Three young men – two Irish and one English – sprawl and bicker in bohemian quarters, a rented Martello tower on the outskirts of the city. They are Buck, Stephen and Haines. Their business is study, thought and scraping by. Their real-life counterparts – Oliver Gogarty, James Joyce and Samuel Chenevix Trench – shared the same tower overlooking Dublin bay in 1904, hoping for futures of greatness (or at least solvency) but feeling the uncertain poise of post-university freefall.
Joyce's description of this ad hoc cohabitation in Ulysses captures the sparkle and light, the crispness and briskness, of the Dublin seaside setting. As they think towards the other tip of Europe – Greece – with dreams of "Hellenising" their own island, the shaving Buck sweeps his "mirror a half circle in the air to flash the tidings abroad in sunlight now radiant on the sea", inviting us on an Odyssean voyage designed to refute Matthew Arnold's contention that the Celtic genius could not sustain epic proportions.
On June 16th, 1962, four decades after Ulysses was published, the Martello tower that had been the site of this fraternal conclave opened as a museum to commemorate the fictional happenings it housed and the stay of Joyce within its walls.
Guest of honour at the opening was Sylvia Beach, the American who had first published Ulysses under the imprint of her Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company in 1922, after a long struggle with typists, printers, distributors and, later, lawyers, print pirates and the author himself.
Her relationship with Joyce had passed through many phases, from triumphant to bittersweet, sacrificial to commemorative. In the last years of her life, she too made voyages to each end of Europe to finish up her business with Joyce. She paid her first visit to Greece, where her travel companion, French poet Yves Bonnefoy, described her as a heroic figure and intrepid traveller exploring the mythic locations of Ulysses. She also travelled to Ireland for the first time, where she was described by an Irish Times reporter as "the tiny, seemingly eternally energetic and humorous American lady, armed with her two hearing aids".
Estranged from Joyce
Beach had seen hard years, hard decades even: the Depression of the 1930s had come close to destroying her Paris bookshop; she became estranged from Joyce over his sale of the rights to Ulysses to Random House; she was interned as an American national in France during the second World War; and she had lost many of her closest friends and family members to illness and old age.
Beach’s friend Maria Jolas suggested the trip to Ireland revived her spirits: “I believe I am right when I say that the Joyce Tower opening and the gay time she had with you all in Dublin was the crowning event of those last years.”
Beach's hosts in Dublin were the RTÉ personalities Niall and Monica Sheridan. Niall, a key figure of literary life in Dublin since the 1940s (the man who had personally delivered Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds to Joyce in Paris in 1939) and Monica, who would soon be the star of the TV programme Monica Sheridan's Kitchen, charmed Beach. In letters to them upon her departure, she wrote: "It was terribly sad to say goodbye to you and I shall miss you and long to see you and Ireland again. As we flew over to this country [England] I couldn't bear losing sight of yours – was quite melancholy and homesick. Saw the Tower for a minute or two as we left Dublin."
Two weeks later she wrote to the Sheridans again: “Thinking of you and Monica and remembering your many kindnesses on my unforgettable visit to Dublin. I can’t tell you how deeply happy it made me to be welcomed with such warmth! It was almost as if I were becoming an Irish citizen and I was mighty proud of it.”
By inviting Beach to the grand opening of the James Joyce Tower, the founders of the museum honoured her work in bringing Ulysses to the public when no one else would or could. During her visit, Beach was reminded of how easily shocked Joyce was in conversation, and also of what she suggested may have been his unfairly fractious feeling for his home town: "He felt in Dublin he was persecuted," she said, "though I think he did as much persecuting as being persecuted."
She also laid claim to an important honour: coining the phrase "Bloomsday" to describe June 16th, 1904, the day on which Ulysses is set. Although it had been the artist and publican John Ryan, with help from Flann O'Brien, Anthony Cronin and others, who had celebrated the first Bloomsday in Dublin in 1954, it was Beach who had come up with the term many years before in Paris, she told a reporter covering the tower's opening.
In the year of Beach's visit, 1962, Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls was published, banned and burned in Ireland, sending O'Brien into a life of exile that recalled Joyce's path.
But growing up to challenge such lingering parochialism was a new generation, a group of Dublin modernists who were active champions of Joyce.
It was thanks to a long campaign by the architect Michael Scott, who bought the Martello tower in 1954, that the building became a Joyce museum. Scott and other Dubliners – John Ryan, Niall Sheridan, Flann O’Brien and others – saw Joyce as a hero rather than an ungrateful native son, and were beginning to transform his most famous book into a legend and industry.
The visit of the sprightly 85-year-old Beach allowed her to give her blessing to this new Joycean generation before returning to Paris for the final months of her life. She had devoted herself to a writer, a book and an ideal of artistic community. For a time, she was viewed merely as a handmaiden and secretary, but recent studies have shown her in a fuller light, as a key taste-maker and producer of modernism; as a lesbian; as a feminist; and as the hub of many different modernist circles.
Her own story as a publisher, encourager, connector and framer included many chapters. Along with Joyce, she supported and promoted a wide roster of writers including HD, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Walter Benjamin, Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, and many others. But Joyce was at the core of her commitment to literature, and her commitment to him was the chief enigma of her personality.
What drew them together and what broke them apart? Partly war, partly new friendships, partly Joyce's health and pecuniary difficulties, partly time, but whatever had severed them in those days, Beach's trip to Dublin in 1962 served partially to restore the bond, returning her one last time to the energy and promise of their 1922 partnership, and also to that oceanic setting-out of 1904 and the first pages of the book she loved best, Ulysses.
- More information about Bloomsday Festival, which is on now and runs until June 16th, at jamesjoycetower.com
MARTELLO TOWERS: A STORIED EXISTENCE
- The British prime minister William Pitt had Martello towers constructed along the coasts of England and Ireland to guard against French invasion during the Napoleonic era.
- Oliver St John Gogarty rented the tower in Sandycove from the British war office in 1904.
- Joyce spent six nights there (from September 9th-15th, 1904).
- Bono once owned and lived in the Martello Tower in Bray, and last year the one in Dalkey went on the market for €2 million.
- The James Joyce Tower and Museum is at Sandycove Point and open 365 days a year. Admission is free.