15 June 2023
A virtual Odyssey
around Dublin churches
with Leopold Bloom on
the eve of Bloomsday
Tomorrow (Friday 16 June 2023) is the 119th anniversary of the day in 1904 on which Leopold Bloom wandered the streets of Dublin as a modern-day Odysseus and, after many adventures in his mind and in the city, found his way home on Bloomsday.
I am back in Dublin briefly, and on the eve of Bloomsday I thought it would be worth taking a ‘virtual tour’ of some of the churches named by James Joyce in Ulysses.
The best known church referred to in Ulysses is, perhaps, Saint George’s Church on Hardwicke Place. The bells that Bloom hears in his home at 7 Eccles Street are those of Saint George’s. The church was built at the beginning of 19th century. Its features include a 60-metre high spire and a four-column portico.
Francis Johnston, the architect who designed Saint George’s, was a keen campanologist and he presented the set of eight bells to the parish where they rang in the New Year for the first time on 1 January 1829.
The ‘Calypso’ episode restarts the story of Ulysses in Bloom’s home at 7 Eccles Street at 8 am on the morning of 16 June 1904.
When Bloom crosses ‘to the bright side’ of Eccles Street in ‘’Calypso, he can see the sun ‘nearing the steeple of George’s church.’ At the end of the chapter, he hears the bells in the steeple winding up to sound the time: ‘A creak and a dark whirr in the air high up. The bells of George’s church. They tolled the hour: loud dark iron.’ It is 8:45.
The bells are heard ringing in ‘Circe,’ ‘Ithaca’, and ‘Penelope’.
As various Dubliners prepare to execute Bloom in ‘Circe’, ‘The bells of George’s church toll slowly, loud dark iron,’ repeating not only the lovely description of their sound in ‘Calypso’ but also the nursery-rhyme sense that Bloom heard in them: ‘Heigho! Heigho!’
Later, when Bloom is apotheosised as Lord Mayor, monarch, and Saviour, ‘Joybells ring in Christ church, Saint Patrick’s, George's and gay Malahide’ – references to Christ Church Cathedral and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and to either Saint Andrew’s or Saint Sylvester’s in Malahdie.
The pediment of Saint George’s Church, Hardwicke Place, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
‘Ithaca’ marks the approach of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom to Bloom’s house by noting that ‘they crossed both the circus before George's church’ – the semicircular plaza before the church’s façade.
As the two men bid each other adieu midway through the episode, and as Molly lies in bed in ‘Penelope’, the church’s bells sound again, announcing the times as, respectively, 1:30 and 2 am.
Saint George’s Church closed in 1990, was deconsecrated in 1991 and has had many uses since, including a night club and theatre. The bells that Bloom hears ringing are now in Taney Church in Dundrum, where they were rung to mark Bloomsday for the first time last year (2022).
The interior of Saint Andrew’s Church, Westland Row, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In ‘Lotus Eaters,’ Bloom stands outside Saint Andrew's Church reading a notice about a mission to convert people in China to the Catholic faith, and it makes him think about recruiting campaigns closer to home: ‘Prayers for the conversion of Gladstone they had too when he was almost unconscious. The protestants are the same. Convert Dr William J. Walsh D.D. to the true religion.’
When Bloom visits the church on Westland Row, he muses in and extended interior monologue about religion and the Catholic Church. Joyce names the church All Hallows in Ulysses, but Joyce is referring to Saint Andrew’s Church where my great-grandparents were married in 1851, and where my grandfather was baptised in 1867 and married his first wife in 1899.
Bloom has been baptised Catholic, but is intrigued as he watches the congregation receiving Communion: ‘Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first. Hospice for the dying. They don’t seem to chew it; only swallow it down. Rum idea: eating bits of a corpse …’
In ‘Ithaca’ readers learn that during his high school years Bloom expressed ‘disbelief in the tenets of the Irish church,’ a reference to the Church of Ireland in which he was raised. He was baptised in Saint Nicholas Without in the Coombe, by the Revd Gilmer Johnston. But this baptism is a literary device, for Johnston is a fictitious character and the church was demolished in 1862.
Leopold Bloom later became a Roman Catholic, and was baptised again by Father Charles Malone in the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar, prior to his marriage to Molly Tweedy.
In ‘Hades’, Tom Kernan, who followed a similar course and like Bloom and was never fully convinced of his Catholicism, tries to engage Bloom in covert criticism of a funeral Mass they attend:
— The reverend gentleman read the service too quickly, don’t you think? Mr Kernan said with reproof.
Mr Bloom nodded gravely looking in the quick bloodshot eyes. Secret eyes, secret searching eyes. Mason, I think: not sure. Beside him again. We are the last. In the same boat. Hope he’ll say something else.
Mr Kernan added:
— The service of the Irish church used in Mount Jerome is simpler, more impressive I must say.
Mr Bloom gave prudent assent.
The reference is to the Church of Ireland parish church of Harold’s Cross beside Mount Jerome cemetery.
From the top of Nelson’s Pillar, the two women in Stephen’s story ‘see the roofs and argue about where the different churches are: Rathmines’ blue dome, Adam and Eve’s, saint Laurence O’Toole’s.’
Looking for such landmarks suggests that Anne Kearns and Florence MacCabe are pious women, but church spires and domes made up most of the landmarks on Dublin’s skyline in 1904.
Why has Stephen chosen these particular churches?
Perhaps their divergent angles from the pillar enable him to evoke the panoramic view the two women gaint by walking about the viewing platform at the top of the pillar. It is possible, though, that the history of Irish politics and nationalism may play a part in this choice too.
‘Rathmines’ blue dome’ is the Church of Our Lady of Refuge or, more fully, the Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners. Although they describe the dome as having a blue appearance, many would say the large oxidized copper dome is green.
A fire destroyed the church in January 1920 and the entire heavy dome smashed down onto the floor of the church. A beautiful new dome was completed in 1923, taller and more elaborate than its predecessor. It too was designed to weather to a blue-green hue, and, as I described it on this blog last Saturday, it continues to provide a striking visual landmark.
‘Adam and Eve’s’ is the popular name among Dubliners for the Church of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, the Franciscan church on Merchant’s Quay that also figures prominently in Finnegans Wake.
The third church, Saint Laurence O’Toole’s, is a Gothic Revival limestone structure built in the 1840s and 1850s in Seville Place, close to the Dublin Docks. Its majestic four-stage tower and spire were said to be the last landmark seen by emigrants leaving Ireland from the North Wall.
Two of the churches had nationalist associations. Saint Laurence O’Toole was the first Irishman elected Archbishop of Dublin, a town ruled by the Danes and the Norse. He was canonised by Pope Honorius III in 1225 and later became Dublin’s patron saint.
‘Adam and Eve’s’ takes its popular name from mass-goers during the Penal Laws entered through the Franciscan church through the Adam and Eve Tavern next door.
Joyce mentions the church’s services in Cyclops, when the narrator despises Bob Doran for ‘talking against the Catholic religion, and he serving mass in Adam and Eve’s when he was young with his eyes shut, who wrote the new testament, and the old testament.’
In ‘Ithaca’, Stephen and Bloom find a spiritual bond in belonging to despised faith communities: ‘their dispersal, persecution, survival and revival: the isolation of their synagogical and ecclesiastical rites in ghetto (S. Mary’s Abbey) and masshouse (Adam and Eve’s tavern): the proscription of their national costumes in penal laws and jewish dress acts: the restoration in Chanah David of Zion and the possibility of Irish political autonomy or devolution.’
When the Stafford Street Synagogue closed in 1836, Dublin’s Jewish congregation moved to premises at 12 Mary’s Abbey, off Capel Street, and remained there for almost two generations until 1892.
The new synagogue was Dublin’s fourth, and, like its predecessors, this was not a purpose-built synagogue, but the former chapel of a small Presbyterian group known as the Non-Burghers or Seceders, who later went on to join similar groups in forming the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
Saint Mary’s Abbey, which gives its name to nearby Abbey Street, was founded by the French Cistercians in 1147 on the site of an older Benedictine foundation. The chapter house was used as the meeting place for the king’s council, and it was there ‘Silken’ Thomas Fitzgerald renounced his allegiance to Henry VIII and started his ill-fated rebellion. The abbey was dissolved at the Reformation in 1539 and its lands were divided.
The last Sabbath service was conducted at Mary’s Abbey on 5 December 1892. On the following Saturday, Jews and Christians attended the dedication of an ornate purpose-built synagogue at Adelaide Road, that remained open until 1999.
As for the Rathmines church, it is said the members of the Dublin IRA, assisted by a church official who belonged to ‘A’ Company, had slept in the church when police came looking for them in their houses. When the fire broke out in 1920, it turned out that the IRA had also been hiding large quantities of weapons and ammunition in the church.
There are references too in Ulysses to the ‘quiet church’ from which the sound of prayer ‘streamed forth at times.’ The church is obliquely named at the end of the sentence, when we learn that the prayers are addressed to ‘Mary, star of the sea,’ a reference to the Church of Mary Star of the Sea in Sandymount.
Prayers are being addressed to the Virgin Mary late on a Thursday evening during a temperance retreat in the church. Joyce had represented such a retreat once before, in ‘Grace,’ the penultimate story in Dubliners. There, the retreat takes place in ‘the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street,’ in the north inner city, close to Saint George’s Church.