See the world through James Joyce’s iconic glasses

A pair of spectacles worn by the famous writer among intriguing auction lots

For a writer of such robust prose, James Joyce was a singularly frail individual. He suffered from a number of physical and mental problems – but it was his eyes which gave him the most trouble.

"From the Latin inflammatio the word 'inflammation' has kinship with 'flame'," writes an ophthalmic surgeon in a British Medical Journal article devoted to the great writer's ocular woes.

“Fire attacked the inside of Joyce’s eyes and would barely glow into cinders before bellowing up again into a raging flare that rendered him supine.”

To curb the pain he was injected with arsenic and phosphorus. Leeches were applied to his scalp. He had all his teeth removed in case the problem was caused by bacteria in his mouth; he also underwent “iridectomies, sphincterotomy, capsulectomy, and a removal of cataracts”.


It gives an added layer of poignancy to the familiar images of Joyce in his distinctive round glasses – an original pair of which will come under the hammer at Fonsie Mealy’s sale of Rare Books & Manuscipts at the Talbot Hotel in Stillorgan this week.

The pince-nez spectacles have an impeccable provenance. They came from the collection of Joyce’s friend Thomas Pugh, a Dubliner who was also blind in one eye and who visited the author regularly in his Paris apartment, joining the plethora of friends who would read aloud to him.

The spectacles have gilt fittings and a chain, and are in a velvet-lined morocco case, stamped “Yeates & Co, Opticians/Dublin”. We don’t know why Joyce gave them to Pugh – perhaps to try them out – but as Lot 546 in the auction, with an estimate of  €10,000 to €15,000, they will be of intense interest to Joyce collectors.

Also from the Pugh collection come two 1934 letters from Joyce to Pugh (Lot 543, (€6,000–€8,000) and 544 (€4,000–€6,000), a copy of A Cosmological Fairytale of Dublin (Lot 665, (€5,000–€7,000), signed by both Joyce and his daughter Lucia, and a copy of Chamber Music (Lot 662, €3,000–€5,000).

Among the manuscripts in the sale are Lot 568 (€50,000–€70,000), an account of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, written by a Dominican friar called Leonard of Chios, and Lot 394, a charter from 1613 in which James I establishes the Borough of Kilbeggan (€1,800–€2,200).

A copy of Yeats's The Wanderings of Oisin, inscribed to "my friend Maud Gonne", (Lot 666, €10,000–€15,000), is described in the catalogue as "very rare in this issue . . .we have not previously seen a copy in more than 30 years in business".

There are a number of very attractive art books including Louis le Brocquy's Eight Irish Writers (Lot 371, €6,000–€8,000), John Montague's The Rough Field, number eight of an edition of 10, with lithograph by Marco del Re (Lot 365, €2,000–€3,000) and a copy of Squarrings Twelve Poems and Four Lithographs 1991 by Seamus Heaney and Felim Egan (Lot 364, €1,500–€2,000).

A pencilled autograph drawing by Walt Disney which reads "Best wishes from Mickey Mouse" Lot 560 (€2,000–€3,000) should attract the attention of movie buffs, as will a first edition of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale (Lot 600, €10,000–€15,000). It's one of a number of Fleming novels in the sale, which also features a number of collectible editions of Roald Dahl books at reasonable prices. These would make a great potential starting-point for a new, possibly young, collector.

Lot 348 (€500–€600) is a first American edition of The BFG, signed by Dahl and illustrator Quentin Blake. Another very affordable lot with very wide appeal is a 1979 newspaper photograph of Samuel Beckett, dressed in his signature tweed jacket (Lot 540, €120–€180).

Remarkable sale at Milford House, Carlow

It has been a busy couple of weeks at the Castlecomer auction house. George Fonsie Mealy scarcely had time to draw breath after the country house contents sale at Milford House in Co Carlow on November 20th before packing his vans full of rare books and manuscripts, sporting medals, coins and banknotes to travel to Stillorgan.

With 95 per cent of lots sold and in excess of €500,000 achieved on the hammer, the Milford House sale notched up some remarkable prices. The top lot was a pair of prehistoric Giant Irish Elk Antlers, Lot 151, which made €23,000.

Two pairs of 17th-century Italian still-life paintings by Anielo Ascione exceeded their estimates by a comfortable margin: Lot 626 made €20,000 (€10,000–€15,000) and Lot 627 made €16,000 (€8,000–€1,2000).

The star of the show, however, was a tiny 19th-century Chinese carved wooden Buddha. Lot 649, just seven inches high, soared away from its modest estimate of €500–€700 to fetch a stunning €13,000.

A Georgian period mahogany bachelor’s chest made €7,400 (Lot 129, €1,500–€2,000) while an Irish Victorian dining table with six spare leaves, and a set of six balloon–back dining chairs, made €7,000 each (Lot 537, €2,000–€3,000 and Lot 536, €3,000–€4,000).

And just to show that you never know what sort of object will make its way into the spotlight at a country-house sale, Lot 163, a mysterious 19th-century pineapple-shaped hardwood container, made more than seven times its top estimate of €700 to fetch €5,500. It may be a snake container; if it is, that’s one very classy snake.

Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers, Chatsworth Street, Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny. Rare Book & Manuscript Sale, Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, Co Dublin, Tuesday December 4th, 10am. See

Arminta Wallace

Arminta Wallace

Arminta Wallace is a former Irish Times journalist