Thursday 8 December 2016

An intimate portrait of Joyce's Dublin

The Real People of Joyce's Ulysses - A Biographical Guide, Vivien Igoe, UCD Press, €29.50

Published 22/08/2016 | 02:30

John Shevlin from North Great Georges Street dressed as James Joyce at the Joyce Centre during Bloomsday. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Shevlin from North Great Georges Street dressed as James Joyce at the Joyce Centre during Bloomsday. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Reading Ulysses for about the third or fourth time, it is extraordinary how much more easily it moves along. It helps, of course, if one has a knowledge of Irish history and is living on Dublin's northside, in the midst of 'Joyceland', as I now am.

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The associations are all around me. Within minutes of my house I can see Eccles Street, where Leopold and Molly Bloom lived, Glasnevin cemetery, scene of the book's famous funeral scene, and about four of Joyce's actual family homes, as well as Claude Road where his father lived and the old Drumcondra hospital where he died.

In Joyce's life and work the real and the fictional blend seamlessly, and this is the whole point of Vivien Igoe's most absorbing and fascinating book. She has compiled a directory of all the characters who appear, or are even mentioned, in Ulysses, and describes their actual lives or the actual characters they are based on.

But it is more than just Joyce and Ulysses, Igoe has provided a 'drilled down' portrait of the whole spectrum of Dublin, and Irish, life in the late Victorian and Edwardian era. Ulysses is set in Dublin in 1904. Here are the seeds and precursors of the emergent Irish State as she brings alive familiar streets and their often unfamiliar inhabitants. Unfamiliar only to us, of course: in a Dublin only half the size of what it is now and where almost everybody moved on foot or by tram (obesity and Facebook be damned!) most citizens would be very au fait with the passing figures of AE Russell or John Howard Parnell (of the famous brother) or the various corporation and legal officials.

Even the famous Invincibles, who ambushed the colonial chief secretary and his deputy in the Phoenix Park, are constantly cited or spotted. Joyce had a conspiratorial regard for incendiary Fenians and rumour was gold.

Figures from his other interests dominate, such as the opera, literature, Catholicism, music hall, pubs and European politics. This detail and intimacy adds to what makes Ulysses as fresh and vivid today as it was when it was written, and is a tribute to Joyce's extraordinary modernistic skills.

And what stories are condensed here: chancers, dancing masters, lawyers changing political colours, and entrepreneurs living on their wits. People change addresses according to prosperity. But it is overwhelmingly a middle class to lower middle class world - Catholic and Protestant, incidentally. The Anglo Irish do not feature extensively, and certainly do not dominate as they usually did then, but neither do the vast poor of the tenements - at least by name.

The smallest portraits intrigue, such as James Carey, a slum landlord, daily communicant and Fenian who turned Queen's evidence to help hang his comrades. Shaven and renamed, he was shipped out to South Africa for a new life with his wife and six children. Until he was spotted on board by another Fenian and killed in Cape Town. The assassin was subsequently hanged. A screenplay surely beckons.

Vivien Igoe has done some extraordinary tracking down herself. And in this wonderful and impressive piece of scholarship, she has added hugely to what is one of our most timeless and ever-rewarding works of literature.

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