Mrs Thornton

In Brief

The midwife who delivered the Blooms' children, "Mrs Thornton in Denzille street," is named for an actual Mrs. Thornton who lived on that street and delivered several of Joyce's siblings. In Circe she appears dressed in a "nursetender's gown," suggesting that Molly gave birth in what Bloom in Hades and Josie Breen in Lestrygonians call "the lying-in hospital"—an expression that reflects the old medical view that women should lie immobile for a considerable time after giving birth. Bloom and Mrs. Breen are thinking of the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, but there were actually three major Dublin hospitals dedicated to obstetrics and gynecology, a fact which elicits patriotic comment in Oxen of the Sun.

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Ellmann notes that "Margaret was apparently the first Joyce baby to be delivered by the midwife Mrs. Thornton of 19A Denzille Street," and that she "also delivered Charles, Eileen, and Florence Joyce" (748). Igoe agrees that Mary Thornton, "a professional midwife" living at 19A, delivered Margaret (January 1884), Charles (July 1886), and Eileen (January 1889), but she includes Stanislaus (December 1884) on the list and makes no mention of Florence. "Mrs. Thornton was popular with all the Joyce family," she observes.

Bloom thinks of Mrs. Thornton as warmly as did the Joyces. In Calypso he remembers her as a "Jolly old woman," and in Lestrygonians as "a jolly old soul. All my babies, she said. The spoon of pap in her mouth before she fed them. O, that's nyumnyum." In Circe she attends him "In nursetender's gown" as he gives birth to eight male children: "Embrace me tight, dear. You'll be soon over it. Tight, dear." The midwife's home on Denzille Street probably holds interest of a second kind for Bloom, unrelated to childbirth, and its location near the National Maternity Hospital also deserves comment.

§ In Calypso Bloom thinks of the June morning fifteen years ago when Milly was born, "running to knock up Mrs Thornton in Denzille Street." Denzille, now part of Fenian Street, lies quite near the NMH on the northeast side of Merrion Square but some distance from the Blooms' home. Gifford, apparently wondering about Bloom's stamina as a runner, observes that her address "would locate her approximately one and a half miles northeast of Bloom's residence in Lombard Street West if the Blooms were living there in 1889." His reasoning is questionable on two counts. First, the Blooms were almost certainly living in Pleasants Street, not Lombard (though not very far from it) in 1889. More importantly, if Molly gave birth in the hospital, Bloom probably first accompanied her there and then went to fetch the midwife, in which case his running the short distance from Holles to Denzille would be quite unremarkable—if, in fact, the NMH was open for business in 1899.

§ The NMH, which today is the largest obstretrics hospital in Ireland, was a relative latecomer, the third such facility to be established in Dublin. The Rotunda Hospital, on the north side of the city, was founded in 1745 and incorporated by royal charter in 1756. It moved to its present location on Rutland (Parnell) Square in 1757 and still operates today. Gifford notes that, according to Thom's directory, in 1904 it was "the largest chartered Clinical School of Midwifery and Gynaecology in the United Kingdom" (409). The Coombe Lying-in Hospital was founded in 1826 and received a royal charter in 1867. Originally located in the Liberties on Heytesbury Street, it moved to nearby Cork Street in 1967, and likewise is still in business. Together these three hospitals deliver an impressive 27,000 babies each year, or about 25 babies per hospital per day. (In 2014, according to the Central Statistics Office of Ireland, the numbers were NMH 9,231, Rotunda 8,913, and Coombe 8,768.)

Ireland's long history of committing resources to the care of women in labor, including ones who cannot afford expensive medical care, amply justifies the view, expressed in the tortured language at the outset of Oxen of the Sun, that "by no exterior splendour is the prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted than by the measure of how far forward may have progressed the tribute of its solicitude for that proliferent continuance which of evils the original if it be absent when fortunately present constitutes the certain sign of omnipollent nature's incorrupted benefaction." (Whew!) The next paragraph of Oxen, commenting on Irish doctors of the distant past, observes that "a plan was by them adopted" to remove "maternity" as far as could be managed "from all accident possibility," providing whatever was needed "not solely for the copiously opulent" but also for women who are not "sufficiently moneyed." 

JH 2018
Midwives in a British maternity ward of the late 19th or early 20th century, location and date unknown. Source: www.rcog.org.uk.
Another maternity ward of the time period, location and date unknown. Source: www.fitpregnancy.com.com.
Detail of map of Dublin made for Thom's Almanac, showing the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street (blue) and Denzille Street (red). Source: digital.ucd.ie.
The Rotunda Maternity Hospital in a late 19th century photograph. Source: www.census.nationalarchives.ie.