The old music-hall song Finnegan’s Wake was made famous by The Dubliners and Ronnie Drew, whose gravelly voice has been compared to the sound of a Coca-Cola bottle being crushed underneath a closing wooden door. The song is also noted for providing the basis for James Joyce’s famously impenetrable novel of the same name.
There’s another connection between The Dubliners and Joyce in that the balladeers were originally called the Ronnie Drew Ballad Group but they didn’t like that name and were trying to think of another. They came up with the new moniker when Luke Kelly took to reading Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners. The rest is history.
This connection is but one example of how Joyce has not only achieved legendary status in the international literary canon, but, like Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly, he has become inextricably knitted into the fabric of Irish life and popular culture.
Van Morrison, in his song Too Long in Exile, compares himself to Joyce with the line, “Been too long in exile, just like James Joyce, baby.” The Pogues drew inspiration from a classic 1929 photograph of Joyce to create the montage of photos of themselves and the writer that appeared on the sleeve of their album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Even further afield, in the United States, the 1960s rock band Jefferson Airplane drew extensively from Ulysses for their song Rejoice.
Several film versions of Joyce’s work have been attempted with varying degrees of success, including Ulysses (1967) starring Milo O’Shea and Barbara Jefford, Nora (2000), starring Ewan McGregor and Susan Lynch, and Bloom (2003), starring Stephen Rea and Angeline Ball. But the most successful was John Huston’s version of The Dead, which was described by Huston’s daughter, Angelica (who starred in the film with Irish actor Donal McCann), as her father’s love letter to Ireland and the Irish.
Although he lived most of his life outside of Ireland, Joyce’s writing is filled with Dublin City. Of Ulysses, he said, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day disappeared it could be reconstructed from my book.” The story of Ulysses, which traces the physical and mental wanderings of its hero, Leopold Bloom, takes place on one day, June 16. Revealing his romantic side, Joyce famously picked this date because it was the day on which he first rendezvoused with the love of his life, Nora Barnacle.
June 16 has since become known throughout the world as Bloomsday and nowadays it is celebrated in more than 60 countries. Over the years, Dublin has responded to this literary glory and the resultant tourism bonanza by etching Joyce’s work into the city’s infrastructure. There’s the statue of Joyce on North Earl Street, the Joyce Museum in Sandycove, the James Joyce Centre on North Great George’s Street and the 14 bronze plaques embedded into the pavement in a series of streets from Liffey Street to the National Museum on Kildare Street. The plaques follow the footsteps of the fictional Bloom.
Then there’s the miraculously preserved Sweny’s Pharmacy on Lincoln Place, just down the road from Trinity College. Joyce shopped there, as does the fictional Bloom in Ulysses’ Chapter Five, called The Lotus Eaters, in which Bloom first visits the shop. He plans to stop off to bathe in a local Turkish baths facility and when he smells the pharmacy’s signature lemon soap, he takes a bar of it with him, carrying it in his pocket as something of a talisman.
A BABEL OF TONGUES
Virtually unchanged over the years, Sweny’s is evocative of Joyce’s Dublin. Among the many curiosities on display there are translations of Joyce’s work in a variety of languages, including Hebrew, Korean, Chinese, Ukrainian and Russian. Run by a team of dedicated volunteers, it is open all year round, including Christmas Day. Joyce aficionados come from all over the planet to soak up the ambience and take part in daily readings in several languages, including Portuguese, French and Italian. “When Joyce lovers come from anywhere in the world, naturally they end up in here,” says Sweny’s Chief Executive Officer, PJ Murphy. “We’re a welcoming place. The actor Gabriel Byrne has been in, as has an apparently famous Japanese pop star whose name I don’t recall. The Swedish ambassador comes in quite a lot and the Greek ambassador gave a reading at the breakfast two years ago. For us, the most important thing is that people come in for a friendly visit or join us for a reading.”
The Irish writer Edna O’Brien has been in. “Young Joyce studied medicine,” says PJ. “And Edna O’Brien was a chemist. In fact, she made a documentary about her life and part of it was filmed in our premises. And, of course, she was a very controversial writer in her time, as was Joyce in his. Ulysses was banned in the United States and England the ban wasn’t lifted in the US until 1933.”
The pharmacy oozes history. It was built in 1847 as a consulting room for a Doctor Sweny. He passed it on to his son Frederick, who was a chemist and opened it in 1853 as a dispensing chemist. “It’s now a chemist museum,” says PJ. “It functioned as a chemist’s in the Sweny family until 1926, when the last Frederick died. Unfortunately, his son was shot and killed in 1916. That had a big effect on him and as a result he ended up dying in the psychiatric hospital in Grangegorman.”
Sweny’s is a mainstay of Bloomsday celebrations in Dublin and hosts an annual Bloomsday Breakfast across the road in Kennedy’s Pub, which is also mentioned in Ulysses, although it was called Conway’s at the time. The breakfast is an exuberant affair consisting of much banter, music, song, craic and, of course, the requisite performances of the great man’s work. Former RTE newsreader Anne Doyle and Senator David Norris are among the many well-known faces who are inclined to pop in on the day. “We start very early and end up very late,” says PJ. “Of course, people dress up in Edwardian gear. They usually carry a copy of Ulysses with them and read from their favourite extracts. But most importantly they purchase a bar of our lemon soap. Lemon soap cost four old pennies in 1904 and now costs five euros a bar. Funnily enough, a pint of stout cost two pence in 1904 and now also costs a fiver.”
As a struggling writer and the father of two children, Lucia and Giorgio, Joyce was always short of money and sometimes found it difficult to survive financially, depending on patrons like Sylvia Beecham, who published Ulysses in Paris. Likewise, Sweny’s also is dependent on the kindness of benefactors. The building that houses it is currently up for sale – the pharmacy occupies the ground floor and there are apartments upstairs. “It’s a protected building,” says PJ. “The outside is anyway. I’m not so sure about the inside. We’re hoping the new buyer will support our endeavours.”
Sweny’s website is at http://sweny.ie/site/