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The Real People of Joyce’s Ulysses – A Biographical Guide by Vivien Igoe, UCD Press, 360 pp, €29.50

Reading Ulysses for about the third or fourth time, it is extraordinary how much more easily it moves along. It helps, of course, if one has a knowledge of Irish history and is living on Dublin’s north side, in the midst of ‘Joyceland’, as I now am.

The associations are all around. Within minutes of my house, I can see: Eccles Street, where Leopold and Molly Bloom lived, Glasnevin cemetery, scene of the book’s famous funeral scene, and about four of Joyce’s actual family homes, as well as Claude road where his father lived and the old Drumcondra hospital where he died.

In Joyce’s life and work, the real and the fictional blend seamlessly, and this is the whole point of Vivien Igoe’s most absorbing and fascinating book. She has compiled a directory of all the characters who appear, or are even mentioned in, Ulysses, and describes their actual lives or the actual characters thy are based on.

But is more than just Joyce and Ulysses, Igoe has provided a ‘drilled down’ portrait of the whole spectrum of Dublin, and Irish, life in the late Victorian and Edwardian era. Here are the seeds and precursors of the emergent Irish State, as she brings alive familiar streets and their often unfamiliar inhabitants.

Unfamiliar only to us, of course : in a Dublin only half the size of what it is now and where almost everybody moved on foot, or by tram (obesity and Facebook be damned!) most citizens would be very au fait with the passing figures of AE Russell, or John Howard Parnell (of the famous brother) or the various Corporation and legal officials.


Even the famous Invincibles (above), who ambushed the colonial Chief Secretary and his deputy in the Phoenix Park are constantly cited or spotted. Joyce had a conspiratorial regard for incendiary Fenians and rumour was gold.

Figures from his other interests dominate such as the opera, literature, Catholicism, music hall, pubs and European politics. This detail and intimacy adds to what makes Ulysses as fresh today as it was when it was written, and is a tribute to Joyce’s extraordinary modernistic skills. He renders 1906 as absolutely vivid and contemporaneous, in contrast to our usual sepia-toned perspective of the recent past. Igoe follows in his wake like a sleuth or street detective, recording the compositional details and arcana.

And what stories are condensed here: chancers, dancing masters, lawyers changing political colours, and entrepreneurs living on their wits. People change addresses according to prosperity. But it is overwhelmingly a middle class to lower middle class world – Catholic and Protestant, incidentally. The Anglo Irish do not feature extensively, and certainly do not dominate as they usually did then, but neither do the vast poor of the tenements, at least by name.

The smallest portraits intrigue, such as James Carey, a slum landlord, daily communicant and Fenian who turned Queen’s evidence to help hang his comrades. Shaven and renamed, he was shipped out to South Africa for a new life, with his wife and six children. Until he is spotted on board by another Fenian and killed in Cape Town. The assassin is subsequently hanged. A screenplay surely beckons.

Vivien Igoe and Senator David Norris

I have never met Vivien Igoe (pictured above, with Senator and Joyce specialist David Norris) but she kindly helped me try to track down a missing brass plaque from 6 Clare Street, Dublin 2, off Merrion Square, which sported the business name ‘Beckett and Medcalf’. Yes, it was Sam’s father’s business where the young son used to play and idle. The plaque is still missing, alas. But that is another story.

Vivien Igoe has done some extraordinary tracking down herself. And in this wonderful and impressive piece of scholarship, she has added hugely to what is one of our most timeless and ever-rewarding works of literature.