House Conversion – Frank McNally on James Joyce and the Dublin Vigilance Committee

An Irishman’s Diary

One of the richer ironies of Dublin’s cultural map is that the James Joyce Centre is located in a building that, a century and more ago, was home to the Dublin Vigilance Committee.

The DVC did not patrol the streets at night. Its concern was what happened in the daytime, when newsagents and bookshops were open and selling filth to the decent people of Ireland, especially in the form of British newspapers.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries had seen an explosion in sales of the popular press, mostly based in London but increasingly whisked across the Irish Sea by ever-improving transport links.

So in November 1911, meeting at No. 35 North Great George’s Street, a group of concerned clergymen and others pledged to “grapple with the terrible traffic of immoral literature carried on in the most public and shameless manner ”.

During their short reign of terror, they picketed shops and held processions and rallies. At one event in 1915, a speaker protested that they did not want to “abolish laughter from the homes or mirth from the meetings of Irish boys and girls”.

They merely wished to preserve the “ancient purity and characteristics of their race”. These were under threat from imported “Sunday newspapers” in particular, which were “largely channels of pollution”.

A measure of what the Vigilance Committee was up against is indirectly illustrated by a famous photograph of the era, depicting Tom Clarke standing in front of his tobacconist's shop opposite the Rotunda Hospital.

Clarke would soon be part of attempt to overthrow the state, around the corner in the GPO. In the meantime, of more concern to the DVC, his hoarding announced that the titles he stocked included “Tit-Bits” magazine.

Happily for the vigil keepers, some responsible citizens were doing their best to keep immorality at bay.

Back in 1912, printer John Falconer feared that his most recent job, a book of short stories entitled "Dubliners", might get him prosecuted. So in an extreme form of censorship, he burned the entire run of 1,000 copies.

The author still had galley proofs, at least, which he would later use to get the collection published. But history records that the same day the books were destroyed, September 11th, 1912, James Joyce left Ireland forever.

En route to Trieste three days later, in a bitter mood, he wrote a notorious broadside in verse, Gas from a Burner, in which he had Falconer explain himself to the DVC.

The original is signed “James Joyce. Flushing, September 1912.” And no, that “Flushing” is not the present participle of a verb. It’s the name of a town in Holland where he was waiting for a train at the time.

But it was an apt location for a rude farewell to Ireland in which, for example, excusing his past work in printing poetry, Falconer is quoted saying: “Though (asking your pardon) as for the verse/’Twould give you heartburn on your arse.”

Joyce also had 1,000 copies of that printed and sent them home to his brother Charles, who lived at 32 North Great George's Street and pushed some through the letterboxes of friends and enemies. Mind you, he also showed the poem to an unimpressed John Joyce, the writer's father, who declared his exiled son "an out and out ruffian".

After a few years of enthusiastic campaigning (the emerging cinema was another concern), the DVC seems to have petered out quietly.

The last of about a dozen mentions of their work in the Irish Times archive is from 1917. Perhaps Dublin had other things to worry about by then. Number 35 would soon reflect the city’s changing mood. It was there also that Michael Collins’s “Squad” first assembled, in May 1920.

I owe all this information to a veteran Joycean, Des Gunning, who mentioned it in follow-up to the column on CP Curran earlier in the week.

Never mind Joyce’s supposed boast that Dublin could be rebuilt from his pages. Curran’s work as a photographer and writer on architecture was crucial to the actual restoration of No 35, by then derelict, in the 1990s. Only 25 per cent of the Georgian ceilings remained. Fortunately, Curran had photographed the originals for a 1967 book.

Nor was it just North Great George's Street he helped preserve. Further to Sarah Purser and the decline of drawing-room Dublin (Diary Thursday), Richard Pine writes from Corfu to tell me that the ceiling of her own long-demolished drawing room can now be seen in the state apartments at Dublin Castle, while the one from her dining room is in Áras an Uachtaráin.

Both, Richard adds, “are lovingly described (and reproduced) in the same Mr Curran’s magisterial ‘Dublin Decorative Plasterwork of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’.”