Wednesday, June 8, 2016

How a nightmare stay inspired a classic

Imagine staying a few days in a cramped stone tower with more smoke wafting through the living quarters than light and being awoken in the middle of the night by one man yelling about a panther and another man firing a gun at the shelf above your bed.

Like a rock. Granite used to build the tower, right, came from the surrounding coast.
It would be enough to drive anyone off into the night in search of different lodgings just as James Joyce did when this happened to him in 1904. These days, though, we might write a scathing TripAdvisor review in response. ("Lucky to have escaped alive. If the poor accommodations don't kill you, the other guests might. Very small bathroom.")

Joyce, being Joyce, used it to inspire the first chapter of Ulysses.

The tower is one of 18 the Irish military built along the coasts to keep watch for and guard against Napoleon's forces. This one opened in 1804 – a full century before Joyce's fateful stay.

Fellow grad student Mary Hays and I stand in the tower's living area.

By Joyce's day, the towers became like coastal cottages. And this one, in Sandycove south of Dublin, belonged to Oliver St. John Gogarty, who at the time was a budding poet. Joyce, however, had recently ripped Gogarty' writing but still agreed to stay with him and one of Gogarty's English friends from Oxford, Samuel Chenevix Trench.

Trench proved to be a challenging roommate from the start. He became so adamant that Irish culture must protect itself, that he rooted out all "foreign" products from tower, which included the Belgian-made gas lamp globe, according to our guide Anne. That caused the room to be overwhelmingly smoky and always dim as long as the lamp was on.

Someone gave the tower a panther.
Then it starts getting weirder. When Trench started having nightmares about being attacked in the night by a black panther by the fireplace. He pulled out his gun and fired bullets in the direction of the fireplace.

Gogarty, an aspiring physician, calmed Trench and confiscated the gun. He promised to defend Trench if it happened again. The second time Trench had the dream on Joyce's sixth night at the tower, Trench again awoke shouting in the middle of the night. Inexplicably, Gogarty took out Trench's gun and fired shots at the items on the shelf above the bed where Joyce was sleeping. That was it for him. Anne, our tour guide, said Joyce gathered up his things, left the tower and walked the seven miles back to central Dublin.

Gogarty became the model for the Buck Mulligan character, Trench is Haines and Joyce is Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses. And now that tower is the Joyce Tower.

Dr. Peter Murphy, left foreground, prepares to lead us in a group reading of Ulysses' first chapter.
In addition to the tour, our group took turns performing parts of the first chapter in a dramatic reading at the top of the tower overlooking the town of Sandycove, south Dublin and Dublin Bay.

My former colleague at the Herald-Leader, Jack Brammer, made reading Ulysses one of his New Years resolutions several years in a row. I guess I'll have to do the same now. Or maybe I'll just resolve to write my own stream-of-consciousness modernist novel if I have a rough stay in an Airbnb.

Even this picture of my knee and Mary Hays ahead of me can't fully capture how narrow the tower's steps are.
Outside the tower, people swam in Dublin Bay. On a day that was not warm. In water that was much, much colder. They are brave.

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