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The Lady in the Dodder

A ghostly character from Joyce’s Ulysses ‑ one who had a real life existence ‑ was indirectly responsible for a radical deterioration of the river bank along the Dodder as it approaches Londonbridge. Since the sloblands of the area were drained in the 1790s, the river featured pleasantly sloping banks which caught the westerly sun and an opposite bank of thickets, undergrowth and birdsong, a type of covering which is still common further upriver where, as it happens, the young JM Synge practised his ornithological pursuits a few short years before the alterations lower down took place.

Overreacting to a murder by drowning in 1900, the Commissioners of the Pembroke Urban District Council ordered the bank to be walled and a protective fence added, turning that section into a cold and bleak stretch along an otherwise charming river. Indeed it remains somewhat harsh to this day despite the recent commendable efforts of the city fathers to render it less dreary by adding curvy railings and a plaque.

The ghostly character in question was of interest to Joyce because his conduct pointed towards radical approaches to life’s challenges and, in particular, approaches to the sort of challenges which confronted Leopold Bloom. While these possibilities were quite beyond Bloom’s emotional range, it seems Joyce wished to make an oblique gesture of acknowledgement towards them by giving this individual a small part in his hero’s life.

As an initial observation, we might acknowledge the widely accepted fact that there are plenty of differences between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses. The connection is, to say the least, on the loose side.

When, for example, Odysseus returned from the (presumed) dead to discover that his wife had attracted a considerable number of suitors, the ancient hero ‑ notwithstanding the fact that none had actually gone horizontal with his lady ‑ formed the view that they should all be slaughtered, which task he then set himself to. That’s the sort of no nonsense individual he was.

The case of poor Poldy Bloom was a little different. When Bloom saw Blazes Boylan, his wife’s lover, on the street, he ducked into the national library to avoid an encounter ‑ well that’s the sort of chap he was. Bloom is sensitive, intelligent and likeable and most people would undoubtedly be quite happy to take a drink with him. Nevertheless, while we are aware that the Odyssean approach is impractical, we often wish that Bloom had some of Stephen Dedalus’s ruthlessness. Of course, we wouldn’t want him to be as tightly wound as the “young genius”; we’d like to think there was a middle road, a via media.

Joyce seems to say there isn’t. He knew his hardworking hero was unlikely to thrive in the harsh world, still less in the sinking ship that was Edwardian Dublin. (A question which sometimes arises in the reader’s mind ‑ at least in this reader’s mind ‑ is whether Bloom would have had better luck elsewhere; would things have been better for him for example in Belle Époque France, in, say, the world of Seurat’s La Grande Jatte with its well-turned out bourgeoisie strolling along the banks of the Seine. Perhaps, but the likes of Charles Maurras and Maurice Barrès might well have been on his case, along with a bunch of others who would have made the Citizen’s anti-Semitism look like a pre-dinner cocktail.)

High-octane Stephen Dedalus is not the only alternative Joyce offers to Bloom’s unfortunate entrapment. There are others.  One of the least known but most interesting has but one foot in the text; it is Bloom’s nom de plume Henry Flower, in a sense his nom de guerre.

Henry Flower was a Dublin Metropolitan Policeman and in the year 1900 was keeping company with Bridget Gannon, a parlourmaid at 124 Lower Baggot Street. It seems that Miss Gannon greatly pleased the big policeman (he was a good six feet) because after a period he proposed matrimony to her. Bridget, it was reported, returned to him some time later saying she had consulted with a local priest who had advised her against the marriage as Mr Flower was a Protestant man.

A little later Ms Gannon wound up lifeless and floating in the Dodder near Londonbridge. When she was taken unidentified from the water she was simply described as “a sturdy female”. Later she was identified and Henry Flower was charged with her murder. We will return to this tragic drowning, but in the meantime it has to be said there is something odd about this account. Something has been left out, I suspect, something which would have been very obvious to contemporaries.

By 1900 a very large number of Protestant men had married Catholics. All you had to do to marry a Catholic was renounce the religion of your forefathers and sign up with the other side. In the first decades of the nineteenth century the traffic was in both directions but by the fin de siècle the Catholics in Dublin had decidedly won the numbers game and the conversions were flowing in their direction.

All Constable Flower would have had to do to secure Miss Gannon was to agree to a sort emasculation through conversion. It seems he declined to do this and offered matrimony as he was, thirty nine articles and all. Bridget broke off all contact, presumably with an eye to her eternal felicity.

Leopold Bloom was more accommodating than Flower. He had fallen for Molly Tweedy and in order to marry her had converted to Catholicism. Conversions of this sort were usually nominal in that they were not accompanied by a sincere embracing of the Catholic position on the transcendent and man’s relationship with same through the sacraments. This was certainly the case with Bloom, who appears to have regarded the whole Catholic thing as a bit of a racket. Conversion – however nominal ‑ did cut you off from your former milieu, with the result that the person you converted for and your children were likely to become the central focus of your life, if you didn’t choose the bottle. Thus when we first meet Poldy Bloom he is running up and down stairs with trays of tea and bread – the kind she liked ‑ for Molly to have in bed. That’s all very fine but, to cut straight to the point, there was no sex! And it seems there hadn’t been for a full ten years of Molly’s prime. Not a recipe for contentment!

Bloom’s daughter Milly had left home and was making her living as a photographer’s assistant in Mullingar and starting a courtship with a student. There is plenty of jizz about Milly and a fulfilled future does not seem out of the question. Their other child, Rudy, died after eleven days, leaving an emptiness in Bloom’s soul and an unwillingness to have sexual relations with his wife. So if Molly sought intimacy elsewhere, she can hardly be blamed.

Bloom sees himself as an emasculated failure. He understands why Kitty O Shea took up with Parnell: her husband couldn’t satisfy her and Parnell was more of a man. And in an involuntary fantasy Boylan tells him that if he wishes he can apply his eye to the keyhole and play with himself “while I just go through her a few times”. The future did not at all look good for Bloom. It was not impossible he would end up as his father did.

Leopold bloom’s father, Rudolf Virág, after whom Rudy was named, came to Ireland some time in the second half of the nineteenth century. He came to a country locked under the frozen maw of empire where one of the few activities which energised the populace was the competitive counting of Protestants and Catholics and their material assets.

Naturally Virág sought a woman and a relationship to make life worth living and fell for Bloom’s mother, Ellen Higgins. Miss Higgins was a Protestant Christian and in order to proceed Rudolf had to convert to that brand of Christianity, having changed his name to Bloom. Like his son’s conversion, it was a nominal business and he remained essentially Jewish. But like his son he also became psychologically dependent on his wife, who may not have been faithful. When she died, he suffered from depression and eventually took his own life by consuming poison in a hotel room in Ennis, leaving a poignant note for his only son, Leopold.

Leopold Bloom’s compensating sexual activities were on the squalid side and were autosexual in character. Seeking arousal, he commenced a correspondence with Martha Clifford, a lady who answered his advertisement in The Irish Times for literary assistance. Martha appears to have had him on the back foot, pleading to meet with him and demanding to know what perfume his wife wore. One feels that had they met she would have had the whip hand. When he wrote to Ms Clifford, Joyce had Bloom employ the nom de plume Henry Flower whose presence perhaps gave Bloom the strength not to yield to her importuning. Bloom was no doubt thinking Flower an amusing pun on his own (false) name whereas Joyce was conscious of an additional psychological steel.

In real life Flower insisted on having it out with Miss Gannon. He importuned her over a period, pleading for a final meeting. She refused until he hit on the idea of saying she could bring a companion. This she did but ‑ clever Henry ‑ he also brought a companion, a fellow constable, who was charged to entertain Miss Gannon’s companion and keep her at a distance. The foursome walked from Baggot Street to Northumberland Road via Haddington Road and from there down Lansdowne road to the New Bridge on the Dodder. It seems the constable friend did his work well because at that point he headed down Herbert Road with Bridget’s companion while the original couple headed along the river towards Londonbridge.

There are a great many interesting facets to this case, including an anonymous burial, a suicide, an exhumation and an unconfirmed tale of a sworn declaration to a solicitor son of Michael Cusack– the Citizen ‑ decades later in a tenement house in Gardiner street which exonerated Henry Flower. These facets of the case will have to wait for another day in order to allow us focus on the Joycean connection.(The editors of the drb insist on “a clear narrative thread” and I do not wish to offend on that score.)

In anyway, as they say, in due course Constable Flower was arrested and charged with the murder of Miss Gannon. To the surprise of many, the authorities found he had no case to answer. Flower promptly quit the DMP and left the country never to be heard of again. Dublin was very much of the opinion that he had done the deed and Joyce seems also to have held that view. The Nosey Flynns of the city maintained he got away with it because he was in the "craft", an accusation also levelled at Bloom.

Joyce picked Henry Flower as Bloom’s pseudonym deliberately. Indeed it seems he knew that stretch of the Dodder well. The river Swan, which wends its way down from Castlewood Avenue in Rathmines, where the Joyce family paused on their journey to penury, enters the Dodder about halfway between the New Bridge and Londonbridge. Joyce celebrates this effluence in Finnegans Wake on page 248:

Shake hands through the thicketloch! Sweet swanwater!

Looks like a nod to Moore, and possibly also to Burns; he continues with significance to our theme:

My other is mouthfilled. This kissing wold’s full of killing fellows kneeling voyantly to the cope of heaven.

This, I think, puts the tin lid on it.