It wasn't Bloomsday; it was a muggy dog day in late July. Six weeks of rain, drowning the Leinster strawberry crop, had just ended. But it was new to me as the first day of creation: my first hour in Joyce's city. The DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) halted and lurched with aging efficiency from stop to stop east toward Dun Laoghaire. My head swiveled, taking everything in: stadium, canal, rows and rows of rowhouses, mysterious industrial structures, wide grey bay. But what fascinated me most were the mud flats.
When I think of Dublin now I first see those astonishing mud flats, spreading far out into Dublin Bay, gleaming in the grey late afternoon, barefoot loiterers here and there, puddles and little inlets everywhere, Howth Head low in the haze beyond, and tiny waders out where you'd think the freighters would be plying. The mud looked so fresh. I had expected this Sandymount strand, of course, where Stephen Dedalus contemplates the ineluctable modality of the visible, and Mr. Bloom later admires Gerty MacDowell's nainsook knickers to the accompaniment of fireworks. I had expected to see two women, one swinging lourdily her midwife's bag, the other's gamp poking in the beach. White thy fambles, red thy gan. But mud flats all along the swerve of shore to the Tower at Sandycove!
It's actually the second Martello Tower along the DART route. One flashed by at Sandymount, stout impregnable granite, looking quite scrubbed and presentable: its smart cleanness an introductory note of Ireland's new EU prosperity.
At Dun Laoghaire next morning we strolled along the seawall – and the Vico Road – my wife and I, our two grown children. Of our three full days in Dublin, this first was – ineluctably – Joyce Day. If Ireland is flush a hundred years post-Bloomsday, Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown in 1904) is its poster garden suburb, pretty seafront rowhouses of all colors, wealth bright yet in taste. The breeze off the sea is always fresh, and the flowers – changed by the municipality, I'm sure, with the seasons – always blooming.
It was only a fifteen minute walk. Joyce's Tower, as the locals call it, dominates its little promontory, hedged by snug villas. The street winds up beside the white cubist residence of a prominent Dublin architect. Below it, across from the Tower entrance, unmolested by the suburbanization, lies a rocky cove. "The Forty Foot," says the sign.
The bottom floor of what is officially the James Joyce Museum (opened in 1962 by Sylvia Beach) is a smart air-conditioned bookshop. At the counter stood a 30ish young man of thin face and moustache, dressed in black; except he did not wear hat and glasses, a dead ringer for the James Joyce staring from the cover of the Ellmann biographies on the book racks. As I bought tickets for the upstairs room, I asked if there were guided tours of Bloomsday in-town. No bus tours, he said; guided tours were offered at the James Joyce Cultural Centre on North Great Georges Street; or one could do a self-guided tour, and he pointed to a guidebook on the racks. I promptly bought it and a Ulysses map (as well as wonderful Naxos AudioBooks CDs of readings from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake by Jim Norton, which I did not get a chance to hear till I got home). When the man asked if I wanted him to sign the Bloomsday guide, I said, "Sure," more than half-expecting him, in character, to sign James Joyce. To avoid an awkward laugh, I thanked him without looking. Only on the walk back to Dun Laoghaire did I open the book and read the autograph, "Robert Nicholson," and glancing up the title page, the author's name ... which was the same.
Subsequently I found out this 30ish-looking-young-man took over and improved the Museum in 1978, and first wrote the Bloomsday guide in 1988 (updated June 2002). He also founded a Dublin Writers Museum in the city, devoted to the other-than-Joyces. We talked a bit about Sean O'Faolain, one of my favorites, who had lived many years and died only blocks away in Killiney.
The upper room of the Tower is Spartanly furnished with authentic period pieces, exactly as described in "Telemachus." I confess I did not read Ellmann till after I got home, so I was surprised to learn that Joyce's tenure at his Tower did not even last one week. (Oliver Gogarty, his host, continued to live there off and on and pay rent till 1925. But it's Joyce's Tower, not Gogarty's, for reasons obvious.)
As we ascended the tight winding stair into the mild morning air I of course invoked, to myself, stately plump Buck Mulligan coming from the stairhead, bearing the bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. My memory's bad for quotations (this is from the book), but not for moments.
The Martellos (based on a Corsican model) were built by the British from above Howth Head round the bay down to Bray as watchtowers against a Napoleonic invasion. Each tower has a gunrest and once had a gun, but its primary task was to light a tall candlewick at the first sight of French ships. At the appearance of a flame atop the next tower down the bay, each tower was to light up, telegraphing the alarum in minutes up the coast. The French never came, the towers were eventually demilitarized, and by the turn of the 20th century became available for rent.
One striking sight from the Tower which myopic Stephen does not note is Howth Head itself, directly in front. I asked my wife if she could see the outline of a man sleeping in the hills of Howth; I couldn't. Yes, she did, she said, pointing out head and feet. I still couldn't see, but myopic Joyce did. So Stephen, with good glasses or binoculars, could have turned from mocking Mulligan to stare at the supine silhouette of H.C. Earwicker.
The most entertaining sight from the Tower, though, is the Forty Foot. In Ulysses it is male-only, and all the males are naked. Displayed large and emphatic today is a sign saying: "Togs Must Be Worn At All Times." The bathers we watched were male and female, and togged, disappointingly; but the Forty Foot enjoys a reputation as a nude beach. (A pretty risky one, you'd think, since it's crowded with rocks.) To my inquiry about the sign, Robert Nicholson gave an answer variants of which I would receive repeatedly across Ireland: the laws are very strict ... but never enforced. Turns out Samuel Beckett and his father used to swim there all the time.
Along the entrancing mud flats the DART carried us toward the James Joyce Cultural Centre near the heart of Leopold Bloom's odyssey. We got off at Tara St. and crossed the Liffey at Butt Bridge, at the north end of which I saluted the ghost of the Cabman's Shelter beside the Custom House. It was already past noon. No one was hungry – the B&B fixed a big breakfast – so Laestrygonians we were not ready to be, but Wandering Rocks we certainly became. At Sandycove and Dun Laoghaire the day had been pleasant, but now the humid heat of the city pressed, and block by block I discovered that downtown Dublin is much larger than I had supposed.
A young woman was crossing the wide streets to our left. She seemed rather heavily shawled for the weather, with what looked like a big red bag hanging below the shawl. The red looked peculiarly raw.
"Ooo, it's her hand!"
It was. Giant red, curved, clawed.
Ejaculations of horror, pity.
"A young woman with hands like that!"
Dublin. Could happen anywhere not just.
She headed off toward the shopping streets, we headed the other way.
North Great Georges Street didn't seem far by the tourist map. (I should have used the Ulysses map, though it was 100 years "out of date" – but better detailed.) So the four of us moved east toward Gardiner Street Lower, which appeared to be a connecting street. We must have crossed it, but I didn't catch the street sign. Presently we passed an alley whose sign said "Mabbot Lane." Mabbot Street is the entrance to nighttown in "Circe", but no Mabbot Street appeared on the map or on the street signs we passed. It got hotter, fellow pedestrians fewer, shops fewer still, and the streets bore names not on the map. It was clearly a poorer section. We decided to turn up a street regardless of name, and at the next corner noticed the foliage, up a ways, of a little park. The name of the park could tell us where we were on the map.
No name appeared on the fence and walls of the park, however. One long wall featured the kind of colorful celebratory caricatures in a "childlike" style you often find trying to cheer up poor neighborhoods. The "childlikeness" comes off too deliberate to be the work of real children: official, faded, and arabesqued with graffitti. Although the trees and grass were green in the bright sun, the park was small. Beyond a low wall stood a highrise apartment building, looking new as of, say, fifteen years earlier, and projecting satellite dishes from a number of balconies.
I saw a youngish man sitting on a bench. I asked him what park we were in – Mountjoy or Croke, the nearest park names on the map. He said, "No, no. I should know the name." He winced, scratched his head though its thin carroty curls; gripped his face with both hands – seemed to grill himself, agonize. Some young men and boys were kicking a ball around to the side. The guy on the bench called: "Hey! What's the name of these flats?" He repeated the question. "Liberty Park," came the answer. "Liberty Park, I should have known it. Eh, watch yourself in these flats. Watch yourself in these flats!" And with that propelled himself off the bench toward the far exit.
The rest of my party were already leaving the way we'd come in. On the sidewalk a short plump woman in a striped pullover stepped unsurefootedly side to side and past us. A man with glasses, casual in nice shirt and pants, approached along the sidewalk. I asked him how to reach North Great Georges Street.
"The James Joyce Centre?"
"I'm the Joyce guide for this neighborhood. You're in nighttown!"
He was delighted to give directions, which I won't reiterate; except to say he pointed to the highrise apartments, and said down the next street we'd cross Bella Cohen's place was on that side, Mrs. Mack's on this. He also said we should not go down the street but keep moving, because they were not the safest streets.
So in the blazing noon I found myself, with wife and children, in the middle of nighttown! And the street we were on was indeed the old Mabbot Street (now ... Corporation Street). A further irony emerged later as I read what Robert Nicholson had to say in the guidebook I was not consulting. In Joyce's day the area was actually called Monto, after its main drag, Montgomery Street. In the mid-1920's the police closed it down and Monto was consigned to the dustbin by changing the name of Montgomery Street ... to Foley Street. But, as they sing in Marat/Sade, the poor stay poor.
The guide gave us good directions. But on the way, at the big intersection of Gardiner Street Middle and Parnell Street, my son hailed an elderly white-moustached man pushing a small cart with a basketful of plastic bags of purchases. The old man was also wearing a Washington Redskins baseball cap – a blue and white Redskins cap.
"You're a Redskins fan!"
The man crossed to us laughing. "I'm for the Redskins, but not for Americans!"
"Where'd you get the hat?" my son asked. Redskins colors are burgundy and gold. "I've never seen a blue and white Redskins hat."
"I fear your President Bush is turning your government into a military dictatorship," the old man retorted, "and the only people who see it are the extremists, and no one listens to them because they are racists."
This was July 2002. The news before we left the U.S. was already rife with the rumor that, the invasion of Afghanistan now successful, Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein from power. I agreed with the man but he kept on talking. He said he keeps up with America on all the news channels. Bush was using September 11 to become a military dictator, bullying the rest of the world ("in the name of democracy"), just as England used to. He had me in complete agreement – even about Bush's knowing the attack was coming and doing nothing to prevent it – until he identified the "they" behind it all as "the Zionists in the State Department" – and I recalled his statement that only the racists saw what was really happening.
We could have been in Myles Crawford's newspaper office or Barney Kiernan's pub. If my interlocutor had said the "neocons" or the "PNACkers" in the State Department, he'd have shown a sharp perception ahead of my own. Instead his own Cyclopean vision gave him away. I could reflect that in Catholic or post-Catholic Ireland the natives still have little intercourse with the small local Jewish community, as Irish as themselves; and so still there lingers that low-intensity bigotry which the Citizen in Barney Kiernan's charged up till Mr. Bloom poked him with the fact his Christ was a Jew, and the Citizen let fly at him a biscuitbox.
The war with Afghanistan and all the patriotism and flag-waving, says O'Connor ("My name's O'Connor. We used to be the High Kings of this place!"), was to prevent the U.S. coming apart in a new civil war – "Watch Hawaii! Hawaii is going to go first!" A secession movement was gaining steam and it wouldn't be long before the U.S. started breaking up like the Soviet Union. And more and more, keenly insightful and utterly cockamamie in one. My son kept interrupting him. "Where'd you get that hat? I've never seen a blue and white Redskins hat!" And I recalled the High King's claim that Americans pay no attention to what is really happening to them.
Presently he took his leave with a laugh and salute but no handshake.
By the time we trudged up North Great Georges Street to the James Joyce Centre at No. 35 I had no more energy or desire to go on than the rest of my party. We went in looking for chairs and hoping for air-conditioning; a guided tour could wait till next time. We were asked to wait in the tearoom, which was both bright with sunshine and cool with A/C. The walls are decorated with a serial mural by different artists in different styles, each doing a chapter of Ulysses. But the real reason to visit the tearoom, you see at a glance, is the imposing presence on the far wall: a large dark green door framed in Georgian stone and brickwork, and numbered, simply, "7". It is the sole surviving relic of No. 7 Eccles Street, home of Molly and Poldy Bloom (in real life, home of J.F. Byrne, the "Cranly" of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).
More relics appear upstairs. While the Molly Bloom bedroom on the next floor is a recreation – a very loving, very lively recreation-- the Finnegans Wake floor above it preserves the table and chairs of Leon Paul where Joyce would sit down with him every afternoon in Paris to go over the morning's Work in Progress and see if they couldn't make it more difficult.
No. 35 is a museum of 18th century Dublin in its own right, expensively restored to original Georgian beauty. Its connection with Joyce is that as a boy he passed it everyday on the way to and from Belvedere College at the top of the street. A claim every other house on the street can also make, of course. But in addition it was home to that Wandering Rock, Mr. Denis J. Maginni, professor of dancing, &c., who in silk hat, slate frockcoat with silk facings, white kerchief tie, tight lavender trousers, canary gloves and pointed patent boots, also turns up, in Stephen's mind, at Bella Cohen's in "Circe".
Our Bloomsday was over but not our wandering. From the Joyce Centre we made it down to Talbot Street which, running west, becomes pedestrian-only Earl Street North, where a statue of James Joyce loiters jauntily, as good for business these days as the statuesque Molly Malone, of mussels and cockles song, over on fashionable Grafton Street on the south side of the Liffey. When Earl Street North crosses broad O'Connell it becomes Henry Street then Mary Street. Henry and Mary Streets are the busy busy shopping mall of workaday "DNS". "DNS" -- "De Nort' Side" -- as my B&B host (also, who else? an O'Connor) explained, is the working class, poor side of town, notwithstanding the great buildings (Custom House, the Four Courts, the General Post Office), theaters (the Abbey, the Gate), and upscale venues also found there (mostly crowded to the quayside). DNS is where Simon Dedalus/John Stanislaus Joyce moved his family to cheaper and cheaper lodgings, as well as where No. 7 Eccles Street comfortably housed the Blooms. We crossed to the South Side, too, and discovered the difference money makes there; but it had little to do with Leopold Bloom, though his odyssey took him both sides, back and forth, all day long. Over the next 24 hours (now with a rental car) we passed other Ulysses landmarks – the Sirens Bar of the Ormond Hotel, Davy Byrne's Pub.
But before we left Dublin there was one more Joyce site I wanted to see, indeed the one I most wanted to see, though I was certain disappointment awaited me.
My favorite scene in all of Joyce, and I'm sure I'm not alone, is the beach in Portrait of the Artist where the young Stephen, in an outburst of profane joy, beholds the wading birdgirl and experiences the epiphany revealing his vocation to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.
I thought that beach was again my fascinating mud flats at Sandymount strand. I was confusing Sandymount and Dollymount, on opposite shores of Dublin Bay. Luckily some guidebook or someone (probably Robert Nicholson) informed me it was at Bull Island ... on De Nort' Side. The kids wanted to tour the Guinness Brewery, which takes a couple of hours. My wife suffered my own wish, and accompanied me in the rental Passat as I got lost and lost all over DNS, consulting the maps that only got me more lost, but also, unstubbornly, asking directions now and then. We actually made progress. We crossed Clontarf into Dollymount; and each time I got new directions I got lost closer to our goal. Back and forth we drove and round and round dockyards through construction dust and various chemical stinks, and I was sure if we ever found the island it would be as built up with semi-detached villas as Sandycove.
Then suddenly we came upon the thin wooden bridge.
The wooden bridge as described in A Portrait always sounded short, arched, rather ornamental. It is actually a causeway, as wooden today as in A Portrait, long, straight, strictly functional. Also no wider than a single line of cars at one time, regulated by traffic guards.
... he felt the planks shaking with the tramp of heavily shod feet. A squad of christian brothers was on its way back from the Bull ... Soon the whole bridge was trembling and resounding.
There is not a villa in sight.
He passed from the trembling bridge on to firm land again. ... yet he did not strike across the downs on his left but held straight on along the spine of rocks that pointed against the river's mouth.
And still does. The Bull is a long sandbar empty of everything but low grassy dunes, dark yellow beach, and mud flats sliding out beneath the wavelets. Boys – and girls and adults – dove out of sight off the roughhewn stones of the sloping breakwater to the right. At one point I climbed the rocks to look down the other side. The water looked cold and deep, the cannonballers as boisterous as Stephen's friends. Back along the beach the bathers were as few as Stephen saw. There were girls wading down the way ... also hopping children and attendant grownups; and nearby small white birds I wanted to name terns because Joyce somewhere does. But my knowledge of birds runs from robins to cardinals; I'd have to memorize terns from a book, which I have not. Girls ... birds. Well. Stephen is not there. The original fails to be what lives and lives in the words of its telling.
But now I've stood here, face in the cold infrahuman odor of the sea and mud flats. Too.
JR Foley is also the author of "The Short Happy Life of Lee Harvey Oswald" in FlashPøint #6,"night patrol" in FlashPøint #5, "Down as Up, Out as In:
Ron Sukenick Remembers Ron Sukenick" and