In Brief

In Hades Bloom notes that the carriage is nearing a "Gasworks"  plant, and many later chapters glance at its product. Cities in Britain, America, and Europe had been building these coal gasification facilities for nearly a hundred years, and they remained important well into the 20th century, until electricity and "natural" gas from drilled wells put them out of business. More than 3,000 Dublin streetlights were fueled by coal gas, and most middle-class homes had at least one room lit by it.

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Gasworks plants, which heated coal in sealed chambers to very high temperatures, were one of the major industrial advances of the 19th century. Lacking oxygen to combine with, the coal gave off a mix of gases like methane, hydrogen, and ethylene that could be burned far more efficiently and cleanly than coal itself. The product was stored in huge structures called gasholders or gasometers––cylindrical iron frames inside which piston-like caps rose and fell as gas was pumped in or out. The frame of one of these structures still stands in eastern Dublin, repurposed as an apartment building. From such storage facilities gas was piped throughout cities to produce light and heat. The light from coal gas lamps was both bright and soft. When electric light finally conquered the world, many people found it intolerably harsh by comparison.

The accompanying map shows two gasworks facilities in eastern Dublin in 1900, one just south of the Ringsend Road and the other just north of that road's continuation as Great Brunswick Street. Since Bloom notes that the carriage is passing over "The Grand Canal" just before he thinks of the "Gasworks," it seems likely that he has the latter in mind, but the carriage passes by both facilities in quick succession and both were owned by the same company. Thom's 1904 directory lists an Alliance and Consumer Gas Company at 110 Great Brunswick Street. This company, known officially as the Alliance & Dublin Consumers' Gas Company and informally as the Dublin Gas Company, also built the Alliance Gasometer that is now an apartment building on South Lotts Street, within the boundaries of what was once the more southerly facility.

Most of the nighttime chapters in Ulysses mention coal gas lighting. In Nausicaa Gerty reflects that soon "the lamplighter would be going his rounds," reaching up with a long pole to ignite the gas in the streetlights. In homes, valves on fixtures allowed the lights to be turned up or dimmed. In Circe, after Zoe declares "More limelight, Charley," she "goes to the chandelier and turns the gas full cock." Kitty then "Peers at the gasjet" and asks, "What ails it tonight?" It seems the pressure in the pipes has declined––a common complaint highlighted in the two movies titled Gaslight (1940, 1944). When Bloom gains entry to his kitchen in Ithaca he lights a fixture with a match and then adjusts its flame downward: he "set free inflammable coal gas by turning on the ventcock, lit a high flame which, by regulating, he reduced to quiescent candescence." In addition to the ventcocks on individual fixtures, it appears that each house also had a main valve that could be turned off at night for safety's sake. Nausicaa observes that "It was Gerty who turned off the gas at the main every night," and in Penelope Molly worries about Poldy "leaving the gas on all night."

The strangest mention of gas lighting in the novel comes at the beginning of Ithaca, which lists among many intellectual topics discussed by Stephen and Bloom "the influence of gaslight or the light of arc and glowlamps on the growth of adjoining paraheliotropic trees." Paraheliotropism is the phenomenon of plants angling their leaves toward sources of incoming light, and glowlamps refers to incandescent light bulbs. (In Nestor Stephen recalls the "glowlamps" in the Sainte Geneviève library in Paris. Gifford remarks that these are "Incandescent light bulbs, in this case made of clear glass, their filaments visible." Slote agrees, but notes that in the early years of the 20th century the lights in the library reading room were actually gas lamps....) So....the two men are discussing whether the new electric light bulbs may have a lesser or greater effect on the growth of any urban trees that might bend their leaves toward them.

The inconsequentiality of this discussion, presumably initiated by the scientific-minded Bloom as he and Stephen walk along city sidewalks under trees and streetlights, is emphasized a moment later, after an account of various weighty issues on which the two men have found themselves in agreement or disagreement:

      Was there one point on which their views were equal and negative?
      The influence of gaslight or electric light on the growth of adjoining paraheliotropic trees.
John Hunt 2023

Detail of 1900 Bartholomew's map with added arrows showing locations of gasworks along Ringsend Road and Great Brunswick Street.
Source: Pierce, James Joyce's Ireland.

1985 photograph of two cylindrical gasometers on a site next to Sir John Rogerson's Quay, built later than the facility mentioned in Ulysses.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Alliance Building on South Lotts Street, originally an 1885 gasometer.

Photograph of a Dublin Corporation lamplighter, date unknown.