Sir John Gray

Sir John Gray

In Brief

Several times in Ulysses, characters pass by the statue erected on Sackville Street (the heart of the downtown, now O'Connell Street) to "Sir John Gray." Gray was a civic-minded patriot of many accomplishments: physician, journalist, politician. More than anyone else, he was responsible for the improvement in Dublin's water supply in the 1860s—a great civic boon that prompted the erection of the statue four years after Gray's death in 1875.

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As the funeral cortège passes up Sackville Street in Hades, Simon Dedalus makes an anti-Semitic joke and "Mr Power, collapsing in laughter, shaded his face from the window as the carriage passed Gray's statue." At the end of the next chapter, Aeolus, the men leave the offices of the Freemans Journal to pursue some drinks at Stephen's expense, and cross Sackville Street. Considering Stephen's parable about Nelson's Pillar, Professor MacHugh looks up the street from one monument to another: "He halted on sir John Gray's pavement island and peered aloft at Nelson through the meshes of his wry smile." (In the photograph at right, the modernist Spire of Dublin occupies the spot where Nelson's pillar stood until the 1960s.)

Later in the afternoon, the jaunting car carrying Blazes Boylan to the Blooms' house turns north from the quays up Sackville Street, past several of the urban landmarks noted in Hades: "Jingle by monuments of sir John Gray, Horatio onehandled Nelson, reverend father Theobald Mathew, jaunted as said before just now. Atrot, in heat, heatseated." Sirens also glances at "Elvery's elephant" and "the Rotunda, Rutland square," likewise noted in Hades.

Born to a Protestant family in County Mayo in 1815, Gray received a medical degree from Trinity College in 1839 and established a practice in Dublin. In the 1840s he worked as the political editor of the Freemans Journal and supported O'Connell's movement to repeal the Act of Union. He acquired joint ownership of the newspaper in 1841 and became its sole owner in 1850. During the three and a half decades in which he ran the paper and held various political offices (organizer of the Tenants' League, Dublin city councillor, alderman of the Dublin Corporation, MP for Kilkenny), Gray vigorously supported many nationalist causes: repeal of the Union, disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, land reform, reform of the court system, free denominational education, Home Rule.

His most lasting fame, though, derived from his work to secure a reliable source of clean water for Dublin. Chairing a committee charged with finding an alternative to the tainted supplies that regularly caused outbreaks of cholera and typhoid in the city, he became a driving force in support of the "Vartry scheme": a plan to dam the Vartry River in County Wicklow and pipe water from the resulting reservoir to Stillorgan, a suburb south of Dublin, whence it could be distributed throughout the city. The dam was constructed in the 1860s, and when Vartry water reached Dublin it immediately improved public health. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland knighted Gray in 1863, as the work began.

The statue on O'Connell Street was sculpted by Sir Thomas Farrell, the same man who made the statue of William Smith O'Brien just south of the river.

JH 2014
Gray's statue today. In the background, the Spire of Dublin rises where Nelson's Pillar once stood. Source: Gareth Collins.
2003 photograph of Gray's monument in the Glasnevin cemetery, by Jtdirl. This sculpture is not mentioned in the novel. Source: Wikimedia Commons.