Borges observed that although Don Quixote sets the realities of provincial Spain against the dreams of chivalry, later generations of admiring readers would weave the squalid inns and dusty countryside into a romantic La Mancha. Exactly the same process has happened to Ulysses, only much faster: the material which nauseated Woolf and Lawrence with its tawdriness is now the subject of sentimental dressups and literary breakfasts.
This trip of mine is, originally, a pilgrimage to the top of the Martello tower at Sandycove, and I know that it’s a bit comical, really: an Australian, who discovered Ulysses by accident when he was eighteen, and was instantly captivated by – among other things – its inexhaustible respect for the quotidian, for the feeling that anything and everything (a man wiping his bum with a page from a magazine, a woman getting her period, the least flicker of thought in a moody student’s brain, pub gossip in a provincial city) was worth not just attending to but relishing and writing and laughing about; for that Australian to then grow up and eventually get around to travelling and go halfway around the world to stand at the top of the tower, the particular tower that opens the book, strikes me as funny. About five years ago, I discovered that there’s a Martello tower parked in the middle of Sydney Harbour, so I’ve known, in a sense, what the Joyce tower was going to look like for all my life: I think this is funny, too.
This trip was originally planned to take place in the Bloomsday centenary year, but that didn’t work out: life intervened, as it will, so in 2004 I re-read the novel and promised myself that I’d get to Dublin as soon as I could, not wanting to be like one of those characters in plays and 60s song lyrics who have an Unvisited City that they are Going to Get To Someday and it’s All Very Romantic.
That message about the quotidian saved me when I was eighteen and it never fails to cheer me up now, and the view from Sandycove was wonderfully like the images in my head from Joyce’s descriptions. The Museum is not as tacky as some of the guidebooks had indicated, although the plaster panther in the fireplace is a bit ridiculous. But then, as the Willingdone Museyroom episode in Finnegans Wake reminds us, all museums are fountains of unintentional comedy.
I went to Sandycove on the DART. On the way there, as the train was pulling into Booterstown station, a tremendous roaring was heard, startlingly loud even over the sound of the train: a horde of boys from Blackrock College, swarming madly over the footbridge and yelling like Vikings while their teachers tried to hold them back with pathetic cries of “Lads! Lads!” When they all crowded on board the train filled with a remarkable stench. Was it the boys? Booterstown smelled like that on the way back. So I think it was the marsh.
That evening I went on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which was great fun. Told one of the actors who do the tour that there’s a Martello tower in Sydney Harbour too, and met an Australian who had just helped open the first new gold mine in Ireland in a couple of thousand years. Came second in the quiz at the end, won a miniature bottle of Jamesons’.
The tour ends at Davy Byrnes; all the guidebooks moan a bit about how much the interior has changed since Bloom ate his gorgonzola sandwich there, but what they don’t often say is that the Art Deco fitout is really quite beautiful, and that it’s an exceptionally friendly pub in a city of friendly pubs.