As I continue to read through James Joyce’s collection of short stories called “Dubliners,” I look at various old black and white photos of the city as it appeared about the time the book was published well over a century ago. I’ve also been guided by Mark O’Connell who wrote an article for “Slate” magazine in May 2014 entitled, “Have I Ever Left It?” to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of its publication.
I’ve never been to Dublin, but look forward one day soon to walking about, taking in the city that Joyce described. Although the stories so far in “Dubliners” don’t necessarily present a very inviting place—grim, perhaps, is a better descriptor—it would be quite an adventure. I’m not sure I would enjoy “the odor of ash pits and old weeds and offal” that Joyce told a publisher hangs round his stories, but I would relish so much that made it Joyce’s city, for better or for worse.
What I would like to breathe in is the atmosphere of the locale that Joyce fled but could never get out of his system. I am neither Catholic nor an alcoholic, as most of the characters are in the stories, but I can identify with the wishes, aspirations, disappointments, and failures of the many characters in the stories, since they are so universal.
If I were there, I believe I would first want to walk in Stephen’s Green, the lavish enclosed park in the southern part of the inner city, to sense the beauty and tranquility before I ventured forth to other contrasting parts of the city, such as Capel Street, a location Joyce said “his soul revolted against” because of its dull inelegance. From there as Joyce crossed Grattan Bridge, I will plod on knowing I will share Joyce’s view complete with his “feeling of disgust as he looked down the river toward the lower quays and pitied the poor stunted houses.”
But on a more positive side, how much fun it would be to find yourself at the corner of Ely Place and Baggot Street, where Corley reveals under the lamplights in “Two Gallants” to Lenehan that he has managed to convince the girl in the story to steal from her employer. As O’Connell guides us, those same lamps still line the streets. If we stand at that corner and face north, “your view will stretch all the way along upper Merrion Street to No. 1 Merrion Square, the large and stylish house where Oscar Wilde spent his childhood. It’s there that James Joyce waited for Nora Barnacle, having arranged to meet her there for their first date. Continuing along, we’ll pass Sweny’s Chemist, which is where Bloom buys a bar of lemon-scented soap in “Ulysses” before heading to a public bath where he will take his personal pleasure in some mischief. The shop is now a tiny emporium of Joycean ephemera. Walking along Westland Row, we’ll pass Pearse Station, where the narrator of “Araby” gets off the train, too late for the bazaar where he’s been planning to buy a gift for his friend’s older sister. Turn left at the corner of Westland Row, cross Pearse Street, and we’ll see a large office building called The Academy, which looks exactly like the concert hall it once was. This was the Antient Concert Rooms, on the stage of which Joyce performed as a tenor in 1904, and which is the setting for the disastrous concert series at the center of the story, “A Mother.” Keep walking along the northern flank of Trinity College and we’ll arrive at Mulligan’s of Poolbeg Street, the pub in which Farrington in “Counterparts” ends his night’s drinking in disgrace and humiliation, having run out of money and lost to an Englishman at arm wrestling. For a touch of the real thing, Mulligan’s has reportedly barely changed since the turn of the 20th century.
I’ll be glad to be in Dublin, especially since Ireland’s circumstances have changed radically, and predominantly for the better, in the century since the publication of “Dubliners.” As O’Connell tells us, “It is, for one thing, no longer a colonial backwater. In some important ways, you can imagine Joyce feeling just about OK with the way his city has turned out.” Despite the bursting of the Celtic Tiger boom that ended in the 1990s and the economic depression that caused many to emigrate, the city continues to have its own fascination.
What I think I’ll like best is the variations in the look of the city which has now again become a bit of a backwater. As we learn, Dublin can be seen in a number of ways that cause people to both love and deplore it. As O’Connell say, there seems to be a sort of dreamlike quality about it, what might have been and what came close to being in spite of itself. There is much to take exception to, especially the sense of paralysis that Joyce felt symbolized the city. Perhaps it still does. But it was never meant to be a Disneyland. It was and still is a city both in time and place, a venue of frustrated love, full of narrowness and stunted houses, yet a gift to the imagination for understanding the human heart in all its frailties as well as how it rekindles its love of life.