Brian Boroimhe House

Brian Boroimhe House

In Brief

Just north of the Crossguns bridge on Prospect Road, the funeral carriages in Hades pass a pub called the "Brian Boroimhe house," named after the great Irish leader Brian Boru who reigned as High King from 1002 to 1014 and whose army defeated the Danes at Clontarf. The mourners are now in the suburb of Glasnevin, home of the Prospect Cemetery, and Bloom thinks, "Near it now." This pub is noteworthy as one of about a dozen mentioned in Ulysses whose doors remain open today, and it is intriguing on other grounds, particularly Joyce's Irish spelling of its name.

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The 1904 issue of Thom's directory listed the owner as "J. M. Ryan, proprietor and family grocer, tea, wine, and spirit merchant," in keeping with the 19th century tradition (now moribund) of "spirit grocers." Today the name over the door of the pub is P. Hedigan, but he is still advertised as a "wine merchant" and "family grocer." The name of the pub itself is the Brian Boru, and it always has been. Nevertheless, an old map hanging on a wall in the establishment identifies it as "The Brian Boroihme House"—a misspelling of the Irish name Boroimhe. Although at two points in Ithaca the ancient king is referenced by his usual appellation, "Brian Boru," here in Hades his name is rendered in Irish, and with the proper spelling.

Joyce was eternally attentive to tiny details and also keenly attuned to the suggestive power of names. In a personal communication, Senan Molony suggests that he must have wanted his readers to reflect on the particular, highly unusual form of Brian's name in the funeral chapter. "Boroimhe," he notes, means "cattle tribute" (= cow, cattle + roimhe = tribute, mortgage payment, tithe). Brian Boru ("Brian of the Tributes") must have earned his name by amassing enough power to demand payments of cattle from lesser warriors. In a novel where Stephen is called a "bullockbefriending bard," where Mr. Deasy writes a letter warning about the danger that foot and mouth disease poses to Irish cattle herds, where newspapermen attend a meeting of the Irish Cattle Traders and Stockowners Association, and where an entire chapter echoes the warnings of Homer's Odyssey about taking cattle that do not belong to you, the non-standard spelling of Brian's name is surely worth noticing and reflecting on.

And, indeed, Hades too has been preoccupied with cows. By this point in the chapter, the funeral procession has crossed paths with a consignment of cattle being driven through Dublin's streets to the quays for shipment to England, and Bloom (who once worked at the cattlemarket where Aughrim Street meets the North Circular Road, on the northwest edge of Dublin) has asked why the Corporation doesn't run a tramline from that area to the quays. The map in the Brian Boru shows that the pub once lay only a few blocks from a railway station along the Royal Canal, and only one block from "The North City Cattle Lairs." Presumably cattle arrived at that station from points west and were penned in stockyards quite near the Brian Boru pub, before being driven to the quays. By calling attention to the root meaning of the pub's name, then, Joyce ties it to the export trade in Irish cattle. Ireland's greatest king once exacted tribute in the form of valuable livestock. Now the nation pays the same form of tribute to its Saxon rulers.

Another possible, but much less compelling, account of the pub's significance has to do with its Christian associations. Brian Boru's forces are said to have camped on the site of the pub on the night before the Battle of Clontarf, and popular mythology holds (with little basis in fact) that the battle represented a victory of Christian Irishmen over pagan invaders. The pub is commonly said to be the only pub in Ireland to display a cross on its front. This is not quite true—the Oarsman in Ringsend, to cite one example, sports a Celtic cross in the tympanum atop its façade—but the pub's exterior does appeal to the popular expectations. A mural high on one wall, probably from the later 20th century, shows Brian holding a sword and a cross-embossed shield against a background of Viking longboats on the waves. A much older painting above the shopfront, probably from the Victorian era, shows him leading his massed troops into battle holding a large crucifix for inspiration.

The pub's association with militantly xenophobic Christianity is interesting in light of a Dublin rumor, recounted in Rodney Wilson Owen's James Joyce and the Beginnings of Ulysses (1980), that Joyce originally envisioned "a story about Matthew Kane's funeral in July 1904" which would center on Alfred Hunter and show "a post-funeral scene in a pub where the mourners and citizens turn against Hunter" (8). The Jewish cuckold's ordeal, Owen asserts, involved rejection "of his claims for Irish citizenship" (3)—a clear anticipation of the events of Cyclops. But Owen cites no hard evidence for this supposed occurrence, and, if it did happen, a more likely setting would have been Dunphy's, where many funeral parties used to stop after leaving the cemetery, and where Bloom imagines his group will end up.

Molony points out two other, more telling problems with the theory. First, if Joyce and his father stopped at a pub after Matthew Kane's funeral on 14 July 1904, it could not possibly have been the Brian Boru because, as a poster that also hangs in the pub shows, the house had closed in advance of an auction sale on July 15. Second, it seems highly unlikely that members of a funeral party would ever have behaved so badly to one of their party. Not only would the solemn occasion dictate sober decorum and at least outward displays of christian charity, but giving vent to violent religious bigotry under the influence of alcohol purchased by Kane's family would constitute the worst kind of disrespect.

JH 2020
Recent photograph of the shopfront of the Brian Boru pub. Source:
Detail of a map in the Brian Boru pub, dated December 1883 in the lower right-hand corner, with a misspelled version of the name used in the novel. Source: Senan Molony.
More of the same map, showing the pub's proximity to a railway station and "The North City Cattle Lairs."
Painting of Brian Boru on horseback mounted over the front door of Hedigan's Brian Boru pub, artist and date unknown. Source: Senan Molony.
Poster displayed in the Brian Boru, advertising the public auction sale of the pub on 15 July 1904. Source: Senan Molony.