“Cityful passing away, other cityful coming, passing away too: other coming on, passing on.” 1 Thus muses Leopold Bloom on the transience of cities in the “Lestrygonians” episode of Ulysses. What that novel copiously demonstrates is that no version of the city ever really disappears, that every city contains within itself all its past iterations. Thus, Dublin as it was in the summer of 1904 is still available to us, both directly through the streets and spaces and buildings that survive from that time, and indirectly, through memories, through written and visual records.
No version of a city ever really disappears; every city contains within itself all its past iterations.
Among such records are a number of the better known photographs from the Constantine Curran and Helen Laird Collection held in the library of University College Dublin. A set of images of Eccles Street and its environs show the 1904 address of Leopold Bloom, while, in a photograph made in 1904 at Curran’s home, James Joyce stands hands in pockets, head tilted, staring into the lens. 2 In the nature of photographs, each — the Eccles Street set and the Joyce portrait — is bound to the facts of its making and the view it records. But, like the city itself, each also has more complex spatial and temporal dimensions. In these photographs it is always Dublin in the summer of 1904, but it is always other times and other places as well.
In this same spirit, recalling some 40 years later his reading of the manuscript of Stephen Hero, Curran notes,
I believe I read all the text written before he left Dublin in 1904, but my recollection of it is insecure. It is an untrustworthy composite doubly and trebly overlaid with my acquaintance with familiar places and people and later talk about them, with my knowledge of happenings as they actually occurred, and with the recurrence of episodes in the Portrait of the Artist, where they are more abruptly and sharply delineated. 3
Such uncertainties notwithstanding, a composite of evidence of different kinds allows us to be reasonably precise about when and where the 1904 photograph of Joyce was taken. Of course, the photograph is reproduced in duotone on the cover of Curran’s James Joyce Remembered and although even in this book it is sometimes credited as 1902, Curran confirms in the text that “It was at this time, in the summer of 1904, that I took the photograph … in the garden of my father’s home.” 4
In this photograph it is always Dublin in the summer of 1904, but it is always other times and other places as well.
The Curran home was at 6 Cumberland Place on the North Circular Road. This was the easternmost of a terrace of six houses built in 1851. 5 The terrace was among the earliest to be completed along what was still a relatively undeveloped stretch of the road, which, together with its counterpart, the South Circular Road, were often taken to demarcate the city perimeter. 6 The individual plots of the terrace were quite narrow (24 feet, or about eight meters) but deep, with 60 feet (or just under 20 meters) of garden to the front and another 100 feet (or 30 meters) of garden to the rear.
When, during 1902 and 1903, Joyce lived with his family at 7 St. Peter’s Terrace — another set of six houses, of more modest scale and more recently built — it would have taken less than ten minutes to walk to Curran’s house. But following the death of his mother and his sojourn in Paris the previous year, Joyce had become more peripatetic. Since late March 1904 he had been living in “a very large room which spanned the first floor of a house” at 60 Shelbourne Road on the other side of the city. 7 From there, the journey to Cumberland Place would have taken over an hour on foot. This was therefore more likely a pre-arranged visit than a casual call on a neighbor.
Curran and Joyce did meet relatively frequently during this period, with Curran engaged in reading the Stephen Hero manuscript. “Most often,” Curran writes, “we met in some café, Bewley’s in Westmoreland Street was our favourite, but I recall no higher ‘altitude’ than Blaquiere Bridge over the Royal Canal at Phibsboro’ where once I found him waiting, stretched along the parapet in the pose of the Elgin Marbles Theseus with no other resemblance to the Greek than appears in the photograph I took of him at that time in the garden of our house.” As if prompted by the memory, Curran then asserts: “This photograph may well have been taken that particular day.” 8
The Curran home was on the North Circular Road, a relatively undeveloped stretch often taken to demarcate the city perimeter.
Meeting at the bridge — which spanned a part of the canal filled in during the 1930s to create the Blessington Basin Park — would make sense if Joyce were coming on foot from Shelbourne Road. His most likely route would bring him over Butt Bridge, up Gardiner Street and Eccles Street. 9 If he were on the tram, it could have come from Sackville Street and dropped him at the bridge, although the tramline did also run along the North Circular Road past Curran’s house.
Despite the tramline, this area would still have felt somewhat undeveloped, even rural. A trainline brought cattle into the large market that lay across the road, just beyond the boundary wall of the Grangegorman grounds. And directly behind the lane at the back of Curran’s house, fields extended north and west. However close to the center, this was still the city’s frontier. How freshly odd this liminal condition must have felt to Joyce, recently returned from metropolitan Paris.
So when, in the summer of 1904, was the photograph taken? A closer look at the site yields more clues. From the 1909 Ordnance Survey six-inch map, it is evident that the glasshouse in front of which Joyce stands was built against a north-facing wall in front of a storage shed that spanned the width of the rear of the site and was accessed from the lane as well as from the garden. A sun-path analysis of the shadows cast by the joists of the glasshouse confirms that the photograph must have been taken on a mid-afternoon between late April and late May. 10 Given Curran’s own reference to the photograph being taken in summer, it seems reasonable to assume the later end of this date range. The level of growth of the foliage in the garden accords with this early summer timing.
Curran had been away in Italy in March and notes that he didn’t see Joyce “until he had moved to Shelbourne Road and was beginning his singing lessons.” In fact it was a loan from Curran that allowed Joyce to move a small grand piano into his new lodgings. 11 This was a period during which Joyce was regularly seeking loans, so his often cited response to the question about what he was thinking when Curran took the photograph — “I was wondering if he would lend me a few shillings” — may have been more factual than humorous. 12
However close to the center, this was still the city’s frontier. How freshly odd this liminal condition must have felt to Joyce, recently returned from Paris.
In one of the few detailed discussions of Curran’s photograph, Eloise Knowlton compares it to a formal graduation portrait of Joyce from 1902. (Curran also made two well-known group photographs on the occasion, including himself in one.) She opposes the staged realism of that photograph to the more informal aesthetic of Curran’s garden portrait: “The 1904 snapshot of a lounging, full-face, hands-in-pockets Joyce partakes of the camera’s ability, newly wielded by ordinary people, to re-present, rather than represent an arbitrary, fleeting, casual instant in time.” 13 She goes on to assert that “While the graduation portrait presents us with a controlled, determinate, and clearly intended signification, the Curran photo participates in a different notion of image, one understood as casual, accidental, arbitrary, mechanical, objective, contingent, efficient, and historically embedded.” 14 The point is somewhat undermined by the fact that the photograph is not the product of one of the new portable Brownie cameras that had just come on the market, but was instead taken with a more old-fashioned view camera. To take a photograph such as this requires time and deliberation, and the willing participation of the subject. Curran would have had to set up the camera on its tripod, adjust the lens and bellows, duck beneath the black cloth to study the composition, reversed and inverted, on the gridded viewfinder, before opening the shutter and fixing the image on the six-and-a-half-inch by four-and-three-quarter-inch half-plate glass negative.
This is by no means a “snapshot.” It is more posed and deliberate than that. Accordingly, Joyce has time to strike and hold a pose for the camera: Curran refers to him showing “a certain humorous bravado in dress and carriage.” 15 This was a period when Joyce was occasionally performing concerts and practicing hard for the Feis Ceoil (a competition in which he would eventually place third, having refused to sing the sight-reading composition). It may be serendipitous that the Irish Times’ notice on May 17 of Joyce’s third-place commendation is placed in Ellmann’s biography beside a cropped version of the 1904 photograph. Might the photograph have been taken to mark the achievement? Or perhaps it was on this visit that Joyce asked Curran to read and comment on the manuscript of Stephen Hero, which he would deliver to him in early June. Certainly, it is made with a degree of deliberate intention.
While the photograph lacks, in Knowlston’s terms, the “kind of heavily intentional discursive meaning” found in the graduation picture, it nevertheless seems, if only in retrospect, to occur at a pivotal moment. Here is Joyce, returned from a first foray to the continent, having just completed his first manuscript, about to meet the love of his life, months from leaving Ireland for good, impecunious but emboldened, looking to the future. Bound to the specific circumstances of its making, the photograph almost immediately resonates beyond them.
In his essay “Appearances” in Understanding a Photograph, John Berger discusses the capacity in a photograph for what he calls “revelation” in terms that seem related to Joyce’s understanding of epiphany. 16 For Berger, the photograph’s capacity for revelation is in direct proportion to the significant information it can incorporate within the instant of its taking. Thus a resonant photograph extends the event of its making, acquiring larger significance: “The photograph which achieves expressiveness … works dialectically … it preserves the particularity of the event recorded and it chooses an instant when the correspondences of those particular appearances articulate a general idea.” 17 While Berger is considering the validity of photography as an art form, his notion of the event of a photograph’s making being able to extend in space and time can also be applied to the Curran image.
The photograph’s facts had begun to merge with Joyce’s subsequent fictions.
Considerable time seems to have elapsed between the instant captured on the plate and the subsequent printing of the photograph. While it would be usual for the plate itself to be developed at home — presumably in a makeshift darkroom in Curran’s home, maybe even in the shed behind Joyce in the photograph — making prints from the glass negative would usually be done professionally. In the UCD collection, the envelope containing this and the two 1902 graduation pictures comes from Ashmore’s International Pharmacy in Dawson Street, which was not established until April 1909. So these three plates were presumably sent to have prints made, but not till at least five years after the latest of them was taken. In fact, Curran’s note on the envelope gives the dates of the pictures as 1902, 1902, and c. 1904 (emphasis added). He would of course recall 1902 as his graduation year, but seems to be sufficiently distant from the taking of the later picture to have to estimate the year. This suggests a date for the printing considerably later than 1909.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to trace the first appearances of these photographs in circulation or in publications, but given that Ashmore’s pharmacy had disappeared by 1930, the print must have been made before then, and we know that James Joyce signed a copy of it in 1924. 18 Suffice to say that as it began to circulate, it was already referring to a period in the past, a period that was critical to Joyce’s development as an artist and that also provided the temporal setting of all his oeuvre. In other words, the photograph’s facts had begun to merge with Joyce’s subsequent fictions. Curran himself asserts that “Edmund Wilson in Axel’s Castle queried whether, without it, we should ever have a clear idea of Stephen Dedalus.” 19 What Wilson actually posited was a more general question: “should we have a clear idea of Stephen if we had never seen photographs of Joyce?” He makes the distinction between how little is known of the characters’ physical appearances and the way “their eternally soliloquizing voices become our intimate companions and haunt us long afterwards.” 20
Joyce’s emphasis on the interior lives of his characters meant that, in all his writing, their physical environment mostly stayed in the background. 21 Were there to be a Joycean rendering of the Curran photograph, we might well know exactly what Joyce was thinking, but very little of the physical setting. “It is … singular,” noted Curran, “that, in one who so assiduously paced the stones of Dublin, so little of its most characteristic aspect enters into his writing. Its life was an unfailing stimulus, its skies and the furniture of its streets reflected his mood but the graceful untenanted shell gave him no special pleasure.” 22
In the 1930s when Curran was assembling James Joyce Remembered, Dublin’s ‘graceful untenanted shell’ had become his own main subject.
By the time Curran began assembling the “memories” gathered in James Joyce Remembered at the end of the 1930s, Dublin’s “graceful untenanted shell” had become his own main subject. His 1940 article on the city’s plasterwork was the first in a series that culminated in the 1967 book Dublin Decorative Plasterwork. 23 He also produced knowledgeable and astute publications on The Rotunda Hospital (1945), the Bank of Ireland (1949) and, returning to the site of his education, Newman House and University Church (1953). His attentiveness to the built environment is evident too in some of the later photographs included in the UCD Special Collection — specifically the set of five taken of Eccles Street and its environs.
While it has sometimes been thought that these pictures were taken by Curran at Joyce’s behest as part of his research for Ulysses (in the same vein as his requests to friends to consult street directories and newspapers for details), it is clear that they actually date from considerably later. The type of film used attests to this, and, as with the 1904 photograph, the envelope containing the developed contact prints offers further clues. The chemist Joseph Smith, on Terenure Road East in Rathgar, only became active in the 1930s. The five-digit phone number suggests a date between 1930, when the five-digit system became uniform, and the late 1940s, when six-digit numbers begin to appear. 24
There are clues too in the pictures themselves. The dress of the children, particularly the girl in the photograph of The Dorno shop — which was located at the corner of Dorset Street and Dominic Street rather than on Eccles Street as the catalogue suggests — hint at a date in the 1940s. A reflection of a telephone box in the window of the shop confirms that it is one of a type with Telefón written across the top, which only appeared after 1932. 25 A long view of the Eccles Street terrace containing No. 7 (of those visible, it is the second house from the left) shows a billboard on the gable to Dorset Street advertising Battersby’s Auctioneers and Estate Agents. This same billboard appears on a shot of Eccles Street from Hardwicke Place taken by the American photographer Lee Miller as one of a portfolio of shots of “Joyce’s Dublin” published in Vogue in 1947. 26
Taken together, this evidence suggests the pictures were taken around the same time as Miller’s, perhaps somewhat earlier. Curran actually provided the brief text for the Vogue piece — it was his earliest published reminiscence of Joyce. 27 Might he have been prompted by the commission to revisit and photograph a part of the city he had long since left? In photographing Eccles Street, he would be looking back to his own walks with Joyce through that part of the city at the turn of the century, while also, of course, acknowledging the street as the fictional address of Bloom. In some senses, these are just as much photographs of Dublin 1904 as the photograph of Joyce that Curran took that year. This ambiguous status of the street — as a physical location, a site of memory, and a fictional setting — is accentuated by two of the prints being accidental double exposures, such that the streetscape seems to shift and dissolve. “Double exposure — Eccles St is not being taken down” a handwritten note on the back of one print reassures us. It is not in Curran’s hand, but must have been written before the threat of this part of Eccles Street being taken down became real, and before its eventual demolition in 1967. 28 Curran’s photographs now number among relatively few records of Bloom’s residence. 29
Photographing this part of the city would also transport Curran further back to his own childhood, largely spent in the environs of the O’Connell School he attended. The children included in each image (the same group recur) directly evoke memories of the kind he would later describe in his memoir Under the Receding Wave:
Then my vision explodes into a whole city quarter, a pattern of rectangular streets on the north side of Dublin, slipping down from Mountjoy Square to wide traverses at the foot of the North Circular Road. [That undeveloped stretch where he and Joyce would later live.] Here the small boy with his companions had the franchise of quiet streets and with the extraordinary faculty and facility of children perceived and entered into the life of inanimate things. Every street had its own personality, every hall-door and window its own physiognomy, every lamp-post its known number and its allotted role in our existence. 30
In his earlier short memoir essay “The Side Walks [sic] of Dublin,” Curran describes himself at the outset as a “witness to the charming variety of Dublin, my native city and as the friend of many masters of their crafts who practiced there.” 31 In both memoirs, it is in his accounts of childhood that the fabric of the city looms largest. The urban environment, in all its detailed specificity, is vividly recalled, its fundamental role in the shaping of identity acknowledged. And even when the city later fades into the background as Curran’s attention shifts to the dramatis personae who inhabit it, its presence continues to be felt.
What Joyce understood was that this dense web of associations was bound up with, and could not be separated from, the buildings themselves.
As has already been noted, Joyce exhibited little interest in the architecture of the city, and yet, as Curran described, “He knew the streets of Dublin by heart and his memory was a map of the town. But his interest in its buildings … was for their associations.” 32 What Joyce understood was that this dense web of associations, of past and present connections, was bound up with, and could not be separated from, the buildings themselves. The fabric of the city was abstract as much as physical, a rich weave in which the past and the present as well as aspects of the future (Joyce was always describing it retrospectively) were simultaneously available.
Curran’s photographs capture something of this simultaneity, operating in, and giving access to, multiple temporal and spatial registers. Relatively unremarkable in their own right, they acquire this resonance by virtue both of the circumstances of their making and of the subjects and settings they record. Like Curran’s recollected city, they might be considered as “untrustworthy composite[s] doubly and trebly overlaid.” Certainly they evade complete explication: they can never be completely knowable. Nevertheless, the facts recorded do make possible the kind of retrospective re-enactment attempted here. So it is that today one can still stand in the garden of what is now 211 North Circular Road. The greenhouse is gone, the boundary wall is lowered, and beyond it the city has expanded and changed enormously. But the essential lineaments of the scene, the location within the garden and the way the sun strikes it, remain. Here, in front of Curran’s camera, on the cusp of the encounter and the exodus that would shape everything he subsequently achieved, Joyce stood and posed for his portrait.