By Anita Rao-Kashi
A stiff breeze blew in from the sea, screeching through the arched holes of the stone tower, slapping around everything in its wake. Angry grey clouds hugged the horizon, swelling in ominous patterns and threatening to unleash a deluge. A long way below, the sea roiled and churned, as waves crashed against the rocks. There was a wild, raw beauty to the scene, something that probably left enough of a lasting impression on James Joyce to prompt him to open with it in Ulysses (1922).
From the vantage point atop James Joyce Tower and Museum in Sandycove, the town of Dun Laoghaire (usually pronounced done-lear-y) looked pretty with gabled houses painted in pastel colours interspersed with an occasional bright blue or green. And yet, it was the wide expanse of the sea that drew attention. But try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to see it as “the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.” An occasional zig-zag of lightning lit the far horizon with a mild rumble of thunder a few seconds later, but it was nowhere near the Biblical thunderclap that he invented a 100-letter word for in Finnegans Wake (1939).
Rather, as my train sped South from Dublin along the eponymous bay earlier that morning, it provided glimpses of beautiful bluish-green sea sparkling under a bright sun, puffy clouds and oodles of prettiness before it deposited me in Dun Laoghaire. It was a town known for its charming seaside and a popular swimming attraction, even in early winter. But for Joyceans (as Joyce fans refer to themselves), it’s a pilgrimage to be undertaken at least once in their lifetime. And it was not difficult to see why.
My meanderings through Dun Laoghaire took me through little streets flanked by lovely town houses and cottages, quirky shops and boutique stores. At Naughton Booksellers, I browsed through antiquarian and rare books. But my wanderings eventually took me to the museum by the sea. Much before, an etched stone caught my attention. It stood under a leafless tree next to a wooden bench which looked out to the sea. Placed in 1983 on the occasion of Joyce’s birth centenary, it carried the words from Ulysses: “…he gazed southward over the bay, empty save for the smokeplume of the mailboat vague on the bright skyline, and a sail tacking by the Muglins”.
At the end of the road stood the tower and I was happy to step in; the weather had suddenly turned stormy and a shroud of grey seemed to descend. The tower was one of several Martello towers built by the British as defensive forts in the early 19th century in anticipation of a French attack. Over 50 were built all over Ireland, 16 of which were South of Dublin. The attack never came, and eventually the towers were demilitarised and rented to civilians. Oliver Gogarty, a friend of Joyce’s, rented the tower in Sandycove and invited the author as well as another friend, Samuel Trench, in September 1904. It was fairly large in diameter and rose three storeys high with an open terrace for the cannon. A round platform in the centre with rails ensured the cannon could be swivelled in any direction. It was here that Joyce set the opening of his novel, with the famous beginning: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
Joyce accepted his friend’s invitation. The three of them slept in the first floor room, in itself round and a bit disorienting. Legend has it that on the sixth night Joyce was shocked out of his slumber by a crazed-looking Trench firing a revolver at an imaginary black panther. A terrified Joyce left the next morning; a month later he left Ireland altogether, never to return. His travels took him to continental Europe, where his writing career took off, until his death in 1941 in Zurich. The writer is adored and hated in equal measure, and his books have been variously described as dense, abstract, enigmatic, bizarre and notoriously difficult. He probably had a sense of his own inscrutability since he is supposed to have declared, “The only demand that I make of my reader is that they should devote their whole life to reading my works.” His last uttered words were: “Does nobody understand?”
The museum’s display rooms were filled with all kinds of eclectic memorabilia. His vest, the guitar he used, a first edition of Ulysses published by Sylvia Beach, a neck tie Joyce gave Samuel Beckett who donated it to the museum, his walking stick, all of which sat amidst such unsettling things as two death masks and a plaster cast of his face after he died. More absorbing was the upper room which had been recreated to look like what it would have when he stayed, with cot, shelf, table and a hammock in the corner. That’s also where it was the most Joycean: a large black ceramic panther, clearly referencing the one conjured up by Trench.
The views from the tower were compelling and I went back for one last look before heading back. The sky had cleared somewhat and the sea was brighter and more cheerful. The scene looked more like something William Turner could have painted. There was no Joycean epiphany. But another line suggested itself: “There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present.”
(Anita Rao-Kashi is a writer based in Bengaluru)