What does Joyce mean to you?
Dublin is world famous as the backdrop to ‘Ulysses’ but what exactly does the book mean to the people who walk its streets? And what’s it like to sleep in Joyce’s bedroom?
TODAY IS Bloomsday; a day both stately and plump with Joycean references. This is the day when Leopold Bloom made his famous epic fictional journey around Dublin – but what does Ulyssesmean to people in Dublin?
James Joyce was born at 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, on February 2nd, 1882. Built in 1876, the redbrick house facing the quiet square – that’s actually a triangle – still survives today. There is a plaque on its facade, noting that James Joyce, “poet and novelist”, was born there but, due to the fact that it’s made of metal, it’s quite discreet. Unlike the bright eye-catching modern plaques found round the city in recent years, the reddish colour of the plaque, which dates from 1964, fades into the colour of the brick.
Patty Geraghty lives nearby and walks past number 41 most days but she has never realised that Joyce had any connection with the house. She looks up at the plaque now curiously. “No, I was never aware this was a Joyce house,” she admits. She hasn’t read anything by Joyce. “I think Ulyssesis something you probably should have read, but I haven’t. Is it poetry? Maybe I have read it and I’ve just forgotten it.”
The local postman, Gerry Scanlon, who’s worked for the Post Office for 30 years, has been on this particular beat for 15 years. “From the very first day I was delivering post, I knew Joyce was born in this house,” he explains. “That’s because I ran into tourists looking for it. There used to be a lot more of them around. You don’t see so many these days.”
Scanlon has “no interest” in reading anything by Joyce. “I know what Ulyssesis about though. It’s about this guy who went around Dublin on June 16th and ended up somewhere else from where he started out.”
Jane Richardson is walking her Westie, Maevy, past number 41. “I love knowing Joyce was born here. It makes my daily walk interesting,” she declares. She has attempted to read Ulysses, but gave up. “I believe it was written to be listened to rather than to be read,” she says. “Maybe I’ll get the CDs and try listening to it this year.”
The woman walking out to her car from number 41 has an air of good-natured resignation about her as she spies me with my notebook and my colleague Cyril with his camera.
Eleanor Boyle, who has lived here for many years with her husband Neil Harper and their family, has seen it all before outside her front gate – Joyceans, tourists, reporters, camera crews. “During the centenary year, it was the busiest,” she admits. “There were constantly busloads of people outside the house.”
Surprisingly, given that the house is the birthplace of one of the most famous writers in English literature, when Boyle first went to view number 41, she had no idea of its famous former resident. “It was the square and the house itself that was the attraction for us,” she explains. “We didn’t even notice the plaque originally.”
In Vivien Igoe’s 2007 book, James Joyce’s Dublin Houses and Nora Barnacle’s Galway, he writes of number 41: “On the first floor, spanning the width of the house and incorporating the two front windows, is the large master bedroom, which is probably the room Joyce was born in.” This room is now Boyle’s room, which she could probably charge good money for people to see, should she be so inclined for an invasion of family privacy.
“We do get people from around the world knocking on the door, asking to look around, but not as many as there used to be.” The woman who lives in the house where Joyce was born confesses she has never read him. “I’ve thought about getting the CDs of Ulysses, though,” she says.
Across Dublin, number 7 Eccles Street, the address where Joyce located the home of Leopold and Molly Bloom in Ulysses, is now the entrance to the Mater Private Hospital. There is a plaque, but it’s quite obscure: a short quote from Ulysses. You wouldn’t know from reading it that this site was once a famous address in fiction.
Anne and Patrick Donohoe, who are passing by, are not aware of the significance of the site behind them. “James Joyce? He wrote Strumpet City, didn’t he?” offers Anne.
“No, he’s the Ulyssesman,” Patrick corrects her. “I haven’t read it, but I believe it was a bit controversial at the time it came out. It’s about Dublin, I presume?”
Joyce’s namesake, Brian Joyce, does know what number 7 Eccles Street is famous for. “I have tried to read Ulysses, but I failed,” he admits cheerfully. “I found it extremely difficult to comprehend. But I know from listening to the man in North Great Georges Street that you need to read it out loud to get the best out of it.”
Michael Larkin has read Ulysses: he read it in college. “I didn’t think it was that hard,” he says insouciantly. “I’ll probably read it again some day. It was definitely more entertaining when the lecturer read out parts of it.”
At Marjorie Fitzgibbon’s statue of Joyce in North Earl Street, the Joslin family from North Carolina are taking pictures of each other. Scott and Beth Joslin are in Ireland for the first time with their daughters Erin (14) and Colleen (12) and a family friend, Caroline Miller (13).
Both Scott and Beth read Ulysses as 16-year-old teenagers in high school, as it was a set text in their schools. “It was a very dense read,” Scott confesses. “It was a pretty viscous book.” Beth says she can recall nothing about Ulyssesnow, other than the fact that “Dublin came across as a very difficult place to be living in. I had the impression life was very hard here.”
David Rawlinson is a pavement artist, who today has two large art nouveau pieces with him. He has had his pitch beside the Joyce statue for two years. He looks askance at it now. “That thing wouldn’t inspire me to read anything by him. I’m immune to it now.”
However, he recalls that for a time, there used to be a living statue who dressed up to look exactly like the Joyce statue and stood on the opposite side of the street from it. “He used to play a recording of clips of Ulysses, so I did get to hear some of it. That’s as much as I’ll ever know about it.”
FRIENDS LILIAN DEBONO, Nathalie Vella and Rose Deguara are visiting from Malta. They’re scrutinising the statue closely. “I thought he was a more attractive man than he appears to be in this statue,” Debono confides. “He doesn’t look very refined at all.” They have all read Dubliners, but not Ulysses. However, the Irish writer they know most about is Oscar Wilde. “Wilde is much better known in Malta,” Vella explains, “because The Importance of Being Earnestis on the school curriculum.”
Jarek Slavík is from the Czech Republic, and has come to seek out the Joyce statue because he teaches English literature at home. “I’ve read Dubliners. It’s difficult and not very readable, but I love it. I started Ulyssesa few times, but I didn’t finish it.” Slavík has been videoing the statue. He stands back and looks at it critically. “I’m not sure this is the best place for the statue,” he offers after a while. “You can’t really see it properly. There are too many people passing by all the time. It should be somewhere else.”
John Willoughby is rushing down North Earl Street with shopping bags but stops to chat. When asked, he’s not quite sure who the statue depicts, so he goes over to have a look at the plaque at the base of the plinth. “I think it’s that fella, Joyce, is it? I heard of him alright, but I’m not sure who he is? Was he a poet?”
Willoughby has not read Joyce and says he has no intention of ever reading anything by him. “Bloomsday? Is that a day that’s something to do with gays?” he hazards. “Well, Joyce’s dead and gone now, whoever he was!” is Willoughby’s final sanguine comment before he continues on his way.
One Of The Houses
James Joyce Lived In,
James Joyce ivy
on James Joyce plaque,
James Joyce pebbles
on James Joyce dash,
James Joyce knocker
on James Joyce door,
James Joyce dust
on James Joyce floor,
James Joyce windows
with James Joyce glass
waiting for James Joyce
clouds to pass.
(from Fade Street, published by Salt Publishing)
For information on Bloomsday events see jamesjoyce.ie