Friday 31 July 2015

Martina Devlin: Why the Buck stops here for all lovers of Joyce

Published 30/08/2012 | 17:00

Irish Independent columnist Martina Devlin with the James Joyce death mask at the Joyce Tower, in Sandycove, Dublin
Irish Independent columnist Martina Devlin with the James Joyce death mask at the Joyce Tower, in Sandycove, Dublin

Some of the questions from visitors flocking to the re-opened Joyce Tower are easy to answer. Ones with dates and numbers in them, for example: James Joyce left Ireland in 1904, the walls of the Martello tower housing a museum to him are 8ft thick, 'Ulysses' was published in 1922, he died aged 59.

Others prove trickier. "How many people who come here haven't read 'Ulysses'?" asked a man in a snappy blazer which the dapper Joyce would have appreciated. He supplied his own answer in the next breath: "About 99pc I should think."

But visitors will have read some sections of the novel, or may be familiar with the story's broad outline, or at least know it was regarded as a dirty book for decades (although never formally banned in Ireland). And perhaps if they haven't read it, they might be inspired to pick up a copy after a visit to the Martello tower -- where Joyce lived for less than a week, but recreated in his imagination for that memorable scene in the opening chapter of his opus.

And indeed, on her way out, one woman confided that she's not much of a reader but wants to do something about it, and now plans a tilt at the man regarded as Ireland's pre-eminent modern writer. She'll start with his short story collection, 'Dubliners', and if he delivers there she'll work onwards. You can't say fairer than that.

The Joyce Tower in Sandycove, south county Dublin, has been shut for months -- a victim of cutbacks in public sector services. But it pulled up the shutters again recently, following an appeal for volunteers to run it. More unpaid helpers are needed to maintain the momentum, however.

I'm one myself. Volunteering isn't something I make a habit of, but I allowed for an exception in this case because I was horrified to find the tower closed. I live nearby, and always brought visitors to it. Except in May, when I tried, the museum was locked up. Also in June and July, height of the tourism season.

A swimmer at the nearby Forty Foot bathing area said he was forever being approached by disconsolate tourists, clutching guidebooks, who travelled eight miles out from the city centre and couldn't fathom why it was shut.

As, indeed, it was unfathomable -- even during a recession. But it was re-opened a fortnight ago for National Heritage Week, and can remain accessible to the public if enough volunteers sign up.

Other attractions, including George Bernard Shaw's birthplace in Dublin and Nora Barnacle's family home in Galway, have also closed due to staffing shortages. This is sinful in a country which claims to prize its literary tradition -- a heritage attracting tourists whose spending power is desperately needed.

Fortunately, the Friends of the Joyce Tower Society has been formed. Volunteers can't solve all of Ireland's problems, by any means, but there are areas where they can make a difference. This is one of them.

Anyhow, today I'm rostered for my third shift, and virtue is not just its own reward because the entertainment value can't be underestimated. Clearly, I don't get out enough, but I do so enjoy the tourists -- and as for the many Dubliners dropping in to the tower, they're priceless. As Joyce realised only too well.

On Tuesday, a young girl approached me about the opening words of the novel, 'Stately, plump Buck Mulligan . . .' She wanted to know what a buck was. A dandy, I told her. "What's a dandy?" A man who pays a lot of attention to his appearance. She looked dubious, insisting no such men existed in Ireland.

Another small girl was so taken with the museum, she planned on asking her teacher to bring the class. What did she like, I inquired? The death mask: apparently it's "seriously cool".

She felt, as a matter of urgency, that her classmates should be familiarised with the tradition of taking wax or plaster cast mementos of the dead.

One boy came clattering down the steep, winding stairs to complain. "Those steps are dangerous." Take your time on them then, I said. He had a further criticism. "That man (my co-worker) said the alarm would go off in the glass case if I touched it. It didn't." Maybe he meant a different unit? He beetled back upstairs to prod other display cases.

Then there are the Joyceans, who travel from Japan, Russia, the US and Europe to pay homage. They linger over the exhibits, from his guitar to his wallet, which never contained enough cash for the spendthrift Joyce's liking. They study a waistcoat he wore, and a tie donated by Samuel Beckett, given to him by Joyce when Beckett worked for him.

But it's the tower's 'round room' which particularly moves these scholars, acolytes who enter with reverence and exit in a daze. It's been reconstructed to resemble the way it was furnished in 1904, when Joyce stayed there as Oliver St John Gogarty's somewhat unwelcome guest. Here, they breathe in the gunshot scene that was to prove inspirational for Joyce, long after the writer shook off the dust from a country which he found too parochial for his taste.

Currently, the volume of traffic is brisk, and while it is likely to level off in winter, there certainly appears to be demand for year-round opening. Of course, numbers may be influenced by the removal of the admission charge. As any economist will point out, reduce a product's price and consumption increases. All the same, Ireland is an expensive destination, and free entry to museums and galleries helps to offset that. Plus, it pulls in local visitors.

More volunteers are needed if the Joyce Tower is to stay open. If Vincent Browne can spare the time to be the society's acting secretary, others can surely help out. For those with a little free time, it's a way of making a contribution to society -- financially, because tourists generate revenue, and culturally, because it shares something that matters.

For me, there is one further advantage: a sense of holding the line, in however minor a way, against the inroads of austerity.

Anyone interested in volunteering should email the friendsofjoycetowersociety@ gmail.com or leave their details at the tower.

www.martinadevlin.com

Irish Independent

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