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Ulysses Blog by Ambassdor Mulhall, Episode 10, The Wandering Rocks

Ulysses is a unique novel. That accounts for its fame - and its formidable, frequently off-putting, reputation among readers. It is unique in many different ways. These include the fact that Joyce employs such a wide range of writing styles and approaches. If the novel has typical chapters, they would include Calypso (Episode 4), The Lotus Eaters (5) and Hades (6) where the focus is on Leopold Bloom, into whose head we enter to learn from and enjoy his Everyman's mental quirkiness as he wanders the streets of Dublin doing everyday things.

But, we have just finished a chapter (Scylla and Charybdis) in which Bloom barely features and which consists of an elaborate discussion of literature involving Stephen Dedalus and others in Dublin's National Library. Now in The Wandering Rocks, Bloom makes just one short appearance, although he is referred to a few more times.

This episode of Ulysses is unusual in another way. It is the only one without a direct parallel in Homer's Odyssey. The rocks are alluded to in the Odyssey when the enchantress, Circe, warns Odysseus “that no ship of men that came here ever has fled through but the waves of the sea and storms of ravening fire carry away together the ship’s timbers and the men’s bodies.” Only Jason and the Argonauts had ever made it through.

Joyce added The Wandering Rocks at a late stage. He saw it as an entr’acte, a gentle distraction before the novel roars towards its conclusion through seven quite challenging episodes.  Joyce evidently wished to focus on the life of Dublin rather than on his main characters, the Blooms and Stephen. This is a very accessible and enjoyable part of the novel. It contains nineteen glimpses of Dublin life, ingeniously woven together to provide a potpourri of images and snatches of dialogue.  This is the episode where the date on which the novel is set is confirmed - 16 June 1904 - when Miss Dunne from Blazes Boylan’s office types those words on “a sheet of gaudy notepaper”.

We start this journey through Dublin’s streets in the company of Father Conmee, S.J., whose progress from the city centre to the suburb of Artane on the north side of the city we follow for eight or so leisurely pages during which he interacts with a number of his fellow Dubliners. Conmee is taken from real life; he was Rector at Clongowes Wood school during Joyce's time there.  In these pages, he is presented sympathetically, an easygoing, tolerant if self-satisfied Catholic clergyman.  Joyce described him to his friend Herbert Gorman as “a bland and courtly humanist”. In A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, where Conmee also features, Joyce implies that he had a difficult time at Clongowes, but his biographer, Richard Ellmann, observes that he "distinguished himself" there, even being a surprisingly good athlete with a keen interest in cricket!

The second section is very short, but it does give us a glimpse of "a generous white arm from a window in Eccles Street" throwing a coin down to a one-legged beggar on the footpath below. This arm belongs to Molly Bloom.

In the third section, we see the man who received Molly's coin swinging past Katey and Boody Dedalus, two of Stephen's sisters. In the fourth section, we get a fuller insight into the dysfunctional nature of the Dedalus (aka Joyce) family on account of the fecklessness of their father. A third sister, Maggie, has returned empty-handed from the pawnshop, while a fourth is out trying to waylay their father for money to keep their home intact - "Our father who art not in heaven." Meanwhile, the Dedalus girls have to make do for food with bread and pea soup. 

In section five, we encounter Molly's paramour, Blazes Boylan, buying a fruit hamper to be sent to as he flirts with the blond girl in the shop. In subsequent sections we see Ned Lambert, a drinking companion of Simon Dedalus, showing a Church of Ireland clergyman around St. Mary’s Abbey, renowned in Irish history as the place where the rebellion of Silken Thomas against the Tudors began in 1534. Later, we come across the spot where the patriot, Robert Emmet, was executed in 1803. We also see John Howard Parnell, brother of the late, lamented Irish political leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, playing chess in a Dublin coffee house.  Ireland’s contested history is never far from the surface of life in early 20th century Dublin. 

We see Leopold Bloom buying a titillating novel for Molly, Sweets of Sin, to replace the one she finished in Episode 4, Ruby: the Pride of the Ring.  We get a sense of how Bloom is viewed by his fellow Dubliners when Lenehan observes that Bloom is “a cultured allroundman” and that “He’s not one of your common or garden .. you know … There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom.”

By way of balance, Molly also comes into focus when Lenehan recalls an annual dinner at Glencree in the Wicklow mountains not far from Dublin which the Blooms also attended. On a carriage ride back to Dublin at “blue o’clock the morning after the night before” on “a gorgeous winter’s night”, Lenehan squeezed in beside Molly as Leopold sat opposite examining the starry night sky. He retains fond memories of the journey. “She was well primed with a good load of Delahunt’s port under her bellyband. Every jolt the bloody car made I had her bumping up against me. .. She’s a gamey mare and no mistake.”

Stephen appears in two separate sections. His literary aspirations are also discussed by Buck Mulligan and Haines the visiting Englishman from Episode 1. Mulligan dismisses Stephen: “He will never capture the Attic note. The note of Swinburne, of all poets, the white death and the ruddy birth. That is his tragedy. He can never be a poet.” Mulligan also describes Stephen as Wandering Aengus, a reference to Yeats’s well-known poem, The Song of Wandering Aengus, with its memorable closing lines:  

“And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.”

There is a message here from Joyce, for Ulysses could easily be described as the song of wandering Leopold!  Joyce adds an amusing aside when Mulligan says that Stephen had promised to write something in ten years. A decade after 1904 Joyce announced himself to the world with the publication of Dubliners and the appearance of a serialised version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

We also eavesdrop on a conversation between Stephen and his Italian singing teacher, Almidano Artifoni, named after the owner of the Berlitz language school in Trieste where Joyce worked for many years. The magpie in Joyce assiduously mined his own experience for names and characters with which to populate his novel.

Readers may notice that Joyce’s prose changes tenor, becomes more poetic, whenever Stephen is around. Here is what he sees in a jeweler’s window: “Dust darkened the toiling fingers with their vulture nails. Dust slept on dull coils of bronze and silver, lozenges of cinnabar, on rubies, leprous and winedark stones.”

The final pages of The Wandering Rocks are devoted to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, William Humble, Earl of Dudley, as he travels by horse-drawn carriage from the Vice-Regal Lodge in the Phoenix Park (now the residence of the President of Ireland, Áras an Uachtarán) to Ringsend for the opening of a local bazaar.  This seems to me to be a counterpoint to Father Conmee’s stroll with which this episode begins. Readers may recall in episode 1 that Stephen complains that he is “the servant of two masters” .. “the British imperial state” and “the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” And here we find Stephen’s two ‘masters’, Church and State, bookending this chapter.

The Lord Lieutenant was the ceremonial head of the British Administration, the representative of the crown in Ireland. The Earl of Dudley served in Dublin from 1902 to 1906. This was an eventful time politically with the passage of the Wyndham Land Act of 1903 which transformed land ownership in rural Ireland. There was also a failed attempt to deliver a modest version of Home Rule for Ireland which caused political uproar and resulted in the resignation in 1905 of Dudley’s Chief Secretary, George Wyndham.


Irish attitudes towards the Lord Lieutenant and his administration ranged from devotion through indifference to outright hostility.  In the course of his carriage ride, the Earl of Dudley comes across many of the characters who have appeared earlier in this episode. He is saluted by “obsequious policemen”, “watched and admired”, made “obeisance” to, and stared at from “winebig oyster eyes.” Meanwhile, “the Poddle river hung out in fealty a tongue of liquid sewage.” A cocky Blazes Boylan dressed in “a skyblue tie, a widebrimmed straw hat at a rakish angle and a suit of indigo serge” forgot to salute the Earl but offered the three accompanying ladies “the bold admiration of his eyes.” 

At one point on his journey, “John Wyse Nolan smiled with unseen coldness towards the lord lieutenantgeneral and general governor of Ireland.” Nolan’s coldness was hardly surprising for this character, who will appear again later in the novel, is based on the prominent journalist, John Wyse Power. He was something of an archetypal advanced nationalist, a supporter of the Land League, a Fenian, a founder member of the Gaelic Athletic Association and an enthusiast for the revival of the Irish language. In 1916, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was signed at his Dublin home in Henry Street not far from the Rising’s headquarters at the General Post Office.

I really like the sparkling manner in which this Episode ends:


“On Northumberland and Lansdowne roads His Excellency acknowledged punctually salutes from rare male walkers, the salute of two small schoolboys at the garden gate of the house said to have been admired by the late queen when visiting the Irish capital with her husband, the prince consort, in 1849, and the salute of Almidano Artifoni’s sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door.”    

On we go now to meet the Sirens (Episode 11) at the Ormonde Hotel on the north bank of the River Liffey.



Daniel Mulhall is Ambassador of Ireland in Washington DC

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