Fine old custom

In Brief

The "fine old custom" that Simon Dedalus is glad to see "has not died out" is the one that he and his companions are observing in Hades: riding through the center of town in horse-drawn carriages to attend a funeral. Later during the ride to Glasnevin, Bloom suggests that it might be desirable to replace equine transport with electric trams, a modern innovation that was catching on in cities throughout Europe and North America. The idea was never adopted in Dublin.

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Slote notes that "The custom is that a funeral procession will take a route through the centre of the city, thereby giving many a chance to pay their last respects. On any given day, several different funeral processions would run through the city. This custom has since died out." The tradition of the funeral cortège is very ancient, dating back at least to the time of the Roman empire. In the late 19th century and the early years of the 20th, hearses bearing the deceased and other vehicles carrying mourners were commonly drawn by horses, but new mechanized modes of transport were quickly making this practice obsolete. Automobiles were first used in an American funeral procession in 1909. Several years later Lyle Abbot, the automobile editor of the Arizona Republican, coined the term "motorcade," and where the tradition survives today it usually takes this form.

But automobiles were rare at the time represented in the novel (only one appears in all the pages of Ulysses), while many North American and European cities had tram (streetcar) systems. Mexico City and Milan introduced dedicated funeral trams in the 1880s—horse-drawn at first, it seems, but soon electric—and by the end of the century countless large cities had followed suit. Although Dubliners were justifiably proud of their new electric tram system, their city was behind the times on this count.

As the funeral procession slowly picks its way through a herd of lowing cattle, Bloom remarks to his fellow riders, "I can't make out why the corporation doesn't run a tramline from the parkgate to the quays . . . All those animals could be taken in trucks down to the boats." Martin Cunningham responds favorably: "Instead of blocking up the thoroughfare . . . Quite right. They ought to." But then Bloom volunteers his related idea "to have municipal funeral trams like they have in Milan, you know. Run the line out to the cemetery gates and have special trams, hearse and carriage and all." His proposal initially meets with derision, but practical considerations soon prompt a more serious reception.

Martin Cunningham recalls, and Mr. Power remembers, an occasion when a hearse overturned rounding the sharp turn at Dunphy's Corner, spilling a corpse onto the roadway. Such incidents have not remained confined to olden times. In 2008 mourners were horrified when the horse-drawn hearse bearing the remains of Caroline Thompson through the streets of Ipswich, England suffered a similar accident. Two of the four horses bolted after the driver performed an evasive maneuver and hit a street bollard. The carriage slammed into automobiles and overturned, the horses ran away in terror, the coffin slid onto the street, and the funeral was delayed for an hour.

JH 2019
April 1921 photograph, held in the National Library of Ireland, of a hearse leading the funeral procession for Archbishop William Walsh around Dunphy's (Doyle's) corner from the North Circular Road onto the Phibsborough Road en route to the Glasnevin cemetery. Automobiles have replaced the mourners' horse-drawn carriages in this scene, and no funeral tram is rolling along the tracks. Source: www.flickr.com.
Postcard, pre-1921, showing a Parisian electric tram dedicated to "service funéraire," carrying the deceased and mourners "between the church and the new cemetery of Vincennes located 5 km from the city." Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Hearse which overturned in Ipswich in 2008. Source: www.dailymail.co.uk.