Arbour Hill

Arbour Hill

In Brief

The unnamed narrator of Cyclops starts the chapter with some precise geographical coordinates: "I was just passing the time of day with old Troy of the D. M. P. at the corner of Arbour hill there and . . . who should I see dodging along Stony Batter only Joe Hynes." Arbour Hill and Stoneybatter are two contiguous areas in northwest Dublin and also the main roads within those areas. The narrator is standing at the intersection of the two streets, having walked several blocks down from number "29 Arbour hill," where he was trying to collect on a debt. That house lies very near two important spots for Irish revolutionary history.

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Stoneybatter Road is the name, for a short while, of a thoroughfare that starts at the quayside of the Liffey as Blackhall Place, running north from the site of the new (2003) James Joyce Bridge. Turning northwest, the avenue becomes Stoneybatter for several blocks and then Manor Street. At the beginning of the Stoneybatter stretch a residential lane called Arbour Hill departs to the southwest, and it is here that "An old plumber named Geraghty" dwells, refusing to reimburse a moneylender named Moses Herzog.

§ This location would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that, at the time represented in the novel, two pillars of British imperial power straddled the Arbour Hill road only one block further west. Just south of the road sat the huge Royal Barracks, housing the largest assemblage of British troops in Dublin. In 1798 Wolfe Tone and two other leaders of the United Irishmen rebellion, Henry and John Sheares, were imprisoned in these barracks. Tried by court-martial and convicted of treason, Tone either committed suicide or was murdered in prison; the Sheares brothers were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Cyclops later mentions all three, inspiring the hilarious parody of an execution report: "And the citizen and Bloom having an argument about the point, the brothers Sheares and Wolfe Tone beyond on Arbour Hill and Robert Emmet and die for your country." The Sheares brothers' mutilated remains, and possibly those of Robert Emmet as well, were buried in the crypt of the nearby St. Michan's church, which also figures in the chapter.

This much is part of the historical record for the people in the bar, but Joyce would have been aware of another piece of history that they could not know because it had not yet happened. Just north of the Royal Barracks, across Arbour Hill road, lies the Arbour Hill military prison. In May 1916, fourteen leaders of the Easter Rising who had been executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol were taken there and buried without any ceremony—shoved in the ground and covered with quicklime. The burial site at the edge of the prison was used as an exercise yard, though it may technically have been part of the prison cemetery grounds. Bishop Thomas O'Dwyer declared that the British had denied the men a Christian burial by interring them in unconsecrated ground, and there was a public outcry that helped turn popular opinion in favor of the rebels.

After the establishment of the Irish Free State, the government resolved to make Arbour Hill a place of heroic commemoration rather than shameful obscurity, and these efforts have continued during the era of the Republic. Today, the mass grave is backed by a wall inscribed with the names of the 14 men, and their deaths are commemorated every year in May. The wall also reproduces the text of the 1916 Proclamation in both English and Irish.

It might be objected that Joyce, so philosophically committed to realistic depiction, would not have evoked the events of 1916 in a novel set in 1904. But the more one digs into the densely woven fabrics of Ulysses the less tenable this hypothesis becomes. Nestor evokes the carnage of the Great War (1914-18) by seeing "slush and uproar of battles, the frozen deathspew of the slain, a shout of spearspikes baited with men's bloodied guts" in a hockey game played by boys with names like "Armstrong" and "Sargent"—boys who, a decade later, might well have been dying in the trenches. That chapter also introduces news of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak that would not actually come to Ireland until 1912, and the alarm over this development continues in Cyclops. Eumaeus slyly evokes the sinking of the Titanic (1912) through numerous references to lookouts, icebergs, shipwrecks, lifeboats, drowning, and individuals connected with the disaster.

It is entirely conceivable that Joyce, as he wrote Cyclops in 1919, could have intended "Arbour Hill" to resonate with meanings looking both backward and forward in time from 1904. One of his literary heroes, Dante Alighieri, who held similarly grand notions of literary truth-telling, performed that trick repeatedly by exploiting a similar temporal gap between the setting of his poem (1300) and its composition (ca. 1308-20). Dead people in the Commedia refer obscurely to important future events that they can see from the perspective of eternity but that the relatively uninformed pilgrim cannot. Given the outrage that greeted the summary execution and burial of the leaders of the Easter Rising, Joyce could hardly have failed to know that Arbour Hill had gained a second grisly claim to geopolitical fame. And, given the fact that Cyclops is the chapter of Ulysses most singlemindedly devoted to the subject of violent Irish nationalism, he could hardly have failed to realize that when he chose Arbour Hill as the spot to begin the chapter he was piling one allusion on top of another. The narrator's debt-collecting visit to that spot is narratively inconsequential but intellectually supercharged.

JH 2019
2019 photograph of "the corner of Arbour Hill" (left) and the more commercial Stoneybatter Road (right).  Source: John Hunt.
Detail of 1920 Bartholomew map of Dublin, with arrows showing the intersection of Arbour Hill and Stoneybatter roads (blue) and the location of 29 Arbour Hill just east of the barracks and military prison (red). Source: John Hunt.
29 Arbour Hill, on the corner of Ard Righ Road, in 2019. Source: John Hunt.
The back of the Royal Barracks, seen in 2019 from the Arbour Hill road. Source: John Hunt.
2014 photography by Smirkybec of the Arbour Hill Prison and Church of the Sacred Heart on Arbour Hill road. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
2010 photograph of a springtime ceremony at the gravesite of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, in the Arbour Hill Prison cemetery. Source: Wikimedia Commons.