From a vegetarian restaurant in Dublin to the presidency of India
An Irishman’s Diary on a historic Henry Street premises
In his book on the life of V V Giri (above), Irish Days, Indian Memories, Conor Mulvagh notes that the cafe on Dublin’s Henry Street was watched closely by police and their agents. Photograph from the cover of the book, published by Irish Academic Press
By the late 1960s, VV Giri had become the fourth president of an independent India. But more than half a century earlier, he was a law student in Dublin, mingling closely with people who were themselves plotting a path to freedom from the British empire.
His lecturers in UCD, circa 1915, included Thomas MacDonagh. And Giri was considered sufficiently close to revolutionary circles that on June 1st, 1916, as the dust from the Rising settled, he was given a month’s notice to leave Ireland.
It seems fair to assume that, like other Indian students in Dublin, he had probably frequented the Irish Farm Produce Cafe at No 21 Henry Street, around the corner from the GPO. Run by the feminist Jenny Wyse-Power, it was one of the city’s few vegetarian restaurants then.
The proprietor being also a veteran Parnellite and founding member of Sinn Féin, the premises was part of the culinary wing of Irish nationalism: emphasising self-sufficiency through its home-produced food. For that and other reasons, it attracted many of those would play leading roles in Easter Week.
In his book on Giri’s life – Irish Days, Indian Memories – Conor Mulvagh notes that the cafe was watched closely by police and their agents. On March 28th, 1916, for example, an informer code-named “Chalk” reported a visit by MacDonagh and an associate.
As Mulvagh puts it, Chalk concluded it was “not vegetarian food [they] were after”. The two men carried “heavy handbags which they left inside”. These were assumed to contain ammunition.
The cafe did not survive the revolution. It was attacked by anti-Treaty republicans after Wyse-Power took the Free State side and became a senator (she later joined Fianna Fáil). Today it is commemorated by a plaque recording its greatest distinction: as the place where in April 1916, the Proclamation was signed.
Vegetarian it may have been, but we know that 21 Henry Street was not vegan, because it also earns a mention in Joyce’s Ulysses, when the publican Davy Byrne wonders aloud why one of his regulars, Leopold Bloom, is in mourning dress: “It’s not the wife anyway, Nosey Flynn said. I met him the day before yesterday and he coming out of that Irish farm dairy John Wyse Nolan’s wife has in Henry st with a jar of cream in his hand taking it home to his better half. She’s well nourished, I tell you.”
So why does Joyce mention the cafe? Well, it could be mere coincidence. Or it could be one of what hardcore Joyceans call his “coded psycho-topographic allusions to the Easter Rising”. The characters of Ulysses could not know of the Rising – it’s only 1904. But Joyce does, and may have stitched in certain details by way of foreshadowing it.
An area of special interest to Joycean detectives working the case is the comical Cyclops episode, the one set in Barney Kiernan’s pub on Little Britain Street, as the politically one-eyed “Citizen” (based on GAA founder Michael Cusack) holds court.
Other real-life characters present include John Wyse-Power – journalist, GAA co-founder, and Jenny’s husband. But their fall-guy is the fictional Bloom, whose espousal of moderate politics gradually drives the Citizen to violence, via a biscuit tin hurled at “that bloody jewman” as he flees.
I say the “fictional” Bloom, because it has long been received wisdom that, if not a complete invention, the book’s anti-hero is a composite of historical figures, none in particular. But as noted in previous diaries, a contemporary Dubliner named Vincent Altman O’Connor believes that one of his ancestors, Albert Altman (c1852-1903), was the main inspiration.
“Altman the Saltman”, as he was known, shares many characteristics with Bloom. And as his descendant will argue again at this year’s Joyce Summer School in Trieste (June 23rd-29th), the number of coincidences with the Saltman’s life (and death) in Ulysses make a very persuasive case.
In the meantime, Altman O’Connor draws my attention to another detail in the book that may point to 1916. It features in the Ithaca episode, where the Socratic dialogue recalls an occasion in 1885 when Bloom “reclined against the wall between Gibraltar villa and Bloomfield House in Crumlin, barony of Uppercross”.
Gibraltar Villa was the home in 1904 of a goldsmith of Jewish ancestry, Daniel Moulang, mentioned elsewhere in Ulysses. But Bloomfield House was home to Eamonn Ceannt. And in having Bloom recline at that location, Joyce may again have been exposing him to imaginary line of fire. During the revolutionary period, Altman-O’Connor explains, “the wall between Gibraltar Villa and Bloomfield House was used for target practice by the Irish Volunteers.”