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by John Dunne

Since it was first published in Paris in 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses continues to have a curious sort of dual existence. On one hand, it is regularly proclaimed the Greatest Modernist Novel: on the other, it is one of the Most Unfinished Masterpieces of World Literature; year after year, copies are bought with the best of intentions but, often as not, end up languishing in bookcases, unsold in charity shops, yellowing behind the sofa, even – and I have seen this – strategically positioned and forgotten about on expensive shelves and coffee tables. But seldom read from beginning to end.

On the simplest level, Ulysses concerns likeable Leopold Bloom, a canvasser of newspaper advertisements who, on the morning of Thursday, June 16, 1904, hasn’t many reasons to be cheerful, and Stephen Dedalus whose intellectual posturing is the main reason so many readers say ‘No’ before they reach the book’s final ‘Yes’. Their comings and goings throughout Dublin city on that day are described in minute detail; they accidentally meet that night, enjoy a chat and a cup of cocoa, then go their separate ways. And that’s the gist of it. Certainly not much in the line of what Joyce himself called a goahead plot.[1]

But this meagre skeleton is fleshed out with a vast corpus of scholarly apparatus, popular songs, arcane lore, uproarious comedy, Homeric parallels, allusions of all sorts, to say nothing of a plethora of styles, and a veritable host of characters, alive and dead, real and imaginary. Everything, in fact, bar the proverbial kitchen sink. No, I’m wrong. Said item does appear on page 591. Maybe Joyce wasn’t entirely joking when he said that he’d put in enough enigmas and puzzles to keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what he meant.[2]

But how does Laois – Queen’s County as it was at the time of the book’s composition – come into all this?

Very early on (60),[3] Mr. Bloom, on his way to buy a pork kidney for his breakfast, passes Saint Joseph’s National School on Dorset Street and hears the children ‘at their joggerfry’. His silent comment – ‘Mine. Slieve Bloom.’ – needs no explanation, but maybe the origin of the name (in Irish, Sliabh Bladhma) does. Sliabh, of course, means mountain, but there is no such certainty about Bladhma. One school of thought maintains that it refers to Bladh, a Milesian hero, while someone who knows the area like the back of his hand, tells us that the meaning of Bladhma is lost in the mists of time.[4] May I suggest that a more likely translation is ‘Mountain of Flame’ (Bladhma is the genitive case singular of Bladhm, Irish for ‘flame’), a reference to ancient Irish fire festivals such as Samhain, Bealtaine, and Lughnasa which were usually celebrated on high ground. I would also suggest that Joyce was familiar with the word bladhm because when the Slieve Blooms next appear – in the hilarious Cyclops chapter (341) – it is in the context of bonfires.

It is, in fact, Cyclops – where Joyce has a go at everything and anything from nationalism, racism and Yeatsian mysticism, to pet lovers, academic pomposity and the Bible – that has the greatest number of local allusions. In a parody of ancient Irish epics, we find Slieve Margy – the south-eastern corner of County Laois – whence, we are told, heroes voyaged to woo lovely maidens and, a few pages later (295), we meet Angus [sic] the Culdee, aka Aengus Céile Dé (Aengus, companion of God). This 8th century saint, like the more famous Fintan (337), is associated with the monastery of Clonenagh, the remains of which are still visible on the road between Portlaoise and Mountrath.

Then there’s the virulently anti-English Citizen (modeled, most commentators believe, on Michael Cusack, one of the founders of the GAA) who curses ‘the yellowjohns of Anglia’ for trying ‘to make us all die of consumption’ by not draining ‘millions of acres of marsh and bog’ into the Barrow (which, of course, rises in the Slieve Blooms). A few lines later, he makes an impassioned plea: ‘Save the trees of Ireland for the future men of Ireland on the fair hills of Eire, O’. To which, someone remarks that he has been reading ‘a report of Lord Castletown’s’. This is a reference to a House of Lords report on Irish Forestry[5] by the Rt. Honourable Bernard Edward Barnaby FitzPatrick, better known as Lord Castletown. Born in London in 1848, he was elected Conservative MP for Portarlington in 1880. A great supporter of the Gaelic League, he attended meetings dressed in a kilt and preferred to be addressed as Mac Giolla Phádraig. Somewhat surprising perhaps, given his friendship with King Edward VII? There are, incidentally, many references to that monarch in Ulysses, mostly scathing attacks on his Germanic ancestry, and his reputation as a warmonger and incorrigible Lothario: ‘There’s a bloody sight more pox than pax about that boyo. Edward Guelph Wettin!’ (329).

Lord Castletown, who lived at Grantstown Manor, Ballacolla, was also president of the Wild Birds Protection Society, and noted that there were no less than eighty-two species of birds in the Queen’s County. His last major public appearance was in Maryborough in November 1928 at the unveiling of the memorial to soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. After Lord Castletown’s death, Grantstown Manor was sold out of the Fitzpatrick family and in 1947 much of it was destroyed by fire.

In the carriage to a friend’s funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery (97), Mr. Bloom passes the Rotunda Hospital which, later on, in the Sirens episode, Blazes Boylan also passes en route to his assignation with Bloom’s wife, Molly. The Rotunda Maternity Hospital was founded by Bartholomew Mosse who was born in Maryborough in 1712. He became a surgeon specializing in midwifery and in 1745 opened a small hospital in George’s Lane (now South Great George’s Street), Dublin. This Hospital for Poor Lying-in Women was the first maternity hospital in the British Isles. In 1757, a much larger one – the New Lying-In Hospital, with Mosse as its Master – opened on the present site in Parnell Square. (It was renamed the Rotunda following the construction of an adjoining round entertainment room used to raise funds for the hospital). Bartholomew Mosse died destitute[6] in 1759 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Donnybrook Cemetery. His last resting place was eventually identified, and in 1995 a memorial stone was erected nearby. The following year, a plaque was erected by Laois Heritage Society on his birthplace, Annefield House, Dublin Road, Portlaoise. He remains one of only two Maryborough people honoured on an Irish postage stamp. The other is the aviator Colonel James Fitzmaurice (1898-1965) of whom there is, of course, no sign in the crowded skies of Ulysses.

A quick jump from airplanes to motor-cars. In 1900, the Gordon Bennett Cup, an annual international road race, was instituted by the American sportsman and owner of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett. On account of England winning it the previous year, the 1903 race should have been run there (a bit like Eurovision!), but because there was now a speed limit of 12mph on all English roads, a town-to-town race was impossible, so it was moved to a closed circuit through Kildare, Queen’s County and Carlow. The race was won for Germany by Camille Jenatzy whose red beard and furious driving – his average speed was 49.2 mph – earned him the nickname Le Diable Rouge. Ten years after his success, the Red Devil came to an undignified end. As a joke during a hunting party on his estate, he hid in the bushes and started grunting like a wild boar. One of his companions promptly shot him dead. Joyce drew on the 1903 race for a short story[7] and there are three references in Ulysses. The first during small talk at the funeral in Glasnevin (99), the second in a joke involving bolting horses and a corpse (100), and the third in Bella Cohen’s whorehouse (491). And, finally, our unfortunate porcine impersonator himself is the subject of a drunken prediction (424).

On its way to Glasnevin, the cortege crosses the Royal Canal (101) where Bloom sees a barge full of ‘turf from the midland bogs’. The same barge appears later at Charlemont Mall (221) where it inspires Rev. John Conmee S.J. to reflect on ‘the providence of the Creator’, and in an episode set in Holles Street Maternity Hospital – where Joyce makes the English language jump through all sorts of linguistic hoops in imitation of the nine months of development from conception to birth – the bargeman, à la the diarist Samuel Pepys, bears news of a drought in the Midlands (393).

‘Urbane, to comfort them, the quaker librarian purred….’ are the opening words of the Aeolus episode (184), set in the National Library where Dedalus and others discuss aesthetics in language ranging from hifalutin esoterica to insincere, smartass retorts. If you’re not interested in Shakespeare, this chapter will be a bit of a slog.

‘The quaker librarian’ is the real-life Thomas William Lyster (1855-1922) son of Thomas and Jane Lyster from Rathdowney. Educated at the Wesleyan School and Trinity College, Dublin, he initially worked in the Department of Agriculture but in 1878 joined the library as assistant librarian. In 1895 he became librarian, the position he holds in this chapter. In December 1922 he died suddenly at his home in Harcourt Terrace and, a year later, a plaque in his memory was unveiled in the National Library by his friend W.B. Yeats. It reads ‘In memory of Thomas William Lyster for twenty-five years the able and enlightened librarian of this library whose enthusiastic love of books and whose kindly nature endeared him to all who knew him…’

Mr. Lyster, ‘in quakergrey kneebreeches and broadbrimmed hat’ reappears later in the phantasmagorical Circe chapter (425) where many of the book’s characters and events are depicted in sequences that change from nightmare to comedy and back again.

On page 240, a character reminds himself to borrow ‘those reminiscences of sir Jonah Barrington’ from a friend of his. Born at Knapton, near Abbeyleix in 1760, Barrington was a judge and historian whose extravagance led to dubious financial practices; so dubious, in fact, that, in 1830, he was removed from judicial office.[8] He left Ireland never to return and died in Versailles in 1834. Today he is best remembered for his Personal Sketches of His Own Times which gives a lively and sometimes grotesque account – Chapter XXII, for instance, features cannibalism and a priest bisected by a portcullis – of his tumultuous life and times.

The next Laoisman we encounter just a few pages later is Joseph Hutchinson, Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1904 to 1906.[9] He was born in Borris-in-Ossory in 1852 and, at the age of fifteen, went to live in Dublin. In 1890, he entered politics and was elected Councillor for Dublin Corporation. He devoted himself to gaining non-contributory pensions for Corporation workmen, and when such a Bill was eventually passed in the House of Commons, Dublin was the first city in the Empire to enjoy such a privilege. In 1896, he was appointed High Sheriff for that year and, in 1904, elected Lord Mayor. On page 246, in a discussion on Dublin politics, the assistant town clerk complains about the lack of organization at meetings of Dublin Corporation: ‘Where was the marshal, he wanted to know, to keep order in the council chamber… no mace on the table, nothing in order, no quorum even and Hutchinson the lord mayor in Llandudno…’ On October 17th, 1928, Joseph Hutchinson’s wife died at their home in Drumcondra. He himself died the next day.

The marshal mentioned above was City Marshall, John Howard Parnell (older brother of Charles Stewart) and there are several references to the family scattered throughout the text, most memorably perhaps when Bloom ponders the eccentric ways of the Parnell siblings (164-165). The family originated in Cheshire whence, in 1660, Thomas Parnell, a staunch supporter of Cromwell, fearing the restoration of the monarchy, came to Ireland. He settled in Rathleague, just outside Maryborough, and subsequent generations resided there until the 1830’s, after which time the house fell into disrepair. Part of the original building was incorporated into Rathleague House, a private residence today.

From politics to poetry. On page 545, in a paragraph about missing persons, we are asked ‘does anybody hereabouts remember Caoc O’Leary, a favourite and most trying declamation piece, by the way, of poor John Casey and a bit of perfect poetry in its own small way?’ The poem referred to is Caoch the Piper and in it, the eponymous Caoch O’Leary goes away and isn’t seen again for twenty years. It was, in fact, written by John Keegan[10] who was born in the townland of Killeaney near Shanahoe in 1816. His literary career began in 1837 when the Leinster Express published The Rifleman’s Grave and he subsequently contributed stories and poems to a wide variety of magazines. He also became part of The Nation group of poets which included Thomas Davis, author of the still-popular A Nation Once Again and The West’s Asleep. Keegan died of cholera in Dublin in 1849 and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Keegan’s writings were of great interest to John Canon O’Hanlon,[11] that eminent Laoisman whose own work[12] is invaluable to anyone with the slightest interest in the history of our county. Born in Stradbally in 1821, his family emigrated to Missouri where he studied for the priesthood. Following his ordination, he worked in various parishes until ill-health brought him back to Ireland. On his recovery, he served in different capacities in the archdiocese of Dublin and, in 1880, was appointed parish priest of Sandymount. It is here that we find the Ulysses connection. Near twilight on the evening of June 16th, Bloom, on his way from visiting the bereaved Dignam family, stops for a rest on Sandymount Strand. But there is more to his relaxation than meets the eye: he is, in fact, surreptitiously ogling young Gerty MacDowell who is minding children on the strand. And Gerty is no shrinking violet: she is well aware that Bloom is ‘eyeing her as a snake eyes its prey’ (358) and, as the sexual tension rises, Joyce flits between it and descriptions of Benediction in the nearby Star of the Sea church. It is here that Canon O’Hanlon’s presence pervades the pages like incense. Joyce’s mingling of sanctity and sex will not be to everyone’s liking, but it is certainly neither prurient or gratuitous. On the contrary, he – a writer never noted for his love of the clergy – portrays the Canon in a very sympathetic light. Gerty, for instance, recalls how understanding he was in the confession box (Surely a trait that differentiated him from many of his clerical colleagues at the turn of the twentieth century?) and that ‘he looked almost like a saint… he was so kind and holy’ (356). We catch our last glimpse of the Canon, resplendent in ‘cloth of gold cope’ much later in a nightmarish sequence (450) where his mantelpiece clock plays a leading role in mocking poor Bloom’s cuckoldry.

In the vast, secular catechism that is the Ithaca episode, Bloom recalls that in 1885 he had ‘publicly expressed his adherence to the collective and national economic programme advocated by James Fintan Lalor’ (637). Born in Tinakill, Raheen, in 1807, Lalor’s education was limited by protracted ill-health. Despite his perceived disabilities,[13] he joined Young Ireland, the nationalist movement founded by a group of young radicals associated with The Nation newspaper, and became a staunch advocate of agrarian reform.

In 1847, he contributed a series of letters to The Nation, demanding the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland. Despite the failure of the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848, Lalor, in an attempt to ignite another rising, led an attack on Cappoquin RIC barracks. He was arrested and died of bronchitis in prison on December 27th 1849. It is said that his funeral attracted 25,000 mourners.[14] Finally, a quick mention that the Fintan Lalor Pipe Band from Dublin makes an appearance in Finnegans Wake,[15] the book that Joyce himself said was intended for the ‘ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia’.[16] Not exactly a recommendation.

Also in Ithaca (579), there’s a reference to Lord Anthony MacDonnell, Irish Under-Secretary from 1902 to 1908. He was known as the Lion of Bengal from his time as Governor of that region, but it is his brother, Mark Anthony MacDonnell, who is of most interest here. When no local anti-Parnellite candidate could be found to contest the General Election of 1892 in the Leix Division of Queen’s County, Dr. McDonnell, a native of Mayo working as a surgeon in the Liverpool Cancer and Skin Hospital, was, to use a modern idiom, parachuted in. He won the seat and, in 1895 and 1900, was returned unopposed. In January 1906 he resigned and, six months later, in a cruel twist of fate, died of cancer.[17]

But let’s return to Mr. Bloom. Earlier, in the Freeman’s Journal offices (120), he daydreams about the power of his own profession, how it is advertisements that sell newspapers, not boring, official jargon like ‘Demesne situate in the townland of Rosenallis, the barony of Tinnahinch’. Situated in north County Laois, in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains, Rosenallis is noted for its Society of Friends (Quaker) graveyard just outside the village. William Edmundson, the ex-soldier who brought Quakerism to Ireland, lies buried there. In this episode too (136), a report on a ‘great Nationalist meeting’ in Borris-in-Ossory is mocked by Myles Crawford, the newspaper’s editor: ‘All balls! Bulldosing the public! Give them something with a bite in it. Put us all into it, damn its soul. Father Son and Holy Ghost and Jakes McCarthy’.

As talk in the office turns to the notorious Phoenix Park murders of May 6, 1882, someone mentions Skin-the-Goat ‘who drove the car’.  There are numerous references to the murders in Ulysses (83, 137, 542, 549, 562) and this particular one is to James Fitzharris, a cabman convicted of aiding and abetting the assassins. The local connection is that Fitzharris – whose nickname, incidentally, came from the story that during hard times he killed his goat and sold the skin – spent sixteen years in Maryborough Jail.

At one stage, Crawford proclaims that the eminent statesman and orator Henry Grattan once wrote for his paper (the oldest in Ireland, incidentally, when it merged with the Irish Independent in 1924). The Grattans had an ancestral link to our county and, in 1782, Henry acquired the Moyanna estate near Vicarstown where he built a shooting lodge at Dunrally. An aqueduct carrying the Grand Canal over the Derryvarragh River is named after him, and Dunrally Bridge over the Barrow was built by his son James in 1820. James, incidentally, contributed £4,000 towards the building of the old County Infirmary in Maryborough. Over the years, this fine edifice on the Dublin road has seen many changes; hospital, County Council offices, neglected disgrace, and eventual refurbishment in 2005 as the Grattan Business Centre.

The Grattan family had considerable influence on the development of Vicarstown. Henry’s grand-daughter Pauline Grattan Bellew provided the site and financial assistance for the Church of the Assumption and, in 1868, built the village National School. In 1882, she built Grattan Lodge on the site where Henry had planted beech trees shortly after acquiring his estate. He had, apparently, a great love for trees and the story goes that when a visitor to his home at Tinnahinch, Co. Wicklow remarked that one was dangerously close to the house, he replied ‘Yes, I have often thought of moving the house’.

In 1820, en route to Parliament, too ill to bear the jolting of a carriage, Henry Grattan travelled by canal from Liverpool to London where he died on June 4. There is a certain irony in this final journey: when the Grand Canal was being built in Vicarstown (1789-91), he allowed it to go through his estate free of charge. For reasons apparently lost in the mists of time, his wish to be buried in Moyanna was disregarded and he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey instead. But his memory is still alive in many parts of Ireland. The family coat of arms, for instance, is still visible on the archway leading into Moyanna graveyard and there is a Grattan Street in Portlaoise and other Irish towns. Ulysses refers to both Grattan Bridge at Capel Street (252) and the ‘stern stone hand’ of his statue on College Green (228). We take our leave of Henry himself on page 526, where, in a surreal parody of an ancient Greek myth, he springs up from the earth to engage in mortal combat with Wolfe Tone.

And now we arrive at Maryborough railway station, the last stop on our Joycean tour of Laois. Since it opened in 1847,[18] the station has seen all sorts of comings and goings, and one of them found its way from Joyce’s imagination into the pages of Ulysses. In the long gush of unpunctuated interior monologue that concludes the book, Molly is lying in bed thinking of this, that, and the other; her girlhood in Gibraltar, her lovers, the death of her young son, bits of songs and novels, the ups-and-downs of marriage, her dalliance with Blazes Boylan… This episode has inspired music, plays, films, and God knows how many lofty dissertations but, for my purposes here, all I’m interested in is where Molly ¬¬– as usual, pondering her husband’s imperfections – recalls an incident at the station (669):

…something always happens with him the time going to the Mallow concert at Maryborough ordering boiling soup for the two of us then the bell rang out he walks down the platform with the soup splashing about taking spoonfuls of it hadnt he the nerve and the waiter after him making a holy show of us screeching and confusion for the engine to start but he wouldnt pay till he finished it the two gentlemen in the 3rd class carriage said he was quite right so he was too hes so pigheaded sometimes when he gets a thing into his head a good job he was able to open the carriage door with his knife or theyd have taken us on to Cork…

On that note, let us take our leave of Mr. Joyce and all the Dubliners and Laoisites – there’s a word that might have satisfied the punster and scatologist in him – that populate the pages of this masterpiece, his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles.[19]

1. In a letter to one of his patrons, Harriet Weaver, December 21, 1926.
2. James Joyce by Richard Ellmann. 1977 edition, p. 535.
3. There are so many editions of Joyce’s work available now that it would be impossible to refer to them all. Page numbers in this essay refer to the Penguin paperback edition first published in 1968 and reprinted many times since.
4. In his Introduction to Bladhma. Thomas P. Joyce in association with the Leinster Express. 1995
5. The reference is, in fact, anachronistic as the report was not presented until 1908.
6. Dublin 1745-1922: Hospitals, Spectacle & Vice. Gary A. Boyd. Four Courts Press. Dublin, 2006.
7. After the Race in Dubliners.
8. A Dictionary of Irish Biography. Henry Boylan. Gill & Macmillan, Dublin 1978.
9. For much of my information on James Hutchinson, I am indebted to the late Patrick F. Meehan for an interesting piece in the Laois Association Yearbook 1989.
10. For more information see John Keegan, Selected Works. Edited by Tony Delaney. Galmoy Press 1997. Joyce is confusing John Keegan with the Fenian poet John Keegan Casey (1846-1870) who, under the pen name ‘Leo’, also contributed to The Nation and wrote the words of the well-known song The Rising of the Moon.
11. Legends and Poems. John Keegan. Collected and edited by Very Rev. John Canon O’Hanlon. Dublin, 1907.
12. Especially History of the Queen’s County. Volume I by V. Rev. John Canon O’Hanlon and Rev. Edward O’Leary, was originally published in 1907. Volume II, compiled chiefly from the papers of the late Canon O’Hanlon by Rev. Edward O’Leary and Rev. Matthew Lalor, appeared in 1914. Both were reprinted by Roberts Books, Kilkenny, 1981. For more information see John Canon O’Hanlon, the man and his legacy. Teddy Fennelly. Arderin Publishing, Portlaoise, 2005.
13. According to Henry Boylan’s A Dictionary of Irish Biography, Lalor was ‘near-sighted, deaf and ungainly’.
14. In December 1949, the local James McIntosh Cumann of Fianna Fáil proposed to the Town Commission that Coote Street be renamed Lalor Street (or James Fintan Lalor Street, depending on which local newspaper you read). This, of course, never happened. On December 15, 2007, a statue of Lalor was officially unveiled in the grounds of County Hall, Portlaoise by then Tánaiste Brian Cowan and, in September 2013, the inaugural JFL School was held in the town.
15. Finnegans Wake. Page 25. Faber paperback. 1975.
16. Ibid. p. 120.
17. The Members of Parliament for Laois & Offaly (Queen’s and King’s Counties) 1801-1918 by Patrick F. Meehan. Published by the Leinster Express (1972) Ltd. in 1983. Pages 62-63.
18. After an experimental run in April witnessed by ‘crowds of the peasantry cheering and waving their hats as the train passed’, the station was opened on June 26, 1847. These events were widely reported in local and national papers of the time.
19. Joyce’s own ironic estimation of the book in Finnegans Wake (p. 179). The first edition of Ulysses had a blue cover. The Blooms lived in Eccles Street.
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Laois Heritage Society 2019