BY THOMAS O’GRADY
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
Punctuated with headlines to mark its being set in conjoined newspaper offices, the seventh episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, “Aeolus,” itself punctuates the novel, announcing by way of its sudden typographical shift—and indeed by its first headline—that both the characters and the reader are now located IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS.
Specifically, most of the activity in the episode takes place in the vicinity of Sackville Street (renamed O’Connell Street in 1924), the main thoroughfare of Dublin both in 1904, when Ulysses is set, and now.
Anticipating the buffeting flurry of busyness that Joyce’s characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus will experience inside the figuratively blustery newspaper offices nearby, the episode begins amidst hubbub in the literal center of that street, the hub of the Dublin United Tramway Company: “Before Nelson’s pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started for Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rathgar and Terenure, Palmerston Park and upper Rathmines, Sandymount Green, Rathmines, Ringsend and Sandymount Tower, Harold’s Cross.”
Famously, while writing Ulysses, Joyce declared to a friend, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” Joyce’s intention continues to resonate for readers of the novel in our time, and Joyceans—both professionals (mostly academics like yours truly) and amateurs (devotees of the written word)—continue to walk literally in the literary footprints of Joyce’s memorable cast of characters. But as I can personally attest, more and more of those footprints have disappeared—have gone as if blown away by Aeolus, the god of wind whom Joyce evokes in Ulysses—as the city has morphed inevitably and continually during the century-plus since Joyce began inscribing it on the page. More and more that reconstruction has to be undertaken in the mind’s eye of the reader-turned-daytripper.
To that end, I have been browsing around recently in a book about Dublin’s trams, those clanging conveyors of the citizenry of the “metropolis” during Joyce’s time. Published in 2000, Michael Corcoran’s Through Streets Broad and Narrow: A History of Dublin Trams, actually engages closely with Joyce’s Dublin, as the tramway system was approaching a high point in its evolution at the time of the single day immortalized by Joyce in Ulysses—June 16, 1904: as Corcoran explains, a major extension had been completed the previous autumn, and October of 1904 would see the introduction of the DUTC’s first top-covered trams. While citing “four apparent errors, one of them perhaps intentional,” Corcoran nonetheless gives Joyce high marks for his depiction of the system at various points in Ulysses, and many of the basic facts in Corcoran’s narrative illuminate just how imaginatively Joyce took the geography that lay literally beneath his feet and reworked it in his fiction.
Writing specifically about the opening of the “Aeolus” episode, Corcoran notes: “The four tracks coming past the Abbey Street junction became six between there and the Pillar, the four inner ones going through a series of crossovers to form four terminal stubs right in front of the Pillar’s entrance door. From these stubs began the journeys to all but one of the southside destinations listed by Joyce.” How fitting that an episode defined by verbal bluster and physical bustle and shunting about inside the newspaper offices should begin in the center of Sackville Street; as Corcoran notes further: “It has been calculated that a tram could make upwards of 60 different movements between O’Connell Bridge and Rutland [Parnell] Square.”
Gradually superseded by buses, taxis and private automobiles, the tramway system in Dublin had run its course by 1949; so only the earliest of “Joyceans”—professional or amateur—would have had firsthand experience of the DUTC as Joyce knew it. In a sense, then, the trams, which actually appear in numerous episodes of Ulysses, embody the theme of “gone with the wind” (a phrase spoken by a character in “Aeolus”) that latter-day daytrippers have to come to terms with in trying to reconstruct Joyce’s Dublin.
I was thinking that specifically last summer as I paused before a Joycean landmark that has withstood time’s tax and toll: the statue of “Ireland’s national poet,” Thomas Moore (1779-1852), that stands on a traffic island next to Trinity College in the center of Dublin. Renowned for his “Irish Melodies”—mostly sentimental ballads set to traditional Irish airs—Moore figures frequently in Joyce’s writing, beginning with several references and allusions in Dubliners and continuing through Finnegans Wake. But in “Lestrygonians,” the episode of Ulysses immediately following “Aeolus,” the reference is especially complex and thus especially revealing of just how Joyce engaged in his imagination with what he once referred to as “the catalogue of Dublin’s street furniture.”
Writing with Leopold Bloom as the episode’s center of narrative consciousness, Joyce packs a lot into just the first two sentences registering Bloom’s passing glance at Moore’s statue: “He crossed under Tommy Moore’s roguish finger. They did right to put him up over a urinal: meeting of the waters.” Even a casual viewer of the statue today will notice that Moore is represented in a “poetical” pose, with a book in his left hand and the index finger of his right hand conspicuously raised as if to emphasize a particular point. But most casual readers of Ulysses will not recognize that the word “roguish” alludes to an elaborate hoax perpetrated in the London periodical Fraser’s Magazine in 1835 by a literary Irish priest, Father Francis Mahony (1804-66). Having created a fictional counterpart named Father Prout and also Oliver Yorke, the editor of The Reliques of Father Prout, a collection of his purported literary and cultural musings, Mahony had Father Prout set out to prove, in an essay titled “The Rogueries of Tom Moore,” that a number of Moore’s poetic verses are plagiarisms of verses first written in French, Latin or Greek—and as proof he presented the originals . . . which Mahony himself had written. Evidently, in Joyce’s mind Mahony’s own “roguery” would still be familiar in 1904 to even an ordinary Dubliner like Bloom.
Likewise, Joyce allows Bloom plausible familiarity with one of Moore’s most popular ballads, “The Meeting of the Waters,” which evokes the “sweet vale of Avoca” in County Wicklow where the rivers Avon and Avoca converge. While this reference may still resonate today for readers with an ear for Irish music, fewer and fewer Joyceans will know firsthand that, at least until the late 1970s, the traffic island which is home to Moore’s statue was also home to a public men’s lavatory. Yet that essential bit of knowledge illuminates not only Bloom’s (and Joyce’s) irreverent humor at Moore’s expense but also the next sentence in the episode: “Ought to be places for women.” As Bloom’s throwaway musing reflects, Dublin Corporation, in a manifestation of lingering Victorian prudery, in effect denied the fact of female bodily functions by affording no public accommodations for them.
All of which, remarkably, eventually loops back to the Dublin United Tramway Company at the turn of the twentieth century. For just as Bloom’s glance at Moore’s statue transports the Joycean reader all the way back to Father Mahony’s “Rogueries” in 1835, so does Bloom’s sensitivity to women’s needs carry the reader forward to 1961 and the publication of The Hard Life by Flann O’Brien, one of the preeminent Irish novelists in the generation immediately following Joyce. Set essentially in “Joyce’s Dublin” (the narrative action takes place between 1890 and 1910), this darkly comic novel has as a subplot a scheme by one Mr. Collopy to outfit tramcars to provide the discreet accommodations for women that Bloom sees lacking. Mr. Collopy explains his plan to his friend, a German Jesuit named Father Kurt Fahrt: “Let us say that a lady and a gentleman are walking down the street and have a mind to go for a stroll in the Phoenix Park. Fair enough. But first one thing has to be attended to. They wait at a tram stop. Lo and behold, along comes the Black Tram. The lady steps on board and away she goes on her own. And the whole beauty of the plan is this: she can get an ordinary tram back to rejoin her waiting friend.”
Obviously, Mr. Collopy’s scheme is ludicrous. But O’Brien’s linking it with Dublin’s trams underscores the centrality of the tramway system to Dublin life a century and more ago, and in the process underscores how a book like Corcoran’s Through Streets Broad and Narrow can be so helpful for the latter-day reader committed to “reconstructing” the heart of the Joycean metropolis. Aptly enough, my browsing through that book conveyed me not only deep into DEAR DIRTY DUBLIN (another headline from “Aeolus”) but also backward and forward in Ireland’s rich literary history.
Thomas O’Grady is Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.