The National Library of Ireland and its architectural twin,
the National Museum, face each other across a square on
Kildare Street, in the heart of fashionable Dublin between
Trinity College to the north, Merrion Square to the east, and
St. Stephen’s Green to the south. Scylla and Charybdis
takes place in the library, as Stephen presents his views on
Shakespeare's life and work. At the same time, but off-screen,
Bloom is paying a visit to the National Museum to inspect a
plaster reproduction of a Greek statue. He enters the library
about halfway through the chapter to look at a back issue of a
In Telemachus, before Mulligan and Stephen discuss the talk that Stephen will give there, Haines mentions his plan "to visit your national library today." Gifford notes that in the late 19th century the National Library was associated with “efforts to preserve records and keep the Irish language and culture alive,” which no doubt accounts for Haines' pilgrimage there. Although Haines has asked to hear “your idea of Hamlet,” he is not present in the library when Stephen propounds it.
In Lestrygonians, thinking about the ad for Alexander Keyes that he intends to model on an ad that ran earlier, Bloom tells himself, "Must look up that ad in the national library." Later in the same chapter, he reminds himself again, this time thinking specifically of the newspaper which ran the ad: "That Kilkenny People in the national library now I must." But when he heads in that direction at the end of the chapter, he goes first to the National Museum on the other side of the plaza: "Making for the museum gate with long windy strides he lifted his eyes. Handsome building. Sir Thomas Deane designed."
Two architects of this name designed the two buildings in the 1880s: Sir Thomas Newenham Deane and his son Sir Thomas Manly Deane. (The father's father too, a third Sir Thomas Deane, was an Irish architect who designed the Trinity College Museum earlier in the century.) The buildings are grandly eclectic. As Bloom looks at one of them (probably the Museum) he again thinks approvingly of the architecture: "His eyes beating looked steadfastly at cream curves of stone. Sir Thomas Deane was the Greek architecture." Gifford comments that Newenham Deane and Manly Deane "practiced in a rather restrained and heavy way the 'Renaissance style' taught and advocated by the École des Beaux Arts in Paris; while it is technically incorrect to call this style 'Greek,' the handling of columns and pediments is somewhat reminiscent of Greek architecture."
Stephen's Shakespeare talk takes place in the office of the library's
director, Thomas Lyster. Partway through the talk, the
director's attention is called to the arrival of Bloom:
"— Mr Lyster, an attendant said from the door ajar . . .
There's a gentleman here, sir, the attendant said, coming
forward and offering a card. From the Freeman. He
wants to see the files of the Kilkenny People for
last year." As Lyster busies off to help Bloom find his way to
the newspapers, Buck Mulligan, who has arrived in the library
not much earlier, snatches up the calling
card Bloom has presented to the attendant and says, "I
found him over in the museum where I went to hail the
foamborn Aphrodite." Lyster oversaw a staff of 15 who helped
patrons find what they were looking for in the entirely
noncirculating collection of library holdings. As Hugh Kenner
notes in his foreword to Joseph O'Brien's Dear, Dirty
Dublin (1982), these employees were kept busy serving a
very large number of patrons, most of them college students.
Near the end of Scylla and Charybdis, Stephen follows Mulligan out of the office, through "The constant readers' room" (the grand showpiece of the building's interior), past "The turnstile," down a staircase, and into "The pillared Moorish hall, shadows entwined." The men are now in the ground-floor entrance hall, a beautiful blue and white room whose Corinthian columns echo the columns on the building's exterior. It cannot be called Moorish in any strict sense, but does have an exotic otherworldly flavor that apparently appeals to Stephen's fascination with things Islamic. At the door, as he is about to leave the building, Stephen stands aside to let an unnamed man, Bloom, pass between himself and Mulligan, and he thinks, "The portico. / Here I watched the birds for augury." The portico is a semicircular covered porch with stone steps leading down to the Kildare Street sidewalk.
In section 5 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen stood on the portico steps and watched the birds in the sky the way ancient Roman augurs did: "What birds were they? He stood on the steps of the library to look at them, leaning wearily on his ashplant. They flew round and round the jutting shoulder of a house in Molesworth Street. . . . They were flying high and low but ever round and round in straight and curving lines and ever flying from left to right, circling about a temple of air. . . . Why was he gazing upwards from the steps of the porch, hearing their shrill twofold cry, watching their flight? For an augury of good or evil? . . . And for ages men had gazed upward as he was gazing at birds in flight. The colonnade above him made him think vaguely of an ancient temple and the ashplant on which he leaned wearily of the curved stick of an augur."
Fargnoli and Gillespie note that "In Joyce's time the National Library served as a gathering place for students from University College, Dublin (at that time located just south of the library across St Stephen's Green), and a number of episodes in the fifth chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are set at and around the library."
As Mulligan and Stephen stand on the portico, they see Bloom's "dark back" go before them, step of a pard, down, out by the gateway, under portcullis barbs." This is the ironwork gate, marked "Library" in gilt letters and topped with spikes, that leads out to Kildare Street. Bloom has entered its "Museum" counterpart at the end of Lestrygonians.
The near-meeting of the two protagonists in the library is retrospectively acknowledged in Ithaca, when Bloom and Stephen make tentative plans to meet again to continue their conversation. One of the many places proposed for such future meetings is "the National Library of Ireland, 10 Kildare street." Later in Ithaca, Bloom again recalls his "visit to museum and national library" earlier in the day.