Joyce's neighbourhood


Robert Nicholson looks at how dirty ould Dublin has changed since Leopold Bloom's time

When James Joyce wrote Ulysses, he did so with a copy of Thom's Dublin Directory beside him and a precise idea in his head of the location of every action described in the book. The city of Dublin, more than any scholarly work of reference, is the most valuable document we have to help us appreciate the intricate craftsmanship of Ulysses.

Since 1904 Dublin has obviously altered considerably. Buildings have gone, streets have been renamed, and shops and businesses continue to change hands. Some of this transformation is due to the destruction caused by the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War. The ravages of these events were confined to certain streets and public buildings, some of which have been restored to their original appearance.

Much more widespread is the effect of the gradual removal of old houses, sometimes piecemeal and sometimes by entire blocks, which has been taking place increasingly - and especially during the booms of the 1960s and the 1990s - to make way for new property development. Many old buildings which have been preserved have also been freshened up and deprived of the shabbiness which was characteristic of Joyce's Dublin.

In Leopold Bloom's time, the streets were laid with cobbles or setts; main thoroughfares had tram-tracks, standards and overhead cables (which may return soon in some form); motor cars were a rarity (only one appears in Ulysses) and most people walked, cycled or took the tram. Without the roar and fumes of present-day motor traffic, it was possible to converse in the street as so many of Joyce's characters do, and to cross the roadway at any point without the benefit of traffic lights. Horse-drawn vehicles, however, were plentiful, and the streets were presumably foul with dung, except at the established crossings, where a line of granite setts would be kept clean by sweepers.

Dublin was lit by gas; façades were not obscured by plastic and neon signs; there were no television aerials. Shopfronts were more discreet, less flashy; most shops had awnings to shade them from the sun. Most of the city's fine stone buildings were blackened and grimy with coalsmoke. Without trees, traffic islands or painted lines, Dublin's wide streets appeared even wider. Plastic bags and bottles, parking meters, traffic notices, drink cans, bilingual street signs and burglar alarms were other unknowns.

Letterboxes were red, bearing the royal cipher VR or EviiR; now painted green, some of these older boxes may still be found here and there in Dublin. Coins of the period, particularly the large copper pennies, were still in circulation up to decimalisation in 1971 - 12 pence to the shilling, 20 shillings to the pound. The guinea, worth 21 shillings, was a unit frequently used for fees and prices.

Number 7 Eccles Street has gone. Barney Kiernan's has gone, and so have the Freeman's Journal office and Bella Cohen's brothel. Much, however, remains - the banks, the public buildings, all the churches and nearly all the pubs mentioned in Ulysses are still there. Even Olhausen's the butcher's and Sweny's chemist shop still survive. Many of the original buildings have altered little, despite changes of ownership.

It is easy to fall into the nostalgic trap of thinking of "Joyce's Dublin" as a city in a golden age - a time of sepia photographs, parasols, penny tramfares and the leisurely clop of horses' hooves. What we rarely see in the old photographs are the barefoot children, the rampancy of tuberculosis and rickets, the squalor of tenement life and the infamous brothels of Nighttown. Standards of hygiene and personal cleanliness were lower. The shirt which Bloom wears throughout that hot day under his black waistcoat and funeral suit will probably be worn again the next day with the cuffs turned over and a clean detachable collar.

Public toilets were of the most rudimentary kind and were not provided for women. Though the poor and the intoxicated are always with us, they were there even more in Bloom's day. "Dear, dirty Dublin" was the provincial capital of a neglected country, and if independence, prosperity and cosmopolitanism have changed it, it is not altogether for the worse.

Those who read Ulysses will know that Joyce was recording not merely the Dublin of June 16th, 1904, but the quality of Dublin that survives through everchanging forms.