Blowing the bellows

Blowing the bellows

In Brief

In Sirens Bloom thinks of John Glynn "Seated all day at the organ," talking to himself or to "the other fellow blowing the bellows." The organ in St. Xavier's church where Glynn is employed must be of a type that has become rare in the last century but that would still have been common in 1904. Such instruments needed at least two people to operate them: a skilled keyboardist and someone with strong arms working nonstop to keep the bellows inflated. If the musician's practice went on "all day," this second job must have been tiresome beyond belief.

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Large pipe organs are wind instruments not essentially unlike accordions or bagpipes, but they require a lot more air. The ones installed in Christian churches before the 19th century relied on large leather bellows such as might be found in a blacksmith's shop, weighted at the top to apply steady pressure to the inflated bag. When one bellows was depleted it had to be filled up again, while a second bellows maintained the flow of air. Some larger organs had as many as twenty bellows powered by small armies of pushers. Victorian-era inventors tried generating the necessary wind with engines powered by steam, water, gasoline, and eventually electricity. Electric blowers began to replace bellows in organs in the 1860s, but the conversion process would have been uneven, slowed by a host of local factors. Although the electrification of Ireland began in the 1880s it did not become really widespread until the 1920s and 30s, so it is plausible to suppose that many of the organs that Joyce knew in Dublin were still powered by human hands.

Bloom thinks often of the invisible, thankless jobs that unimportant people perform. Here in Sirens, his appreciation of the "fifty quid a year" that the well-respected Glynn earns as a church organist does not prevent him from recognizing that there would be no music without some poor drudge keeping the bellows inflated. Similarly, in Nausicaa the winking of the Kish lightship makes him reflect, "Life those chaps out there must have, stuck in the same spot." He is still thinking of them in Eumaeus, feeling grateful to "the harbourmasters and coastguard service who had to man the rigging and push off and out amid the elements, whatever the season, when duty called Ireland expects that every man and so on, and sometimes had a terrible time of it in the wintertime not forgetting the Irish lights, Kish and others, liable to capsize at any moment." That chapter also shows his awareness of humdrum restaurant work. Stephen wonders aloud why they turn chairs upside down on tables at the end of the day, and Bloom has a ready answer: "To sweep the floor in the morning."

Thanks to Vincent Altman O'Connor for calling my attention to the mention of the bellows-blower in Sirens, which none of Joyce's annotators have commented on until now.

JH 2022
Hand-pumped organ being played in the church in San Andrés Zautla, Oaxaca. Source: