James Joyce, Ulysses and Ennis

Church Street, Ennis at the end of the nineteenth century.

Church Street, Ennis at the end of the nineteenth century.

I’ve just finished reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. A pleasant surprise that awaited me between its covers was several mentions of my hometown of Ennis. Compared to the brouhaha Dubliners make out of even the most passing of references to landmarks in their city, Ennis people are either ignorant of (as I was before reading the book) or indifferent to their town being written about in one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated (and notorious) novels.

The Queen's Hotel, Ennis.

The Queen’s Hotel, Ennis.

Ennis figures in Ulysses in the context of main character Leopold Bloom’s father, Rudolph, having committed suicide in the Queen’s Hotel (of which he was the owner) on the 27th of June, 1886. The first reference to this occurs during the book’s funeral section:

 Martin Cunningham whispered:

—I was in mortal agony with you talking of suicide before Bloom.

—What? Mr Power whispered. How so?

—His father poisoned himself, Martin Cunningham whispered. Had the Queen’s hotel in Ennis. You heard him say he was going to Clare. Anniversary.

—O God! Mr Power whispered. First I heard of it. Poisoned himself?

 The Queen’s Hotel, right beside the thirteenth century Franciscan abbey, is in the oldest part of Ennis and one of the town’s most elegant and well known buildings. It probably started off life as some sort of medieval tower house (it’s location is marked in old maps as “great gate”), but has been a hotel for well over a century. In the novel’s next reference to Ennis other spots around the town are mentioned:

In sloping, upright and backhands: Queen’s Hotel, Queen’s Hotel, Queen’s Hotel. Queen’s Ho…

What suggested scene was then reconstructed by Bloom?

The Queen’s Hotel, Ennis, county Clare, where Rudolph Bloom (Rudolf Virag) died on the evening of the 27 June 1886, at some hour unstated, in consequence of an overdose of monkshood (aconite) selfadministered in the form of a neuralgic liniment composed of 2 parts of aconite liniment to 1 of chloroform liniment (purchased by him at 10.20 a.m. on the morning of 27 June 1886 at the medical hall of Francis Dennehy , 17 Church street, Ennis) after having, though not in consequence of having, purchased at 3.15 p.m. on the afternoon of 27 June 1886 a new boater straw hat, extra smart (after having, though not in consequence of having, purchased at the hour and in the place aforesaid, the toxin aforesaid), at the general drapery store of James Cullen, 4 Main street, Ennis.


M.T. Tierney's, 17 Abbey Street, Ennis.

M.F. Tierney’s, 17 Abbey Street, Ennis.

While the Queen’s Hotel was (and is) a real place, the two premises referred to in the above passage are most likely fictitious. Let’s take the medical hall of Francis Dennehy , 17 Church street. Around 1900, Church street’s name was changed to Abbey street, so Joyce at least got the name right — it would have been Abbey street when he was writing Ulysses but Church street back in 1886, when Rudolph Bloom was strolling up and down it. But is there a 17 Abbey street? There is indeed! M. F. Tierney’s colourful old-time bicycle, fishing, toy and souvenir shop occupies this spot. Intriguingly, right beside Tierney’s is a medical hall — O’Connell’s. This was formerly Bogler’s medical, hall, which was selling medicines and remedies when my father was in short pants, and might possibly have been a medical hall for decades before this, stretching back to the late nineteenth century, but I have no means of proving it. The old photographs I have been able to get my hands on of Church street do not clearly show the area of interest either side of the lane that separates Tierney’s and O’Connell’s. Bassett’s Directory of 1875-76, which lists all the extant businesses in the town, gives a “druggist” called Ellen F. Ryan as having a premises in Church street. 1893’s Guy’s Directory lists Seymour’s medical hall as the only one on Church street. This was in existence up until I was a teenager, believe it or not, but is at the top of the street, where Gallagher’s opticians is at present. As for the surname, Dennehy, an unusual one for Clare, I could find no Dennehy in the town in the 1901 census. Is it possible that Ellen F. Ryan’s premises were 16 Church street and somehow went unrecorded in Guy’s Directory and could it be that Joyce mixed up 16 and 17 Church street and put a fictitious name over the door?

O'Connell's Medical Hall, 16 Abbey Street, Ennis.

O’Connell’s Medical Hall, 16 Abbey Street, Ennis.

What about the general drapery store of James Cullen, 4 Main street, Ennis? To start with, there is and never has been a Main street in Ennis. Might Joyce have confused it with High street? Or O’Connell street, which is the town’s de facto main street? Returning to Bassett’s Directory, there was no Cullen listed as owning a drapery anywhere in the town a decade before Rudolph purchased his hat. There is a Culligan, though, in Church street, and who was still open for business in 1893, according to Guy. Could this Culligan be Joyce’s Cullen?

The final question is why Joyce chose to use Ennis in Ulysses. He had no links with the town. It is not even clear if he even passed through Ennis, not to mind stayed there. It is certain that Joyce visited Galway, home of his wife, Nora Barnacle. From Galway he travelled to the Aran Islands, for example. Could he have somehow found himself in Ennis either going to or from Galway or on some day trip out of the city? Who knows? We’ll leave the last word to Joyce:

 What other objects relative to Rudolph Bloom (born Virag) were in the 2nd drawer?

An indistinct daguerreotype of Rudolf Virag and his father Leopold Virag executed in the year 1852 in the portrait atelier of their (respectively) 1st and 2nd cousin, Stefan Virag of Szesfehervar, Hungary. An ancient haggadah book in which a pair of hornrimmed convex spectacles inserted marked the passage of thanksgiving in the ritual prayers for Pessach (Passover): a photocard of the Queen’s Hotel, Ennis, proprietor, Rudolph Bloom . . .


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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4 Responses to James Joyce, Ulysses and Ennis

  1. I’ve not read Ulysses, however is on the list. How awesome to have a famous, historical novel be written with your home town in it!

  2. I have just come across your blog and I note that you come from Ennis – and that the people in Ennis are unaware or indifferent that your town gets significant mention in Joyce’s Ulysses. I have the same sensation. I come from Shanagolden in Co. Limerick. This village is mentioned in Chapter 12 of this great epic – and years ago when I would tell local people about it they were amazed. I spent all my professional life teaching in Dublin – first as a Science (Chemistry & Biology) and later as a Computer Science teacher. I’m now retired and live – sometimes in Dublin – but more often than not – in Inagh, Co. Clare.

  3. Further to my comment above: Joyce parodies the poetry of James Clarence Mangan in Chapter 12 of Ulysses. James Clarence Mangan’s father was a schoolteacher in Shanagolden until he was sacked because of alcoholism. He and the family then moved to Dublin. Joyce always had a love of Mangan’s poetry and an empathy with his sad life. Bye the way, Shanagolden is mentioned in Line 1314

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