Different churches

Different churches

In Brief

From atop the pillar, the two women in Stephen's story "see the roofs and argue about where the different churches are: Rathmines' blue dome, Adam and Eve's, saint Laurence O'Toole's." Looking for such landmarks suggests that Anne Kearns and Florence MacCabe are pious women, but since church spires and domes made up most of the landmarks on Dublin's 1904 skyline, the religious focus may be adventitious. One may also ask why Stephen has chosen these particular churches. The primary reason would seem to be geographic: their divergent angles from the pillar let him evoke the panoramic view that the two women get by walking about the square viewing platform at the top of the pillar. It is remotely possible, though, that Irish political and military history may play a part, since all three churches are associated with English rule and Irish resistance.

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As far as I know there are no photographs from the top of the pillar that show the churches that Stephen mentions. But all three are still standing. "Rathmines' blue dome" is a church called Our Lady of Refuge (more fully, Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners) in the suburb of Rathmines, just beyond the Grand Canal about three kilometers south of the pillar. The blue appearance (many observers would have called it green) came from a large oxidized copper dome. A catastrophic fire destroyed the church in 1920 and the entire heavy dome smashed down through its supports, but insurance money enabled quick rebuilding. The beautiful new dome, completed in 1923, is taller and more elaborate than its predecessor, but it too was designed to weather to a blue-green hue, and it continues to provide a striking visual landmark.

"Adam and Eve's," known more formally as the Church of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, is an old Franciscan church that figures prominently in Finnegans Wake: "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay." These opening words evoke the water flowing past Merchant's Quay on the south bank of the Liffey. The church lies just off that street, slightly more than a kilometer west-southwest of the pillar. It too has a blue-green dome, but Stephen does not mention that fact.

The last church he thinks of, "saint Laurence O'Toole's," is a Gothic Revival limestone structure built in the 1840s and 50s several blocks north of what in Joyce's time were working docklands on the Liffey, and about one and a half kilometers east-northeast of the pillar. Its majestic four-stage tower and spire, at the entrance to the nave, command views in the area and were said to be the last landmark seen by emigrants leaving Ireland from the North Wall.

To see these three churches at various points on the skyline (south, west-southwest, east-northeast), Anne and Flo must be walking around the viewing platform—a neat trick of suggesting movement non-narratively. But Stephen may also be subtly weaving a political thread into the story. Two of the churches would have carried patriotic associations for any Irish nationalist. Lorcán Ua Tuathail, later "saint Laurence O'Toole," was a 12th century monk who became the first Irishman elected Archbishop of Dublin, a town ruled by Danes and Norwegians. He was canonized by Pope Honorius III in 1225, and later became Dublin's patron saint because, as archbishop at the time of the Norman invasions, he protected the city's inhabitants, using the respect and trust he inspired in all who met him to obtain clemency from the bloodthirsty knights besieging his city.

"Adam and Eve's" gained its colloquial name because, when Catholic religious observances were prohibited by penal laws in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Franciscans secretly held Mass for worshipers who entered through the Adam and Eve Tavern next door to the church. Joyce mentions the church's services in Cyclops, when the narrator despises Bob Doran for "talking against the Catholic religion, and he serving mass in Adam and Eve’s when he was young with his eyes shut, who wrote the new testament, and the old testament." Ithaca alludes specifically to the surreptitious masses of earlier times when Stephen and Bloom find a spiritual bond in belonging to despised faith communities: "their dispersal, persecution, survival and revival: the isolation of their synagogical and ecclesiastical rites in ghetto (S. Mary’s Abbey) and masshouse (Adam and Eve’s tavern): the proscription of their national costumes in penal laws and jewish dress acts: the restoration in Chanah David of Zion and the possibility of Irish political autonomy or devolution."

As for the Rathmines church, the question of "political autonomy" (republican independence) or "devolution" (greater self-rule within the British empire) that dominated Irish political discourse in the early 20th century impacted that sacred space dramatically in January 1920. For some time, members of the Dublin IRA, assisted by a church official who belonged to "A" Company, had slept in the church whenever police came looking for them at their houses (making it, as Frank McNally pointed out in an Irish Times column a couple of years ago, a Refuge of Shinners). When the great fire broke out, it became difficult to conceal the fact that "A" Company had also been storing large quantities of weapons and ammunition in the church's vaults.

An article dated 5 August 2013 on the Dublin history blog Come Here to Me!, written by Donal and indebted to a 2012 book by Las Fallon titled Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution, describes the chaotic scene that resulted: firemen furiously pumping water from the Grand Canal, the church's dome threatening to come crashing down, and republican soldiers rushing into the burning building to retrieve munitions. After the fire was extinguished, there was fear that British authorities might find remaining arms during clean-up operations, so IRA man Michael Lynch (according to testimony he gave to the Bureau of Military History) went to talk to DFB Captain John Myers, whom he knew to be "a very fine fellow and, from the national point of view, thoroughly sound and reliable in every way." Myers assured Lynch that no one would ever know about any guns found in the rubble, and he was true to his word.

This history, only recently compiled, may well be dismissed as something that Joyce, in his distant continental exile, could not possibly have heard about. But on this, as on so many other points, Ulysses gives its readers just enough telling details to make them question their incredulity. In Circe, when Bloom is sentenced to death by the Inquisition, the sentence is carried out by the Dublin Fire Brigade, led by Myers:



     (Invests Bloom in a yellow habit with embroidery of painted flames and high pointed hat. He places a bag of gunpowder round his neck and hands him over to the civil power, saying.) Forgive him his trespasses.

     (Lieutenant Myers of the Dublin Fire Brigade by general request sets fire to Bloom. Lamentations.)

     Thank heaven!


     (In a seamless garment marked I. H. S. stands upright amid phoenix flames.) Weep not for me, O daughters of Erin.

    (He exhibits to Dublin reporters traces of burning. The daughters of Erin, in black garments, with large prayerbooks and long lighted candles in their hands, kneel down and pray.)

Catholic church services, a stash of gunpowder, Dublin Fire Brigade troops, and John Myers: the coalescence of these details must, at a minimum, be deemed a very strange coincidence. If Joyce did intend for his three churches to carry nationalist associations, he could not have chosen a more opportune vantage than Nelson's Pillar, a symbol of British military might towering over a street identified with Ireland's foremost promoter of Catholic rights. O'Connell's political career represented one long assault on the penal laws of Nelson's era. His statue at the bottom of the street challenged Nelson's statue in front of the Post Office. And Stephen's three "different churches" in Aeolus may possibly be speaking back to the tower from which they are viewed.

JH 2020
Mid-20th century postcard image looking north from Nelson's Pillar with view of several church spires. Source: www.ebay.com.
Our Lady of Refuge church in Rathmines, in a recent photograph. Source: Gareth Collins.
Church of the Immaculate Conception on Merchant's Quay (foreground), in a photograph of unknown date held in the Dublin City Council Photographic Collection. Source: www.dublincity.ie.
St. Laurence O'Toole Catholic Church in a recent photograph. Source: Gareth Collins.
1920 photograph, reproduced in Las Fallon's Dublin Fire Brigade and the Irish Revolution (2012), showing a Dublin Firefighters Brigade firefighter rescuing a work of art from the blazing church in Rathmines. Source: comeheretome.com.
1923 photograph of the new church dome under construction, published in the Irish Times. Source: comeheretome.com.