Greenhouses

Greenhouses

In Brief

In Lestrygonians, thinking that "All kinds of places are good for ads," Bloom approves of the cleverness of placing gonorrhea treatment posters in a place where men experience the effects of the disease: "That quack doctor for the clap used to be stuck up in all the greenhouses." Greenhouses were public urinals sited at heavily trafficked spots on Dublin's streets. The name, now long forgotten, derived from the fact that these structures were painted green. Although intended only for men (letters above the entrance, visible in the second photograph shown here, said "GENTLEMEN ONLY"), Molly once used one in an emergency. Another shows up in Wandering Rocks, possibly as an occasion for anti-imperial mockery only two sentences after a similar insult involving sewers.

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Richard Wall documented this sense of "greenhouse" in An Anglo-Irish Dialect Glossary for Joyce's Works (1987), A Dictionary and Glossary for the Irish Literary Revival (1995), and An Irish Literary Dictionary and Glossary (2001). In his Dictionary of Hiberno-English (2004), Terence Dolan quotes from the last of these, which says that the name referred to "the hexagonal, green, cast-iron public urinals, which were once part of Dublin's street furniture." Wall is almost certainly wrong about the hexagonal shape—photographs show that the structures were octagonal—but he is almost certainly correct about the color. Present-day confirmation of that can be found on Horfield Common in Bristol, England. There, just off Gloucester Road at the end of a concrete path, stands an ornately decorated, Victorian-era iron urinal, this one round, that is painted a bright shade of green. While new paint was no doubt applied recently, it presumably may have been chosen to match what came before. A photograph of one of the Dublin urinals on Ormond Quay, taken in the days of color film, shows that it too was painted green. 

In Penelope, Molly's thoughts about penises lead her to male exhibitionism and thence to greenhouses: "that disgusting Cameron highlander behind the meat market or that other wretch with the red head behind the tree where the statue of the fish used to be when I was passing pretending he was pissing standing out for me to see it with his babyclothes up to one side the Queens own they were a nice lot its well the Surreys relieved them theyre always trying to show it to you every time nearly I passed outside the mens greenhouse near the Harcourt street station just to try some fellow or other trying to catch my eye as if it was 1 of the 7 wonders of the world O and the stink of those rotten places the night coming home with Poldy after the Comerfords party oranges and lemonade to make you feel nice and watery I went into 1 of them it was so biting cold I couldnt keep it when was that 93 the canal was frozen yes it was a few months after a pity a couple of the Camerons werent there to see me squatting in the mens place meadero."  ("Meadero" is a Spanish word for urinal. The "Camerons," or "The Queens own," were the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, an infantry regiment.)

Molly seems to have experienced some curiosity about what the greenhouse experience was like. (Does "just to try," at the end of the first boldfaced passage above, refer to her desire to peek inside, or is it somehow syntactically connected to men "trying to catch my eye"?) But her strongest response is to "the stink of those rotten places," which she associates with men's "disgusting" desire to display their sexual organs to total strangers. It would appear that, in the strongly homosocial environment of 1904 Dublin, men often did not bother to completely button up before leaving the confines of the convenience.

Perhaps some connection is implied to the strange moment in Wandering Rocks when Stephen's father confronts the viceregal cavalcade passing by him on Ormond Quay: "On Ormond quay Mr Simon Dedalus, steering his way from the greenhouse for the subsheriff's office, stood still in midstreet and brought his hat low. His Excellency graciously returned Mr Dedalus' greeting." The phrase "brought his hat low" could describe Simon extravagantly doffing his hat, or perhaps making a deep bow. But would this passionate nationalist ever make such a gesture of obeisance?

It could perhaps be claimed that Simon salutes the viceroy in a spirit of sarcastic mockery (your LORDship) or of resigned cynicism (when in Rome . . .), but in James Joyce's Ireland, David Pierce suggests a different way of understanding the gesture. He notes that "The plebeian Joyce took delight in associating the British Establishment with the urinal," notably in the bizarre detail of Edward VII's bucket in Circe. Simon is coming "from the greenhouse," a structure which did in fact stand on the river's edge of Ormond Quay as one of the photographs here shows. Pierce's comical take is that Simon "has forgotten to button his trousers" and bends over to remedy the problem, but the Lord Lieutenant "assumes that one of his subjects is showing respect and returns the greeting. Across the colonial divide, even basic signs get misread" (105).

The practice of giving urban men places to relieve their bladders, at a time when people moved about by foot and indoor toilets were rare, apparently started in Paris. According to a page on the Old Dublin Town website (www.olddublintown.com), they were informally called pissoirs but the "official name was vespasiennes, named after the first century Roman emperor Vespasianus, who put a tax on urine collected from public toilets and used for tanning leather." Introduced 1841 by Claude-Philibert Barthelot, comte de Rambuteau, the Prefet of the former Départment of the Seine, the first pissoirs had a simple cylindrical shape and were often called colonnes Rambuteau. "In 1877 they were replaced by multi-compartmented structures, referred to as vespasiennes. At the peak of their spread in the 1930s there were 1,230 pissoirs in Paris," but then came a steady decline until in 2006 only one remained. From Paris the practice spread to Berlin, which held architectural competitions in 1847, 1865 and 1877 to choose designs different from the Parisian pissoirs. "One of the most successful types was an octagonal structure with seven stalls, first built in 1879. Their number increased to 142 by 1920."

Precise dates seem harder to come by for cities in the UK. The Old Dublin Town page says that French-style urinals arrived "prior to the 1932 Eucharistic Congress, as part of a 'clean up Dublin' campaign," and in The Encyclopaedia of Dublin Bennett notes that "In 1932, several ornamental cast-iron pissoirs were imported from France and erected on the Quays" for that occasion (95). But Joyce's novel makes clear that they were present much earlier. Vincent Altman O'Connor, who recommended the web page to me, thinks that pissoirs may also have been erected "for the same purpose" before visits paid to Dublin by Edward VII (1868, 1885, 1903). Whenever they were installed, there can be little doubt that the "greenhouses" mentioned in Ulysses are simple, one-hole versions of the structures installed in Paris and Berlin in the later 19th century. Numerous photos document their presence in Dublin and show that their external appearance resembled that of the structure in Bristol pretty closely. At least five images of the pissoir on Ormond Quay survive, including the color photograph displayed here. As the poster for The Eagles on its river side suggests, this fixture lasted into the 1970s, when the Dublin Corporation sold it to a student for £10. It ended up converted into a gazebo in someone's back yard in Sandymount.

JH 2020
2009 photograph by Colin Adamson of the decorative iron urinal on Bristol's Horfield Common, now permanently locked. Source: www.geograph.org.uk.
Photograph, author and date unknown, of a greenhouse on Eden Quay, held in the Wiltshire collection of the National Library of Ireland. Source: www.olddublintown.com.
Photograph, author and date unknown, of a greenhouse on Wood Quay, looking north across the Liffey to the Four Courts.  Source: www.olddublintown.com.
Color photograph, author and date unknown, of the greenhouse on Ormond Quay. Source: www.olddublintown.com.
Photograph of the converted pissoir in Sandymount after Hurricane Charlie in 1986. Source: www.olddublintown.com.