Dublin of Bloom has vanished with new wealth

 

TODAY being Bloomsday a motley crew of people will be trying to make out, in the Dublin of here and now, the lineaments of the Dublin Joyce was making out in his memory when he wrote Ulysses.

But I think that in the last two or three years that Dublin finally disappeared. The Ulyssean way of life isn't there any more. This is in spite of the period of Ulysses being so close. Lady Gregory's granddaughters are very much alive: so are W.B.Yeats's son and daughter, and so is James Joyce's charming nephew. Strange, that Joyce's world should be remote as the Forest of Arden.

Joyce is alive in the flesh and blood of his descendants. He's alive in the physical fabric of Dublin, in that there are stones you and I can touch that he probably touched too. We can be in exactly the spaces he was in. In Pearse Street, I look with trepidation, every time I pass, at the derelict former Academy Cinema. You can see the older walls at the back.

This was the Ancient Concert Rooms where Joyce gave a song recital even though the accompanist had abruptly departed, where Nora formed the view, which she held for life, that he should have stuck to the singing and left the writing alone. I watch the building for fear it will disappear, knocked down, like 7 Eccles Street.

Still, much of the material world of Ulysses is intact. Glasnevin Cemetery is there and the Martello Tower and Sandymount Strand (by a miracle) and the National Library and, up to a point, the house of The Dead on Usher's Island. As long as Belvedere College stays in Dublin the streets to the north and east of Parnell Square will have a somewhat Joycean character. Stephen's Green is still there, Dollymount Strand, a version of the Ormond Hotel ... Overall, and broadly speaking, the Dublin of Ulysses still stands.

The landmarks and seamarks of Dublin still stand. But that's not what gives the city its feel. Until very recently, Dublin was a city of the poor and the scraping by. Such people live out in the open. The centre of Dublin used to be as inescapably sociable as a travellers' camp. That sense of a condition shared is gone. Dublin was a city not only of the unemployed but of the underemployed and the evading employment employed.

This made it a city of people - well, men, mostly - filling in time, moving unhurriedly from place to place. Pub to pub, usually, but also pub to office, office to pub, pub to other man's office to get back a loaned fiver or part thereof, other man's office to other man's pub and finally, even, pub to home.

It was a city full of people on not particularly urgent errands. The pubs were its piazzas and oases. Each had a personality respected by all. They were distinct, the pubs, except that they were all arenas where the most elaborate rituals of personal, group and community drinking were performed. I wish a few anthropologists had come among us while we were still like that, to record our ways. Because the middle classes and the heroes of Ulysses are middle class - have stopped moving around drinking like that.

They have stopped, at least, in the city centre, which as far as I'm concerned is the city. Serious drinking on the part of talkative adults has retreated to cavernous lounge bars in postal districts whose numbers are in double figures. Or it has retreated to the dining table, where people drink wine.

The very mention of dining tables shows how far we have come from Ulysses. People have homes, now, who used only have places to sleep. The Joyce family was at the bottom of a long decline on the first Bloomsday. It had been downhill for a long time, for them and Dublin.

This Bloomsday Dubliners, used to shabbiness and making do, find themselves caught in the glaring light of undeniable prosperity. Suddenly, for example, even people who haven't earned or inherited a penny have property, because they are being left valuable houses by their parents, whereas till the 1970s the great majority rented, as the Joyce family did.

WHEN you have a stake in the suburbs, your heart is there. You want to get out of town. Why would you wander the streets all day? Up to 20 years ago respectable if penniless schoolteacher/writers like Stephen and cultivated gentlemen in the advertising business with delightful wives like Leopold Bloom might be found living in basements and cheap flats and bedsitters or in sets of rooms in old buildings.

Those places are all offices and nightclubs now. Flats have become apartments, and they shelter playful ways of life, not self consciously momentous ones, like Bloom's and Dedalus's. Young people loll on their futons in them and watch MTV. They're comfortable. They don't wander.

What would be in it for them? They don't know anyone except the people they know. Opportunity will not come their way at random on the streets as it did for Bloom and Stephen. Spending a whole day wandering has stopped seeming natural. The continuity of experience of a walking Dublin at random day has been broken, though there are a few people - effectively single people - who still know the highways and byways of the city well enough, and know enough people to create personal Bloomsdays.

But most flaneurs now are merely students. Or they're visitors, cast out of their B&Bs after the big fried breakfast. The thing about Bloom and Stephen Dedalus is that they were serious, grown up men, in the business of earning a living. It was incidental to what they felt were the real purposes of their lives that they were scholars of the city, constantly commentating on it, and themselves contributing to its complexity. Such men don't commit themselves to the bosom of the city of Dublin any more.

The people of Dubliners and Ulysses are as true to life as ever. Social change doesn't do away with lonely spinsters or bullying fathers or sensitive artists or edgy husbands. But the public world those people inhabited which Joyce depicted with naturalistic fidelity has become archaic.

Drunkenness itself has changed. Central Dublin pubs were the real homes of men like Joyce's father, who was drunk on an average of 3.97 days a week, according to his son Stanislaus's statistics. But intellect was on display in pubs, too. You could be educated in a pub. Now, security men loom at the door to keep out the English stag parties, and there are lots of other places to be educated.

No one but Dub liners ever knew, of course, that Ulysses was a meticulous slice of life. To foreign readers, its setting was imaginary in every sense. But I myself witnessed that exact Dublin. It was alive until money killed it. Today we are confined to enclaves, but Bloom walked wide and deep, using all the city there was. We are provincials, compared to their urbanity.