Toppling masonry

Toppling masonry

In Brief

In Nestor, when Stephen thinks of Blake's vision of "the ruin of all space" and time, he imagines "shattered glass and toppling masonry"––an image which does not come from Blake's writings. This is no generic fantasy of what apocalypse would look like to a city-dweller. In Proteus Stephen links it with a specific event: the Fenian bombing of the back wall of London's Clerkenwell prison in 1867. This event has clear relevance to Stephen's historical meditations in Nestor, so it is reasonable to assume that he is thinking of it in both chapters. But there is more. For Dubliners reading the novel in the late 1910s and early 20s, the words would certainly have called up a much fresher memory: the catastrophic destruction visited upon their city by the Easter Rising of 1916. Joyce must have intended for his readers to make this proleptic connection.

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The Clerkenwell bombing was designed to free a man held in the prison but it badly damaged nearby homes, killing a dozen people and injuring ten times that many. The London press described it as an unparalleled atrocity, and the resulting outcry imperiled Irish hopes for Home Rule for a generation. It makes sense that Stephen would think of this bold but counterproductive action in connection with the "excess" of Blake's apocalyptic vision and with the despair of his own vision of history as a nightmare. Channeling the optimism of the French Revolution, Blake sees violence as a window onto the "Last Judgment"––divine transfiguration. Oppressed by seven centuries of English domination, Stephen cannot separate that apocalyptic yearning from awareness of repeated futility.

After April 1916 this dialectic of hope and despair was writ large on the face of Dublin. The abortive revolution ultimately changed public opinion, making militant republicanism more attractive than incremental parliamentary reform. In Easter, 1916 William Butler Yeats described how the political landscape was "Transformed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born." But in the near term the Rising was an unmitigated disaster. In the course of one week it destroyed much of the inner city while achieving nothing.

After republican fighters seized and barricaded key buildings like the General Post Office, City Hall, and the Four Courts, the British Army mobilized soldiers in its many barracks around Dublin, used Kingsbridge Station to bring in men and materiel, shipped reinforcements into Kingstown Harbour, and floated a gunboat up the Liffey. The GPO was easily within range of the Helga's 12-pound guns and was destroyed by heavy shelling, including incendiary shells which not only gutted the interior of the post office but spread fire to nearby buildings on Sackville Street, Henry Street, Abbey Street, and Eden Quay. Artillery fire from field guns deployed at Trinity College hammered other buildings occupied by rebel forces.

To represent or explicitly mention these events in a novel set in 1904 would have violated Joyce's commitment to scrupulously realistic fiction, but various details in the novel show that he was willing to evoke coming events in more covert ways. In Nestor he made the boys' hockey game anticipate the slaughters of the Great War that was raging at the same time as the Rising (1914-18). In Eumaeus numerous references to blocks of ice, sharp lookouts, and maneuvering ships evoke the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. In Cyclops characters mention, and walk by, the spot on Arbour Hill where inciters of the 1798 Rebellion were executed––a spot also strongly associated in Irish popular memory with the burial of 14 executed republicans in 1916.

This pattern of proleptic foreshadowing makes it entirely plausible that Joyce intended for "shattered glass and toppling masonry" to evoke the piles of masonry that confronted Dubliners after the Rising. Indeed, it would have been remarkable for him not to think of the city he loved being reduced to rubble while writing Nestor in 1916 and 1917. His famous hyperbolic remark that "If Dublin were to be destroyed Ulysses could be used to rebuild it brick by brick" no doubt expressed his vivid awareness that on one occasion many of the city's best-known buildings had in fact toppled into piles of bricks. The detail that comes next in Nestor––"and time one livid final flame"––may have had its genesis in Blake's belief that "The world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years," but it also seems to refer to the violent blaze that consumed the General Post Office and buildings all around it. Records of the Clerkenwell explosion do not mention any such inferno. In Circe Joyce combines Blakean apocalypse and Dublin catastrophe one last time as Stephen attempts to bring the curtain down on his private cosmos: "He lifts his ashplant high with both hands and smashes the chandelier. Time's livid final flame leaps and, in the following darkness, ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry."

But even if the author did not intend for his words to be read in this forward-looking way readers would still be justified in doing so, because the implications of the history mesh so perfectly with the patterns of the fiction. The Easter Rising made one more in the long string of defeats and Pyrrhic victories that discourages Stephen in Nestor, and at the same time it effected a Blakean transfiguration, convincing the mass of Irish people that independence was finally at hand. Stephen hears in the collapse of buildings the apocalyptic ruin of space and time, while thinking also of the human cost: "What's left us then?"

John Hunt 2023
1867 illustration of the destruction caused by the Clerkenwell bombing, by an unknown artist. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Thomas Johnson Westropp's May 1916 photograph, taken from the top of Nelson's Pillar, of damage to the Post Office, held in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. Source:
Another of Westropp's photographs from the top of Nelson's Pillar, looking west at damage to buildings on Henry Street. Source:
Another Westropp photograph looking south from the pillar at damage to the Imperial Hotel and Clery's department store. Source:
Another Westropp photograph, taken from the south side of the river (Nelson's Pillar is visible in the background at left), showing damage to Eden Quay. Source: