Leopold Bloom’s pharmacy under threat after rates hike

Joyce museum housed in former chemist that featured in Ulysses faces closure

The James Joyce museum housed in former chemist is facing closure after an increase in their rates. Video: Daniel O'Connor


The volunteers in Sweny’s Pharmacy on Dublin’s Lincoln Place are busy wrapping bars of soap in preparation for the annual influx of Bloomsday customers on Monday.

It was here that James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom stopped at about 11am on the morning of June 16th, 1904, to fill a prescription for his wife Molly and pick up some lemon soap before his Turkish bath.

Today the premises acts as a small Joyce museum where fans of Ulysses arrive in their droves each year to emulate the novel’s hero. “People come from all over the world quite literally to pick up a bar of the soap,” says Wendy Conroy, one of the volunteers. The pharmacy sells “several thousand bars of lemon soap per year, two pallet loads of lemon soap.”

But now a cut in Unesco funding along with a rates hike threatens the future of the little Edwardian apothecary. “We were able to pay our rates before because Unesco give a grant to Dublin as a city of literature and we receive that grant each year,” says Ms Conroy.

“So we would get €2,000 from Dublin City Council and then we would give it back to Dublin City Council rates department and that’s how we paid it. And then on Bloomsday we would make enough money to get us to Christmas, at Christmas we would have the Dead dinner and that’s how we’d fund it.”

But in March, the bill from the rates office came in at €4,400, up from €1,800, and Sweny’s also failed to secure the Unesco funding. They applied for a rates exemption, on the grounds that the premises was being used for a charitable purpose, but were told they were ineligible.

Their plan is to appeal, but the rates bill must be paid in the meantime. That’s going to be done next week but if the appeal is unsuccessful it will put the pharmacy in a very tight financial bind.

“It means we’ve nothing in the bank because normally Bloomsday gives us the money to go through the winter. This time of year selling lemon soap is very easy, but in November we could take maybe €20 and the running cost is €100 a day. We’re in Dublin 2; our rent is €20,000 a year, every Friday €350 has to be lodged. It’s not cheap to be here. If we lose the appeals process and we lose that money, that will be it really.”

Now there’s a campaign underway to save the pharmacy. Petitions have been set up and next Monday volunteers will be collecting donations outside Davy Byrne’s pub, another of Bloom’s old haunts. Ms Conroy desperately wants the campaign to succeed because she says Sweny’s, besides being a piece of literary history, provides an important social outlet.

“This little place means an awful lot to people,” she says. “It particularly attracts men. Joyce attracts men, and older men. There’s not many places you can go when you’re retired if you don’t play golf. A lot of men come here and they go for coffee afterwards. It provides a very vital social outlet.”

A spokesman for Dublin City Council said: “The Valuation Office has determined that Sweny’s pay commercial rates. Sweny’s has appealed this decision (to the Valuation Office) but Dublin City Council is obliged to charge commercial rates until such times as the appeal is determined.”