readers, the excitement is in matching descriptions in Ulysses to points in the landscape. And for some, Dublin actually becomes a research document, resolving mysteries in Joyce’s narrative and exposing the motivations of the characters. One of the first baffling references in the book – the “shrill whistles” that answer Buck Mulligan’s “long slow whistle of call” through the calm morning air – can be explained by a view from the top of the Martello tower towards the harbour a mile away, where Mulligan could see the jet of steam from the departing mail boat’s steam whistle long before the sound reached him across the water. So much of Ulysses becomes illuminated by being actually on the spot, to see which side of the street is sunniest, to check the sightlines, to find how thoughts and moods in Bloom’s or Stephen’s interior monologue are prompted by views and details of the streets around them.

That research document is as fragile as any paper archive, and less protected against the effects of wear, tear and ageing. Before the 1980s there was little attempt to preserve buildings or street features on the strength of a Joycean association. Joyce, after all, rarely praised anything in Dublin, and a mention in Ulysses of any establishment was scarcely to be considered an endorsement. Of Bloom’s quite ordinary house at 7 Eccles Street, one of literature’s most famous addresses, not much more remains than the front door (preserved nearby in the James Joyce Centre). The Freeman’s Journal office in Prince’s Street was destroyed in 1916. Bella Cohen’s brothel was purged from the landscape with the rest of Nighttown, Burke’s pub in Holles Street is long gone, and Davy Byrne’s was transformed from within. Where Stephen walked into eternity along Sandymount Strand has been reclaimed with parkland and housing developments. Family businesses have given way to chain stores and new enterprises, and their premises have been remodelled.

Even today, when Joyce (possibly to his surprise and horror) is officially and publicly revered, the Ormond Hotel, setting of an entire episode of Ulysses, has been empty for the past decade and subject to plans for demolition. Sweny’s in Lincoln Place, heroically preserved for years with its original fittings by its previous owners, can no longer function as a pharmacy and survives in the hands of a volunteer group as a venue for Joycean readings. Mabbot Street, gateway to the vice and depravity of Nighttown, is now James Joyce Street, and Williams’s Row, the convenient short cut used by widower Simon Dedalus and married man Leopold Bloom, has been renamed Bachelors’ Way. Joyce’s name is now used so universally in pubs, hotels and public spaces that it is hard to tell which of them has a genuine connection with him. The city streets with their traffic signs, road markings, pedestrian islands and trees would be almost unrecognisable to Joyce. In an unusual reversal of the trend, the original wood-framed front of Barney Kiernan’s pub in Little Britain Street has been recreated on the site, although there is no sign of pints, cigars and biscuits.

The modern-day follower of Joyce’s Odyssey needs not only a map, but enough information to reveal and reconstruct the vanished fabric of the city. Researchers in recent years have benefited from the availability of priceless archives on line, such as the photographic collections in the National Library and the Irish census returns for 1901 and 1911. Experts are at work debating and re-evaluating all the things we thought we knew about Ulysses. Was Mr Deasy’s school on Dalkey Avenue? Not in 1904, apparently. Did Stephen travel straight from Dalkey to Sandymount? No, his train went all the way into town. Was Mrs Cohen the most famous madam in Monto? She existed, but apart from the pages of Ulysses she is unmentioned in any recollections of the period. What exactly happened to Bloom between Westland Row and Amiens Street? Scholarship may now have the answer.

Our pursuit of Ulysses involves delight and wonder, but continues to raise as many questions as it answers. As long as those questions are asked, the answers are likely to be found in Dublin.

Robert Nicholson was born and lives in Dublin. He has been the curator of the James Joyce Museum at the Joyce Tower in Sandycove since 1978. He is also curator of the Dublin Writers Museum in Parnell Square. He is a founder member of the James Joyce Cultural Centre as well as a former chairman of the James Joyce Institute of Ireland. The Ulysses Guide: Tours Through Joyce’s Dublin is published by New Island Books and provides a unique approach to James Joyce’s Ulysses by following its 18 episodes to their original locations and recreating the Dublin of 1904 against the backdrop of today’s streetscape.

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