“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
This is the first line of Ulysses by James Joyce – a great work of fiction that introduced the “stream of consciousness” to English literature – but also a book that many a person has started and never finished. The opening chapter is set in a Martello tower on the coast at Sandycove, a small seaside resort just outside Dublin (well, its part of the Dublin sprawl these days). The tower is one of a series of small defensive structures that were constructed on the coast in Britain, Ireland and some other parts of the British Empire during the Napoleonic wars. They’re very strong with thick brick walls and would have had a cannon on the top.
Joyce spent six nights in the tower from 9 to 15 September 1904. His friend Oliver St John Gogarty, who the character, Buck Mulligan, is based on, had rented it from the War Office. Another occupant of the tower during Joyce’s stay was an Anglo-Irishman, Samuel Chenevix Trench, who appears as the character Haines in the book. Joyce fled the tower after he was woken by Trench who was screaming, having had a nightmare involving a panther. Trench picked up a revolver and fired several shots into the fireplace, after which Gogarty grabbed a .22 rifle and fired at a collection of pans above Joyce’s bed.
Today the tower has been converted into a museum celebrating the life of Joyce and his masterpiece. We called in on the morning of our last day in Ireland on the way back to Dublin to catch the mid-afternoon ferry. On the ground floor there is a small collection of exhibits including a couple of death masks, some letters and portraits and photographs. There are a number of his personal possessions including his guitar , a waistcoat made by his grandmother and his cigar case. Taking pride of place is a first edition of Ulysses, published by Shakespeare & Co in 1922.
The first floor the sleeping quarters have been recreated, just as they would have been when Joyce stayed there. From here you can climb up a very narrow staircase up onto the roof where you get a good view out to sea and along the coast as far as the Liffey estuary. You can also make out the nearby “Forty foot” – an open air swimming pool which also features in chapter 1 of Ulysees as its here where Buck Mulligan takes his morning dip. It’s really just a partially enclosed section of the sea and originally was for men only (in the buff!) although today mixed bathing is permitted and “Togs must be worn after 9am.” People swim here all year round – they must be crazy! The “forty foot” is nothing to do with the depth or width of the pool; rather it’s named after the Fortieth Foot Regiment of the British Army who used to be stationed near here.