Ulysses in real life

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BLOOMSDAY ESSAY:It wasn’t just the architecture of Dublin that Joyce immortalised on the pages of ‘ Ulysses’ – many real-life Dublin characters wound up there too. In advance of Bloomsday on June 16th, Bridget Hourican charts a who’s who of characters from the city’s most famous novel

IN THE 1940s, after Joyce’s death, BBC researchers arrived in Dublin to find people to interview for a radio programme. They approached Richard Irvine Best, the recently retired director of the National Library, and a gregarious man, well known on the literary social circuit. He wasn’t gregarious on this occasion: “What makes you think I have any connection with this man, Joyce?” The researchers pointed out that he was, after all, a character in Ulysses.Best drew himself up: “I am not a character in fiction. I am a living being.”

Fifty years later, when a friend of mine was asked in Germany what he thought of Ulysses– as all Irish abroad are asked at some point – he admitted that he hadn’t read it yet, but saved his reputation and astounded his questioner by adding that his great-uncle was in it. This great-uncle was Hugh MacNeill (the more disreputable brother of the revolutionary Eoin MacNeill) who appears, with his name cannibalised, as professor McHugh, murmuring “biscuitfully”. In 2004, an online comment, from John Kavanagh in Billericay, to a BBC News piece for Bloomsday bragged that “My great-grandad appears as a character in the book – old Troy of the Dublin Metropolitan Police”.

What was degrading for Richard Best – his appearance in Ulysses– has become a source of pride to future generations. The range of “real-life” historical characters in Ulyssesis vast, so the world is full of unsuspecting “descendants” of these characters. Anyone who lives in Dublin gets used to name-checking places in Ulysses, such as the Martello tower, Sandymount Strand, Eccles Street and Davy Byrne’s pub, and Joyce’s boast – “If Dublin were destroyed, it could be reconstructed from my book” – is cited frequently by architects and planners, but Joyce was speaking more than architecturally. The whole cast of Edwardian Dublin, from prostitutes to priests to MPs, can be reassembled from his pages.

I became aware of the range of historical characters in Ulysseswhen working on the Dictionary of Irish Biography(DIB), recently published by Cambridge University Press. Like most staff contributors, I started coming across people who featured in Ulysses, either as themselves or as models for fictional characters. For instance Con Curran, lawyer and writer, appears as himself when Stephen Dedalus remembers that he owes him 10 guineas. Curran was a college friend of Joyce’s, who took the well-known photograph of the becapped Joyce with his hands in his pockets; asked what he was thinking at that moment, Joyce said he was wondering if Con would lend him five shillings. Another of my entries, Edwin Hamilton, wrote a once-famous, now entirely forgotten, comic-verse pantomime, Turco the Terrible. His lines “I am the boy/ That can enjoy/ Invisibility” go through Mrs Dedalus’s head on her deathbed.

The DIB’s online search engine throws up 40 biographies of people mentioned in Ulysses. Some of these are famous, such as Michael Cusack, founder of the GAA and the model for the xenophobic Citizen in the Cyclops episode. He is characterised in his DIBentry by James Quinn as “pugnacious, boastful, and a heavy drinker, [who] styled himself Citizen Cusack”. “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan”, who opens the book, is, famously, the writer and surgeon Oliver St John Gogarty. In his DIBentry, Patrick Maume writes that “Gogarty’s mature world view rested on a self-consciously Nietzschean delight in creativity and generosity and a pagan love of sunshine and water”, which is a highly useful characterisation for Joyce scholars considering that Buck Mulligan first appears bearing a bowl of lather, and mounting the parapet to look over Dublin Bay in the morning sun.

His unusual name has preserved the fame of “Skin-the Goat”, who gets several mentions. He was a cab-driver and Invincible called James Fitzharris who drove the getaway car to the Phoenix Park in 1882 for the attempted assassination of the chief secretary, WE Forster. In his DIBentry, James Quinn gives two rumours for how Fitzharris earned his nickname: he either “killed a goat with his clasp knife when he saw it eating straw out of his horse’s collar” or “killed and skinned a pet goat and sold its hide to pay his drinking debts”. The writer and mystic George Russell, “AE”, appears amusingly but cruelly in Ulyssesas the yogi-bogey box. His DIBbiographer, Nicholas Allen, notes ruefully that “Joyce’s mockery of Russell should not obscure the importance of his support at a time before Joyce was widely known or respected”.

Most DIB“Ulysseans” are not as famous as Cusack, Gogarty or AE. Sir Alfred Horne, obstetrician, was governor of Holles Street. He gets his Ulyssesmention when Bloom visits the hospital and thinks: “Of that house A Horne is a lord”. Helen Andrews recounts in the DIB entry, that “Horne never read Ulysses, and (according to his son Andrew Horne) had thrown Joyce out of the hospital when he was found trespassing on the privacy of the maternity ward”. Thomas Connellan was a Catholic priest turned protestant evangelist who decided to leave the priesthood in 1887 but wished to avoid scandal, so, according to his DIBentry by Patrick Maume, “went swimming in Lough Ree, leaving his clerical clothes in a boat to make it seem that he had drowned; he swam to a spot where he had concealed lay clothing, and made his escape while local newspapers were mourning his death”. The incident was the centre-piece of Connellan’s conversion-narrative, Hear the Other Side(1889), and inspired George Moore’s novel The Lakein 1906, but Maume informs us that today Connellan is “remembered only because of The Lakeand because Bloom, in Ulysses, passes him in the street and briefly muses on souperism”.

The DIBis a good but not exhaustive guide to historical characters in Ulysses. It was up to individual DIBcontributors whether they emphasized the Joycean connection, so there are entries where the Ulyssesassociation goes unmentioned. For instance when Bloom passes the Provost’s house in Trinity he thinks, “The reverend Dr Salmon: tinned salmon”, but this isn’t referred to in Dr George Salmon’s DIBentry. Only people significant in their field (or famed for eccentricity) are noticed in the DIBso the majority of ordinary, obscure Dubliners who feature in Ulysseshave no DIBentry. For these the best sources remain Shari and Bernard Benstock’s Who’s He When He’s at Home(1980) and Don Gifford’s recently updated Ulysses Annotated. The DIBis good on the doctors, journalists, priests, MPs and Fenians mentioned in Ulysses, less so on the prostitutes, housewives, cuckolds and shopkeepers.

According to Richard Ellmann, one of the models for Leopold Bloom was a Jewish Dubliner, Alfred J Hunter, said to have an unfaithful wife; another was CP McCoy, an ad man whose wife was a soprano. Neither gets a DIBentry. Joyce’s childhood neighbours, the Gallaher family, were a rich source: Gerald Gallaher is one of the two little boys in the Wandering Rocksepisode; both Mrs Gallaher and her sister, Mrs Clinch, are mentioned by name (Bloom recalls with embarrassment that he almost accosted Mrs Clinch one night under the mistaken impression that she was a prostitute); Mrs Gallaher’s brother-in-law, Fred, was a journalist famous for his scoop at the time of the Phoenix Park murders and gets a few mentions; Mrs Gallaher’s father, who called himself Major Powell though he was only a sergeant-major, was the model for Molly Bloom’s father, Major Tweedy. The Gallaher family, who were kind to the six-year-old Joyce when they lived beside him on North Richmond Street, had no idea they would be ransacked so thoroughly!

Even the dogs on the street were coerced into service by Joyce. Champion setter Garryowen, who appears in three episodes and is portrayed as “that bloody mangy mongrel”, was, according to Vivien Igoe, writing recently in the Dublin James Joyce Journal, vol 2, a champion red setter, bred and owned by James Giltrap, whose daughter Josephine married William A Murray, a brother of Joyce’s mother.

How many “real-life” historical figures are there in Ulysses? Vivien Igoe says: “To date I have researched 835 characters from all walks of life whose names appear in Ulysses.There are literally countless others who are alluded to through the work, but not named.” How did Joyce manage it? The last words of Ulyssesare not “yes I will Yes” but “Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921”, the dates and places where he wrote the book. How did he get right the details of countless people when he wasn’t living in the city, had no archives, and couldn’t Google? It’s mind-boggling. Joyce said of himself ironically that he had a grocer’s assistant’s mind – quite the understatement unless Edwardian grocers’ assistants had minds like Apple computers.

He relied on maps of Dublin, Thom’s Directory(which functioned like an Edwardian telephone book) and correspondents, especially his Aunt Josephine (whose father owned Garryowen). His letters show him haranguing this aunt for details of neighbours. One of the few inaccuracies in Ulysseswas down to Thom’s, which gave Dr George “tinned” Salmon’s address as the Provost’s House in 1904, although Dr Salmon died in January 1904, five months before Bloomsday. But citing these scant sources hardly explains Joyce’s gargantuan feat of memory. Richard Ellmann wrote: “He recomposed what he remembered and he remembered most of what he had seen or had heard other people remember. The latter category was, in a city given over to anecdote, a large one”. Memory was also a function of homesickness. It is part of the paradox of Ulysses that while it seems impossible to grasp how Joyce managed his feat of reconstruction while living abroad, he would certainly not have attempted it had he stayed at home. Louis Werner, ophthalmologist, gets into the DIBbecause of his skill as an eye surgeon, and into Ulyssesbecause of his “cheerful windows” at No 31 Merrion Square North. There is something wistful and homesick in that evocation of cheerful windows.

Gaining perspective on the range of historical figures in Ulyssescertainly increases our respect for Joyce’s genius, if that were needed. More to the point, does it help our reading and enjoyment of this famously difficult book? I think so. One of the editors of the DIB, James Quinn, started reading Ulyssesfor the first time a few years ago and told me then, with unaffected delight, how much he was enjoying it, which wasn’t surprising since all the dictionary entries passed through his hands – he recognised the cast, crew, and context. Ulyssesis a set text in English departments round the world; it could also be a module in modern Irish history departments.

Given our current obsession with genealogy and family history, apparent in programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?,there is, if not a TV programme, surely a website or book to be made in tracing ancestors to Ulysses. How many descendants of those 800-plus historical figures are living today round the world? It’s worth checking your own family (via Benstock, Gifford and the DIB), especially if you have an unusual surname. Joyce could never resist a pun – the 18th-century MP Charles Tottenham, famous for casting a parliamentary vote in his riding boots, only gets a reference because of the wordplay on “totting him in his boots”.


Bridget Hourican is a historian and freelance journalist and worked as a staff contributor to the Dictionary of Irish Biography

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