Donnybrook

In Brief

"Donnybrook," a southeastern district of Dublin, was a sedate suburb in Joyce's time, but it had become a byword for violent brawls from the annual fairs that were held there in earlier centuries, when it was an isolated village.

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The Donnybrook fair was established by royal charter in 1204, during the reign of England's King John. For two weeks from late August to mid-September people gathered in large numbers to buy and sell food, livestock, and other agricultural goods, and by the 19th century there were many carnival amusements, but the fair was also an annual occasion for immoderate drinking, cock-fighting, gambling, loud music, dancing, flirtation, outright fornication, and fighting with fists and shillelaghs. In response to the protests of decent citizens, many attempts were made to abolish the fair in the first half of the 19th century. The Dublin Corporation finally succeeding in shutting it down in 1855, by buying the license from its current owners for £3,000.

Two quotations in a 2012 blog on the fair by Ciarán on the website comeheretome.com give a sense of the mayhem that occurred annually when hordes of Dubliners tramped the dusty road to Donnybrook. On 31 August 1778, the Freeman’s Journal remarked on the pilgrims returning from this modern Gomorrah: “How irksome it was to friends of the industry and well-being of Society to hear that upwards of 50,000 persons visited the fair on the previous Sunday, and returned to the city like intoxicated savages.” In his 1867 book The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot observed that the first principle of the fair was "Wherever you see a head, hit it.”

At the end of Lotus Eaters Leopold Bloom, decent citizen, thinks that the civilized sport of cricket does not fit well with Irish sensibilities: "Donnybrook fair more in their line." He goes on to recall a popular song: "And the skulls we were acracking when M'Carthy took the floor." Anarchic Ireland has its revenge in Circe, when Bloom, on trial for his sins and sexual abnormalities, is assaulted by "THE IRISH EVICTED TENANTS": "(In bodycoats, kneebreeches, with Donnybrook fair shillelaghs.) Sjambok him!"

By 1904 Donnybrook had outgrown its scruffy past to become a fairly comfortable middle-class suburb on a par with other southern towns like Rathgar, Rathmines, Terenure, and Sandymount. Its name appears along with other tramline destinations in Aeolus, and Sirens indicates that the car which carries Blazes Boylan to his assignation with Molly is driven by one James Barton of "number one Harmony avenue, Donnybrook." It would appear that the narrative supplies this detail, and repeats it in Circe, because drivers of jaunting cars were required to display a numbered license that listed the driver's name and address.

The National Library of Ireland Flickr page details some good detective work on the 20th century photograph displayed with this note: "Our catalogue described this as a Street scene, possibly in Dublin: with motor cars, pedestrians and tramlines. I knew we could do better than that, hoping J. McCaffrey at no. 39 would be a help. I was thinking Terenure-ish, but was absolutely wrong! Thanks a million to DannyM8 who suggested Donnybrook, and then backed it up with hard evidence from the 1911 census, finding John McCaffrey, greengrocer, at 39 Donnybrook Road! With regard to an accurate date for this photo, one of the Irish Times news posters trumpets "Religious War in Mexico," and exactly that headline appeared on page 8 of the Irish Times on Monday, 15 August 1927, so that seems relatively safe for dating. . . . P.S. Love the alleged Confesserie! Did you confess your guilt for guzzling cream cakes here?"

JH 2018
Scene on Donnybrook Road in 1927, in a photograph held in the National Library of Ireland. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Drawing of a "Fair Fight" by Samuel Lover, reproduced in Weston St. John Joyce's The Neighbourhood of Dublin, 2nd ed. (M. H. Gill & Son, 1921). Source: comeheretome.com.
Drawing of the Donnybrook Fair printed in an 1835 issue of the Dublin Penny Journal, by an unknown artist. (Shillelaghs are only slightly less conspicuous in this image.) Source: Wikimedia Commons.
"Donnybrook Fair," 1859 oil painting by Erkine Nichol. Source: comeheretome.
"Donnybrook Fair, 1782," watercolor by Francis Wheatley, held in the Yale Center for British Art. Source: Wikimedia Commons.