June 1904, the month in which the novel Ulysses is set, is a month that brings to mind the name of James Joyce and that name has become synonymous with that of the city of Dublin. The Sandycove Martello Tower, Sandymount Strand, Dublin’s North inner city: these have become known as ‘Joycean Dublin’. Indeed, a Dubliner abroad who announces his identity as such is often met with the retort: “Aha, Dublin, James Joyce’s city“. The 16th of June, the day on which Joyce set the action of his novel Ulysses, has been celebrated again in Dublin and many other locations worldwide as “Bloomsday”. Leopold Bloom, the central character of the novel, is recreated by a variety of look-a-likes in Edwardian costume, in what, in his poem Who Killed James Joyce, the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wryly referred to as the “Bloomsday Swelter”.
The playwright Brendan Behan once remarked to a fellow drinker who was extolling the generosity of the Guinness family and how good they had been to the people of Dublin that the people of Dublin had been very good to the Guinness family (as a constant imbiber of their product, Behan was in a very good position to know!). The same can be said for Joyce. He owes a debt to Dublin as Dublin does to him. Indeed, Joyce once remarked that if the city of Dublin was destroyed it could be rebuilt from the information contained in the pages of Ulysses. It is remarkable to note therefore, that Joyce spent most of his life outside of Dublin. He went to Trieste in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1904 (the year in which he set Ulysses) when he was 22 years old, and from then until his death in Zurich in 1941 at the age of 58, he never again lived in Dublin.
However, his adult self-imposed exile was not the only period that Joyce spent outside of the city of Dublin. He was born in Brighton Square in the south Dublin suburb of Rathgar in 1882. Then in 1887, when Joyce was at the impressionable age of five, his father, John, moved the family to a fine house at Martello Terrace in Bray, a town on the coast south of Dublin. The fact that the novel Ulysses opens with Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus living in a Martello Tower at Sandycove, a village on the south coast of Dublin, is hardly a coincidence.
Bray, when the Joyce family moved there at the height of the Victorian age, was Ireland’s Brighton. It was a quintessential seaside town and like the English Brighton it was a creation of the railway. When the railway entrepreneur William Dargan built the line to Bray he provided bourgeois Dubliners with a weekend watering-hole. Later, Dubliners colonised Bray and commuted to their offices on Dargan’s railway. Bray, with its Regency style white-fronted houses and its long esplanade, was a bourgeois haven away from the smoke and bustle of the city of Dublin.
At the weekend Bray filled up with visitors from Dublin, but in the nineteenth century those who could afford the rail fare would definitely be of the ‘right sort’, and not those of the lower class, whom Joyce’s father referred to contemptuously as “Paddy Stink and Mickey Mud”. Bray was not then what it has become, a bustling seaside resort of amusement arcades and fast-food restaurants. In Joyce’s day it was a place of promenade for Victorian ladies and gentlemen with military bands and pierrots performing on the Esplanade.
The Joyce house at Martello Terrace was a weekend retreat for John Joyce’s Dublin cronies, and one of the things they had in common – apart from a love of drink – was a love of music. John Joyce had sung in concerts in his native city Cork, and in Dublin he had the reputation of having one of the finest tenor voices in Ireland. Joyce’s mother, May, was an accomplished pianist. She came from a family with keen musical interests and her grandfather Flynn had arranged for all his daughters to be trained in music. (Flynn appears in Joyce’s short story The Dead as the owner of the Starch Mill in Dublin’s Back Lane.) From the age of five to nineteen, Joyce’s mother had lessons in piano and voice, and also in dancing. This was at the Misses Flynn School at 15, Ushers Island beside the river Liffey. This is the house which is the location of the dinner which is the central feature of the story from Dubliners, The Dead. It has recently been restored to its original condition and is now a Joyce museum.