In 1904 Dublin had covered sewers (an improvement over the open drains and backyard cesspools of the 18th century), but no sewage treatment facilities. The River Liffey served as the ultimate sewer, carrying vast amounts of untreated human waste into Dublin Bay. The novel casts many glances at this urban pollution problem, and one glance at a major effort that was being made to improve the infrastructure. Wandering Rocks makes an anti-imperial gesture out of the filth.
In Proteus Stephen notices places on the bayshore where the downstream effects are evident: "Unwholesome sandflats waited to suck his treading soles, breathing upward sewage breath. He coasted them, walking warily." Gifford notes that "the inshore waters of Dublin Bay, particularly just south of the mouth of the Liffey, where Stephen is walking, were notoriously polluted" (51-52).
Shellfish were affected by the bacteria-infested waters, causing periodic outbreaks of disease. Near the end of Nausicaa Bloom, who is sitting near where Stephen was walking, reflects, "Better not stick here all night like a limpet," and soon afterward he is thinking of the human beings who eat such mollusks: "Poor man O'Connor wife and five children poisoned by mussels here. The sewage. Hopeless." He has similar thoughts about oysters in Lestrygonians: "Unsightly like a clot of phlegm. Filthy shells. Devil to open them too. Who found them out? Garbage, sewage they feed on." He goes on to think about the months-with-an-R rule: "June has no ar no oysters." In the same episode, he entertains the thought of swimming in the Liffey: "If I threw myself down? Reuben J's son must have swallowed a good bellyful of that sewage."
One of the Liffey's tributaries, Poddle River, makes an appearance as a bearer of sewage in Wandering Rocks. By the time represented in the novel it had been confined to a brick tunnel and covered over with city pavements, and it emptied into the Liffey through a culvert. As the viceregal cavalcade passes by this culvert, the sewage-choked stream offers open-mouthed, scathing homage: "From its sluice in Wood quay wall under Tom Devan's office Poddle river hung out in fealty a tongue of liquid sewage." Gifford notes that Joyce took fictional license to move this culvert to the Wood Quay wall from its actual location in the Wellington Quay wall, about 350 yards east.
The Dublin Main Drainage Scheme, discussed for decades in the late 19th century before work finally began, devised a way of cleaning up the Liffey. New sewer lines were built under the quays on both banks of the river, intercepting the outflow before it reached the Liffey and carrying it east to a wastewater treatment plant in Ringsend. There, the solids were settled out for disposal in the Irish Sea, and the liquids released into the harbor near the Pigeon House for the tides to disperse. The project was completed in 1906; in 1904 it was still an ongoing dream of civic improvement. As Hugh Kenner notes in his foreword to Joseph O'Brien's Dear, Dirty Dublin (1982), this was "long after such a procedure had been instituted in London, but turn-of-the-century Dublin was a retarded city indeed" (viii). For more on the scheme, see the Greater Dublin Drainage website at www.greaterdublindrainage.com.
The novel comically alludes to this construction project in Lestrygonians, when Tom Rochford, who is working on it, comes into Davy Byrne's pub. "—How is the main drainage? Nosey Flynn asked, sipping. / For answer Tom Rochford pressed his hand to his breastbone and hiccupped. / —Would I trouble you for a glass of fresh water, Mr Byrne? he said." The water is for dissolving some "powder from a twisted paper" to treat a problem in Rochford's main drainage: "—That cursed dyspepsia, he said before drinking."