This blog is very much A Work in Progress
Joyce told his friend Frank Budgen
“I want” said Joyce, as we were walking down the Universitätrasse, “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”
Frank Budgen. James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (Pages 67, 68)
Is this true? Could you recreate Dublin from the writings of James Joyce? I do not think that you can, not in relation to the physical architecture. In this sense, the City is only lightly described. The following passage opens Araby, the third story of Dubliners;
“North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.”
James Joyce. Araby, Dubliners (Page 21)
Could you recreate North Richmond Street from this description? Hardly. Can it come from an amalgamation of extracts from the works? Look at this passage from the Wandering Rocks chapter of Ulysses
“A band of satchelled schoolboys crossed from Richmond Street. all raised untidy caps. Father Conmee greeted them more than once benignly. Christian brother boys.”
James Joyce, Ulysses (Page 181)
These passages possibly tell us more about the social strata of Dublin than they do the physical architecture of a street that Joyce once lived on.
What if the City is about its people more than its physical characteristics?
Joyce went into the most intimate of details about the characters of Ulysses. Many of these characters appear in his other works and are based on real people. An argument can be made that as the City exists why would Joyce bother to write in exhaustive detail about it? Ulysses is a long book that took Joyce seven years to write. Why add exhaustive physical descriptions when a reader can visit Dublin?
In A Little Cloud the eighth story in Dubliners, Little Chandler quickens his pace as he walks down Capel Street and “For the first time his soul revolted against the dull inelegance of Capel Street.”
James Joyce. A Little Cloud, Dubliners (Page 68)
When I read this passage I was struck by how much this simple description sums up Capel Street, now, and in 1980 when I started studying architecture in Bolton Street. So how much has Dublin changed since Joyce’s writings? Should the City pay attention to what Joyce wrote before it makes physical changes?
Joyce cared about the accuracy of his descriptions. He wrote to his Aunt Josephine on the 5th January 1920 to find out about the trees and steps at the rear of the Star of the Sea Church in Sandymount, which feature in the Nausikaa episode of Ulysses and on the 2nd November 1921 to ask about the railings at 7 Eccles Street for the Ithica episode.
Joyce provided limited but accurate information about the physical nature of Dublin, leaving the reader to fill in the other details.
If you want to find the contextual details why not walk around the City, or run around it? That is what I have been doing, running, reading and researching. The narrow streets to the rear of North Richmond Street and Richmond Cottages have a pattern and physicality that are little changed since Joyce lived around the corner. He walked these streets and they influenced his writings.
So how do they influence the stories? There is a way to find out.
Run, read and ruminate.