07 June 2015
Bloomsday … a June celebration
of Joycean and Jewish heritage
Bloomsday has become a major attraction on the cultural and tourism calendar in Dublin each year. The programme for 16 June each year celebrate the life and work of James Joyce and re-enact the events of one day narrated in Ulysses, 16 June 1904.
Joyce chose 16 June because this was when he had first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle, when they walked out to Ringsend.
Many of the events marking Bloomsday this year will retrace Leopold Bloom’s steps on his Odyssey through the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and the events Molly Bloom recalls in the ‘Little Jerusalem’ area around Clanbrassil Street in the south inner city.
There are some passing references to the Comerfords in Ulysses: Leopold held onto a Christmas card sent by the Comerfords in 1892, and in her soliloquy, Molly Bloom recalls having had too many oranges and too much lemonade at a party in 1895 in the Comerfords’ home in Clanbrassil Street.
My grandfather’s cousin, James Comerford, lived at 50 Upper Clanbrassil, and a plaque two doors away claims No 52 is Bloom’s birthplace. But the heart of the Jewish community in Dublin at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was in Lower Clanrassil Street. Instead, Joyce may have been referring to my grandfather’s eldest brother, James Comerford, who lived at 62 Lower Clanbrassil Street. But it was more convenient to erect that plaque in Upper Clanbrassil Street because No 52 Lower Clanbrassil Street has long been demolished in road-widening schemes.
Meanwhile, embarrassment at the explicit scenes portrayed by Joyce prevented family pride from finding public expression for many years.
Perhaps similar embarrassment prevented many people from owning the many Joycean references to the Church of Ireland. Ever since Ulysses was first published in Paris in 1922, the quintessential Irishman for many foreigners has been seen as a Dublin Jew, born to a Hungarian exile in an area known to this day as “Little Jerusalem”. But few readers and critics remember that Leopold Bloom was born and baptised into the Church of Ireland.
A number of Dublin Church of Ireland clergy, lay members and parish churches feature as important landmarks in both Ulysses and Joyce’s life story. In his early childhood, the Joyce family lived at 23 Castlewood Avenue, Rathmines, where their immediate neighbour at No 24 was William Jones of the Church of Ireland Temperance Society.
In 1887, the family moved to 1 Martello Terrace, Bray, where their neighbours were the Vance family, members of the Church of Ireland of Huguenot origins. Charles Vance is named in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, along with his daughter Eileen, who sent Joyce a Saint Valentine’s Day card at his school in Clongowes Wood. Later, she recalled no mention of the religious differences between their families, who even entertained the thought that they might marry.
Clongowes Wood was the former home of Archibald Hamilton Rowan, a leading Church of Ireland figure in the 1798 Rising. This later inspired Joyce to give the name Richard Rowan to the protagonist in his play, Exiles, set in the sedate avenues of Ranelagh near Sandford Parish Church.
After Joyce finished school at Belvedere College and before he entered UCD in 1898, the family moved to 29 Windsor Avenue, Fairview, where they had a particularly troublesome landlady named Love. There Joyce first read Ibsen’s plays and also renewed his childhood friendship with Eileen Vance. She later made an appearance in A Portrait, and perhaps it was this love for a Church of Ireland girl that never came to full bloom that prompted Joyce to give the name of his former landlady’s son to the Revd Hugh C Love, a Church of Ireland clergyman in Ulysses, where he is the landlord of Father Bob Cowley, who also lives at 29 Windsor Avenue.
The Joyce family lived in two more houses in Fairview before moving in May 1900 to 8 Royal Terrace, later known as Inverness Road. In the back garden, the Joyce children found two books that they called the “ashpit books” – a King James Version of the Bible and a hymnbook. The house and garden later featured in A Portrait.
In September 1904, three months after the first Bloomsday, Joyce was sharing the Martello Tower in Sandymount with Oliver St John Gogarty and Samuel Chenevix Trench. Although Joyce presents Trench as Haines, an Englishman, in Ulysses, he was a passionate advocate of the Irish language and a grandson of Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench of Dublin. His screaming and shooting during a nightmare forced Joyce to leave the tower.
Parish churches and chimes
No 29 Hardwicke Street, close to Saint George’s Church, Hardwicke Place, was one of the many homes of the Joyce family in the 1890s. In Ulysses, Bloom’s Odyssey begins when he pulled the hall door at 7 Eccles Street and then “crossed to the bright side, avoiding the loose cellarflap of number seventyfive. The sun was nearing the steeple of George’s church.” He returns to the house briefly to bring Molly her breakfast, and when he leaves the house once again the bells of Saint George’s chime out a quarter to nine.
Saint George’s, which also appears in The Boarding House, Stephen Hero, and Finnegans Wake, was closed in 1990 and has gone through many changes of use and ownership since then.
When he was writing Ulysses, Joyce went to great trouble to find out details of Our Lady Star of the Sea, the Roman Catholic Church in Sandymount, and he used the Jesuit Church of Saint Francis Xavier in many of his works. But he also had a detailed knowledge of many Church of Ireland parish churches.
The Black Church or Saint Mary’s Chapel-of-Ease in Saint Mary’s Place, which appears in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, was close to Fontenoy Street, where Joyce’s grandfather and aunts lived for a while at No 44, a house he visited while writing Ulysses. The church closed finally in 1962. At one point, Father John Conmee, a real priest who appears in Ulysses, passes the “Ivy Church” – the North Strand Episcopal Chapel on North Strand Road – on a tram.
There is one reference too in Ulysses to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the Cathedral Close. Other Church of Ireland churches in Dublin celebrated in Joyce’s works include: Saint Mark’s, Saint Michan’s, and Saint Nicholas Without, each referred to in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake; Saint Catherine’s, mentioned in ‘The Sisters,’ a short story in Dubliners; and Saint Laurence’s, Chapelizod, which appears in both ‘A Painful Case’ in Dubliners and in Finnegans Wake.
In Exiles, Joyce refers to the harmonium as the “asthmatic voice of protestantism.” But, while he was strongly critical of the Roman Catholic Church, he had a more benign attitude to the Church of Ireland. In the “Oxen of the Sun” discourse in Ulysses, a discussion about foot-and-mouth disease leads to the tale of the two bulls, a fable about the two main churches in Ireland. In Exiles, he challenges the prejudices towards the children of inter-Church marriages that lead to Bertha Rowan being called ‘the black protestant.’ In ‘Grace’ in Dubliners, he shows a gentle understanding of the dilemma of Tom Kernan, forced through an inter-church marriage to leave the Church of Ireland and become a Roman Catholic – a decision repeated by Leopold Bloom when he is re-baptised in Rathgar before he marries Molly.
Building on real people
Church of Ireland figures who appear in Ulysses include Archbishop William Alexander, the Revd Thomas Connellan, who ran a bookshop in Dawson Street, Dr George Salmon, Provost of TCD, the Revd Thomas R Greene, Incumbent of the Free Church, Charles Street, William A Boyd, general secretary of the Dublin YMCA, and Douglas Hyde, the rector’s son who later became President of Ireland.
Joycean scholars have used the clues in Ulysses to construct biographical portraits of Leopold Bloom. Shortly before his marriage to Ellen Higgins in August 1865, Rudolph Virag, a Hungarian Jew who had moved to Dublin, was baptised and received into the Church of Ireland by the Revd Thomas Wellard, and changed his name to Rudolph Bloom. Their first child, Leopold, was born in Clanbrassil Street in May 1866, and was baptised in Saint Nicholas Without, the parish church of the Coombe, by the Revd Gilmer Johnston. Leopold later went to the High School in Harcourt Street, where his science teacher is named Vance in honour of Eileen Vance’s pharmacist father.
Leopold’s baptism is a literary device, for Johnston is a fictitious character and the church was demolished in 1862. But Wellard was a real-life clergyman: at the time of Rudolph’s baptism he was clerical secretary of the Church of Ireland Jews’ Society, and by the time of the first Bloomsday in 1904 he was Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore.
Bloomsday marks the anniversary of the first time Joyce met Nora Barnacle. In her teens in Galway, Nora’s stern uncle strongly objected to her Church of Ireland boyfriend, Willie Mulvagh, and forced the couple to part. Joyce features Mulvagh in Ulysses as Mulvey, Molly Bloom’s lover under the Moorish walls in Gibraltar. Had Nora been allowed to marry Willie, she would never have met Joyce on 16 June 1904.
A heritage to recall
The area around Leonard’s Corner and Clanbrassil Street is still known as ‘Little Jerusalem.’ It was still at the heart of Dublin’s Jewish community in the 1950s and even in the 1960s, but today there are few remaining signs of that heritage, apart from the Irish Jewish Museum on Walworth Road.
The museum is housed in a former synagogue built in 1917 when two adjoining terraced houses were knocked together. The museum was opened 30 years ago in June 1985 by Chaim Herzog, who was then President of Israel. He was born in Belfast and grew up in Dublin, the son of a former Chief Rabbi of Ireland.
The museum exhibits include photographs of some of the Jewish characters mentioned in Ulysses, as well as many religious and other Jewish objects mentioned by Joyce.
There has never been any concern within the Dublin Jewish community about James Joyce’s portrayal of Leopold Bloom. The Jerusalem Post, reporting on a recent Bloomsday, noted: “Nobody has ever complained about the fictitious character Leopold Bloom. In fact, everyone enjoys it. Jews everywhere have accepted it as a story.”
The Bloomsday celebrations may not move any who have yet to read the book to rush out and buy Ulysses, which has been voted the Greatest Irish Novel, the greatest English-language novel, and the novel of the millennium. But Ulysses and Joyce both deserve to be better known among the members of the Church into which Leopold Bloom was baptised.
Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the June 2015 editions of the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)