13th century double toilet seat - Dublin
James Joyce, according to his friend Frank Budgen famously said of Ulysses that
‘I want to […] give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.’
A thought experiment which transposes an early twentieth-century modernist work of fiction onto an early thirteenth-century context might seem at best odd and at worst, senseless. I would argue however, that it is in some way an extension of Joyce’s mission statement. Thirteenth-century Dublin has been destroyed in a most comprehensive manner with precious few vestiges that would have stood in 1204 visible today. These include some parts of St Audoen’s church, the foundations of Dublin Castle, small parts of the cathedrals of Christchurch and St Patrick’s, even less of the Archbishop’s Palace at St Sepulchre and possibly the chapter house at St Mary’s Abbey.
A recent addition to this list has been the Hiberno-Norse structure with the sunken floor that we resurrected for public display in the Lidl on Aungier Street, though whether this structure was actually still standing in 1204 is a matter for debate.
For decades, as at Aungier Street, archaeologists have been uncovering more of this lost world and while some very great works of reconstruction have been attempted (the Historic Town Atlas and the Dublinia interactive mapping merit particular note), much of the information is scattered across various volumes, journals and unpublished reports.
What’s needed is a Joyce’s-eye-view on the whole!
For the last number of years I have been lucky enough to be involved in a lot of archaeological projects in the centre of Dublin. These have ranged from archaeological desktop studies, monitoring and test trenching as well as many excavations great and small. I often find myself walking the city from one site to the next, invariably stripping away the centuries in my imagination as I try to visualise what the place would have been like during the medieval period. The more I read, write and dig, the fuller the picture becomes. However, I'm not always alone on these walks and often, I cross the path of Bloom as he steps from the Turkish baths or passes in a horse-drawn funeral carriage. At some point, these two imaginative strands became entangled.
While I would not describe myself as an expert on Ulysses, the word afficionado probably falls short and certainly fails to convey the long periods of obsessive reading/listening and thinking I do around the book. I like Dubliners but A Portrait of the Artist … has failed to grab my attention and I have yet to even consider tackling Finnegan’s Wake. So its not Joyce necessarily. ‘What keep drawing me back to Ulysses?’ is a question I’ve often considered. Beyond the impossibly perfect descriptions of scene, character and incident, the faultless realism of the dialogue and all of the other warming qualities of the writing, I believe it is the social history enmeshed in its pages that makes Ulysses such a compelling artefact to anyone interested in Dublin’s past and present.
The work is suffused by time and place, the city and its inhabitants viewed from so many different and simultaneous angles, that the modern analogy of a photogrammetry model comes to mind. It is precisely as Joyce veers into increasingly experimental and opaque writing that I can empathise with Roddy Doyle’s controversial and exasperated statement that ‘Ulysses is a book that could have done with a good editor.’ Though perhaps much of the difficulty modern readers have with portions of the text stems from the erasure of key frames of reference from our twentieth/twenty first century education (ie classical texts, theological doctrine, Victorian prose forms and oratory).
What has not been entirely erased is the physical landscape – though it could be argued in the light of current development trends that Joyce’s fears for the capital were not entirely unfounded. So many of the streets, buildings and vistas of Joyce’s Dublin survive and Ulysses is peopled with Dubliner’s we can almost touch through living memory. For me, the families of my eight grandparents were roving about that city on 16th June 1904 between the limits of Sandymount and Howth and reading their faces into the street urchins playing marbles or Stevedores and cabmen at work or amongst the congregation at Mass in All Hallow’s or in the other congregations in the darkened cubicles of Barney Kiernan’s, Davy Byrne’s or the Ormond Hotel, has doubtless been part of the allure.
The fragmentary remains of the streetscape and built heritage of the Dublin of 1204 as well as the uncertain line of ancestry between us today and the thousands of names in the Dublin Guild Merchant Roll for example, challenges perhaps such a close engagement with the medieval past. However, with the steady stream of new discoveries and the wealth of information already in hand regarding the personal objects of the medieval Dublin populace, it should be possible to attempt a thought experiment, imagining what a day in the life consisted of in all of its banality, complexity and detail. The following is my attempt to think and feel my way into the mind of one Dubliner on one day as he walks the streets on an urbane summer’s day – the sixteenth day of June, in the year 1204 anno domini. Let’s call him Lepoldo de Bloume, and, given that the Blooms’ Edwardian home on Eccles Street was likely mere fields at this time, let us put him on the urban outskirts of the northern approaches to the town – Church Street. And let it be morning, the sun shining, stray clouds erring and a woman, in the next room, stirring…
 Under the Julian calendar, which was in use at the time, this was a Wednesday – not far off Bloomsday1904 which was a Thursday, though the Gregorian calendar was in use by then.
 Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the making of Ulysses, (Oxford, 1934), p. 69; for discussion of the accuracy of Joyce’s spatial reconstructions see Jon Hegglund. ‘"Ulysses" and the Rhetoric of Cartography,’
Twentieth Century Literature, 49:2 (2003), 164–192.
 Paul Duffy, ‘Structures of import: excavations at Aungier St, Longford Street and George’s Street, Dublin,’ in Seán Duffy (ed.), Medieval Dublin XIX (Dublin, 2022); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rp3tAa6lAps
 Howard Clarke, IHTA Dublin I to 1610, (Dublin, 2002); https://dublinia.ie/online-learning/everyone/
 I searched for an authentic name that might match closely that of Leopold Bloom but unfortunately Leopold is a much later name. The only name beginning with L that appears in the medieval Dublin sources is Laurence and this is too far a step from our original subject. I made peace with using the name here as Joyce also invented this name as well as his own thoroughly unplausible moniker of his alter ego Stephen Dedalus.