Davy Stephens

Davy Stephens

In Brief

In Aeolus an office door creaks open and "Davy Stephens, minute in a large capecoat, a small felt hat crowning his ringlets, passed out with a roll of papers under his cape, a king's courier." A hallucinated version of this "ringletted" figure reappears in Circe, hawking newspapers and surrounded with "a bevy of barefoot newsboys" such as were seen repeatedly running in and out of the news offices in the earlier chapter. Stephens (early 1840s-1925) was a vendor of newspapers and periodicals at Kingstown Harbour, where passenger-carrying mailboats crossed the channel to Britain twice daily. Hailing travelers with witty, uninhibited blather well suited for selling papers, he made himself a well-known fixture of greater Dublin.

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Vivien Igoe, who lists Stephens' birth date definitively as 1845, reports that he "started work aged six, selling copies of Saunder's Newsletter to support his widowed mother. For 60 years he operated from the steps of the railway station at Kingstown (now DĂșn Laoghaire)." This location allowed him quite literally to corner a major news market: nearly everyone who traveled between Dublin and London took the mailboats, connecting by train at either end. Cyril Pearl quotes Stephens' claim to have sold papers to "monarchs, princes, potentates, viceroys, all grades of the aristocracy, Lord Chancellors, Prime Ministers, Commanders-in-Chief, Cardinals, Archbishops . . . artists, authors, jockeys, prizefighters, aeronauts, tight and slack rope-walkers, and dancers . . . and 'long' and 'short drop' hangmen" (Dublin in Bloomtime, 49). The Emperor of Brazil, he notes, offered him the position of Court Jester.

The Amazonian poobah's offer suggests that Stephens' energetic hobnobbing with the high and mighty involved more than a little condescension on their part, but he met them halfway, recouping whatever scraps of personal dignity they surrendered. In the best Dublin tradition of flamboyant self-promotion, Stephens cultivated an image of closeness to power, styling himself the Prince of the News Vendors, or the King of the Newsboys. Many people joined the game by addressing him as Sir Davy. Joyce's phrase "a king's courier" alludes to Stephens' amicable interactions with King Edward VII when he came to Ireland in 1903, reprising earlier conversations when Albert Edward had visited as Prince of Wales. The autobiography that he published in 1903 records that Queen Victoria gave him a sovereign on one of her visits; he "loyally" kept it "mounted in a gold clasp ready for inspection" and pinned it to his coat "on special occasions."

Many socially prominent persons besides Their Majesties seem to have embraced Davy Stephens. Pearl observes that Lord Northcliffe, who came to Ireland for the Gordon-Bennett Cup, "invited Davy to accompany him in his car, and when someone occupied Davy's stand during one of his regular attendances at the English Derby, Michael Davitt raised the matter in the House of Commons" (49-50). A prominent Irish MP, in other words, intervened in Parliament to protect Stephens' de facto monopoly on news vending in Kingstown. Pearl adds that "Davy's activities were reported regularly in the Irish Society and Social Review. A paragraph in the issue of 31st October 1903 reads: 'Davy had a great shake hands from Mr John Morley the other day. Davy congratulated him on the life of Gladstone, and presented him with a copy of his own life, just published. Mr Morley said he would read it carefully, and perhaps he might see a review of it in one of the greatest of London's dailies'" (50).

This autobiography, The Life and Times of Davy Stephens: The Renowned Kingstown Newsman, took comical self-aggrandizement to an admirably high pitch: "His exterior is peculiar but prepossessing. Standing a little below the usual height for the proverbial Irishman [Joyce calls him "minute"], this point is quickly lost sight of in a deep well of wit, not yet completely sounded, beaming forth in his eyes. No one can say whether it is in the merry glance of his eye or in the quick repartee that issues from his lips, never for a moment sealed, that Davy's fortune lies. The corners of his mouth are turned up in a perpetual smile which his clean shaven chin tends to emphasise."

In a characterization that Joyce may well have appreciated, Stephens noted that "His hair hangs down over his shoulders in long strings, reminding one of that of Ulysses when tossed by the sea at the feet of the charming Nausicaa, and the fresh breezes of the Channel have reduced his complexion to a compromise between red and brown. In a black frieze overcoat and a soft Trilby hat ["a large capecoat, a small felt hat"] he braves the cross-Channel gales in winter as readily as he broils beneath the portico of the railway station when the temperature is only 88 degrees in the shade. Atmospheric variations seemingly exert no influence on the perfect constitution of Davy. The scent of the briny and the glint of the sunshine are alike to him. Add to these particulars a fine rich brogue and the man is complete."

The Thom's records suggest that, near the end of his long life, Stephens forsook the rigors of his outdoor post for a more sedentary life. In 1911, when he would have been nearly 70 years old, he was living at 33 Upper George's Street in Kingstown and running a stationery business.

JH 2020
A "ringletted" Davy Stephens, ca. 1904, carrying newspapers under his arm. Source: Vivien Igoe, Real People.
Davy Stephens greeting King Edward VII at Kingstown Harbor. Source: Cyril Pearl, Dublin in Bloomtime.
16 May 1896 photograph held in the National Library of Ireland, with writing on back identifying the "Town Hall, Dunlaoghaire" (at the bottom of Royal Marine Road) on the "first day of electrification," "William Martin Murphy" (standing with one foot on tram), "Clifton Robinson at controls," and "'Davy Stephens' (local character & newsvendor) on top deck." Source: catalogue.nli.ie.
Photograph from a glass-plate negative held in the National Library of Ireland, date unknown, showing Stephens peddling papers in Kingstown. Source: www.nli.ie.