Our World Walk with Ulysses: Savouring James Joyce’s Dublin

Sites now immortalised by the novelist’s most famous literary work.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Fans of James Joyce will recognise the opening sentence of Irish writer James Joyce’s monumental and sometimes baffling novel Ulysses.

The stairhead from which Mulligan is descending with his shaving gear is based on Joyce’s own experience of literally living in a tower back in 1905. That is an Irish brick-built look-out tower, not a tower block, called a Martello tower based on a Portuguese design. There are more than a dozen Martello towers dotted along the coast near Dublin, and the one Joyce lived in is on the shore at Sandycove,  just outside Dublin.

Joyce lived in the tower owned by a friend, Oliver St John Gogarty, for only six days, in reality leaving because he had a row with the owner and was kicked out — or so the legend goes. Nevertheless, his brief period of living in a three-storey, one-room-per-storey tower contained enough memorable moments for the writer to start Ulysses with his three initial characters sharing digs in this unusual dwelling. 

These days it is understandable that the Martello tower at Sandycove is a destination for literary tourists or those curious about the early career of Ireland’s most famous and intellectually challenging writer.

A winding staircase takes the visitor from the ground floor entrance up to the second floor space where Joyce and his companions lived, bunking down in hammocks and having rudimentary kitchen equipment. The third floor is actually the roof with a parapet wall, originally the look-out post for observing any invasion from the sea by Napoleon.

He pointed his finger in friendly jest and went over to the parapet, laughing to himself.

The Martello museum is run by a small group of volunteers, who willingly convey their extensive knowledge of Joyce’s career as a writer. Born back along the coast in central Dublin, where most of Ulysses is set, Joyce did not find a publisher for his — at the time — experimental novel until 1922, and then it was published in France.

The day after our visit to the James Joyce Tower and Museum we are back in Dublin, this time taking in the art in the National Gallery. As we exit we notice across the street an old chemist shop, with the name Sweny’s across the door. By some coincidence we have alighted by the very shop that is also featured in Ulysses, the chemist where Joyce’s main character Leopold Bloom buys “lemony soap” for his wife Molly.

The shop appears to be open, and I suggest to my wife that we go in and have a look. As we push through the door a man in a white lab coat and bow tie, holding a book in his hands, welcomes us. It is then that we notice behind a bench is a row of tourists seated on chairs also holding books in their hands. It is another kind of literary shrine that we have entered. We have come upon a reading of Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners under the guidance of the man in the white coat. He is a volunteer and amateur Joyce scholar dressed in the style of a chemist shop owner of the early 19th century.

“Would you like to take part in the reading,” he says, handing me a copy of Dubliners and pointing to the page in the short story The Mother. I sit on the end of the row of fellow tourists and wait for my turn to read out loud a page of the story, which is half-way through. Joyce’s Dubliners is a collection of stories published in 1914 about Dublin life, with Joyce sparing none of the characters from objectionable qualities. “The stories reflect his courage in criticising the people of his town,” wrote one scholar.

The Mother is about a woman who pushes her talented pianist daughter into providing the musical accompaniment for a series of society concerts. However, the mother falls out with the concert organiser over payment and acrimoniously pulls her daughter out of the deal. Her behaviour is condemned by the organiser as mean-spirited.

I read my page of the story without messing up.  Next to me is a German man, who reads his page with a commendable command of English.

We exit Sweny’s with a sense of the unusualness of the occasion. It’s not often one chances on a reading of Joyce in one of the places he immortalised in a book. 

Mr Bloom raised a cake to his nostrils. Sweet lemony wax. — I’ll take this one, he said.

(Top image: The Martello at Sandycove manages to rise above a popular beach where there is year-round swimming. Picture: Ron Banks)

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