By Pol O Conghaile
DUBLIN — Were James Joyce to return to Dublin for a spell today, Bloomsday, the first question fired his way would have nothing to do with the books. On the contrary, the media would be much more interested in a subject with which his family had some firsthand experience: the housing crisis.
Traveling from house to house throughout the late 19th century, the Joyce family would hire a wagon, pile as much of their belongings on it as they could, and carry the rest. In later years the author’s brother Stanislaus remembered "that at first two floats [wagons] were needed, but eventually one was enough." Indeed, if things keep going the way they are, such a situation would not be inconceivable in the Dublin of today.
Lending institutions dished out a whopping £1 billion in the first three months of this year alone, and the international brokerage company Dresdner Kleinwort Benson has just published a report claiming the mean house price in Dublin has swollen to 18 times the average yearly disposal income. Prices rose by 32.4 percent over 1998 in the Dublin area alone, which concerns the current Irish government.
All of this might be well and good were it not that the pace of development is threatening to gobble up the very buildings Joyce, at one stage or another, called home. In property terms, the author’s description of Ireland as "the old sow that eats her farrow" has never seemed more appropriate.
Fifty-eight years after the author’s death, just two of 18 Joycean residences remain open to the public. The Martello Tower in Sandycove, where Joyce stayed briefly in 1904, houses the Joyce Museum and opens its doors through the summer months. No. 1 Martello Terr. in Bray — currently owned by Labor TD Liz McManus — opens to the public one day a week. A third house, 23 Castlewood Ave. in Rathmines, where Joyce’s family lived from 1884-87, is listed as historic but is not open to view.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
Most, however, such as 14 Fitzgibbon St. (just off Mountjoy Square), described by Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellman as "the last of their good addresses," or 17 North Richmond St., a house in which much of the short story "Araby" is set, are now owner-occupied or divided into apartments. Another house, at 44 Fontenoy St., where the author spent three months in 1909, sold last April for more than £150,000.
Save or raze?
The apparent lack of continuity here underscores Ireland’s schizophrenic attitude toward the preservation of its literary buildings. Houses associated with Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw in Dublin have been marked with plaques and in some cases converted to literary museums. However, Lady Gregory’s House in Coole Park, which had significant influence on Yeats’s poetry and in which much of the Anglo-Irish Literary Revival was plotted, was demolished even before Yeats died. Similarly, Elizabeth Bowen’s home in Cork has long since disappeared.
What’s more, there is no law protecting buildings regarded as being of significant literary interest.
"We don’t list a building for its association with historical events, literary references or authors per sè," says Dublin Corporation’s chief planning officer, Pat McDonnell. The reason, he says, is that though many buildings in the city may have hosted important events, far fewer possess intrinsic importance in and of themselves. "It’s an airy-fairy area — who decides on the importance of an author or an event?" he said.
McDonnell has a point. In his works Joyce documented a jungle of names and addresses in Dublin, and though many of his characters were based on living people, they were often mentioned only briefly, or engaging in fictional activities. Does that mean their houses should be preserved too?
No. 7 Eccles St., razed in the 1970s to make way for the Mater Private Hospital, is a case in point. Famous as Leopold Bloom’s home address in "Ulysses," the connection with Joyce himself is purely fictional. If every such association were to result in a compulsory listing, surely the resultant squeeze for planners, investors and developers would only serve to exacerbating the city’s current housing crisis?
However, conservation bodies such as An Taisce and Dublin Civic Trust are adamant that buildings of sufficient literary or cultural interest should be eligible for listing.
"I don’t think anybody has made a proper submission [of Joycean buildings]," says Ian Lumley of Dublin Civic Trust. "It’s very frustrating. A lot of people talk about it in pubs after a house has been demolished, but it’s no use then — the deed is done. It’s a constant irritation."
Demolition is the worst-case scenario, but it has happened. No. 2 Millbourne Ave. in Drumcondra, Joyce’s seventh home, was destroyed last November — despite the fact that planning permission allowed only for its redevelopment into apartments. Similarly, Mullingar House in Chapelizod was gutted and reroofed by its new owners last March. The pub features centrally in "Finnegans Wake," where the hero, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, is described as its owner.
Similar concerns have been voiced over fates awaiting 15 Usher’s Island, site for the Christmas Party in "The Dead", and Barney Kiernan’s on Little Britain Street, which featured in the Cyclops episode of "Ulysses." Both are in poor condition, and the latter in particular is under constant scrutiny by developers.
Of course, the fact that Joyce’s family’s nomadic trawl through the suburbs of Dublin took in so many houses — some of which they occupied for no more than a few months — has further exacerbated the issue. To preserve 18 homes, peppered at random throughout the city, would require a serious amount of juggling where issues of zoning and ownership were concerned. A head-wrecking task at best — not to mention an expensive one.
That so much shifting went on was largely due to the colorful life John Joyce, the author’s father, chose to lead. In "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," John Joyce is described as "a medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past."
Each fresh move followed on the heels of his downspiraling fortunes, which, though substantial at first, fell to earth at an embarrassing rate. Hence the family’s difficulties at 7 St. Peter’s Terr., Phibsborough, where the author lived from 1902-04.
"The move was ill-advised in every way," according to biographer Richard Ellman. "It plunged John Joyce into such financial discomfort that he took an immediate mortgage of £200 on the house, then on Dec. 18 another of £50, on April 24, 1903 another of £50, and in November of that year the last of £65. The family remained at St. Peter’s Terrace until May 26, 1905, when they sold what remained of their interest in the house and moved once more."
The difficulty facing families today is similar: even if they have more to do with an exponential rise in house prices than "colorful" lifestyles (though Dublin boasts its fair share of those, too). Could one boldly suggest taking a leaf from John Joyce’s own book? He was, after all, a man not averse to manipulating landlords.
"One dexterous method he used to forestall eviction for non-payment of rent was to offer to leave voluntarily," Ellman said, "thereby sparing the landlord legal costs, if the landlord would kindly oblige with a receipt for the rent which had not been paid. Usually the landlord consented, and John Joyce would then exhibit the receipt to another landlord to persuade him to take them in."
While such adventures undoubtedly make entertaining reading, for planning officials almost 100 years down the line, the results are frustrating.
"History comes in bursts in this country," said the Dublin Corporation’s McDonnell said. "Throughout the 1920s, for example, so many buildings would have hosted meetings or gatherings of instrumental figures — from the Irish Republican Brotherhood and what have you — but would have had no intrinsic importance in themselves. Who decides on the importance of an author or an event?"
Follow the Joycean trail
Well, Dublin Tourism seems to be in no doubt. The streets of the capital are lined with bronze plaques celebrating the various meanderings of Leopold Bloom, and the author’s bespectacled image has been peddled abroad as a potent symbol of Ireland’s literary heritage for some time. Nora — a film celebrating the life of Joyce’s paramour, Nora Barnacle — is shooting on location here too, with Ewan McGregor playing the author. Is Joyce not a writer of crucial importance?
"Maybe the houses could come under the remit of residential preservation schemes," McDonnell said. "But that would be coincidental. If a Joycean trail or a tourist slant were introduced, it might be easier, but if it’s an indifferent building architecturally speaking, then the Corporation is quite up-front about where it stands."
All is not lost, however. "There’s all sorts of remarkable survivals," according to Ian Lumley of Dublin Civic Trust. "Sweeney’s Pharmacy, for instance — virtually unchanged since its appearance in ‘Ulysses.’ " Mulligan’s Pub on Poolbeg Street remains intact, too, still boasting the snug in which much of the short story, "Counterparts" was set. Other buildings with Joycean connections — Belvedere College, for example — are in little danger of disappearing, due to their architectural credentials.
Where the houses are concerned, though, the debate rages. Some, such as 41 Brighton Square West in Rathgar, where the author lived after his birth until 1884, seem to cry out for protection. Others, like 5 Strand Rd., Sandymount, were graced with the great man’s presence for all of two days. Allegedly Joyce left on that occasion because he disliked the "do-good household."
As for how one might climb down from the proverbial Bloomsday barstool and go about tackling the issue of literary preservation, we’ll have to wait and see. 9,000 buildings fall within Dublin Corporation’s jurisdiction, and according to the man responsible for maintaining that database, Senior Planning Executive Rob Goodbody, "there’s no way of researching 9,000 buildings one by one to ascertain whether they have literary or historic associations."
Or is there? Joyce after all, had a habit of turning bad odds into literature. Like him, could we not learn to pick our way among the family ruin, "as nimbly as an arch’ologist"?
June 16-22, 1999