Rubbing the Wrong Relic
We met in Manhattan, Fred and I, in a small café near where I was then living, not far from the Bowery. Third Avenue, to be precise. The number three would turn out to have some significance here as would the number seven though I didn’t yet know it.
Fred was part of an international organisation I belonged to, one where you could meet up with local people wherever you were staying.
We had lunch, chatted and then he did it: he took a metal object from his bag and placed it on the table between us.
“ What’s this,” I asked, playing for time though I could see clearly it was an old, black door knocker.
“ It’s the door knocker,” he said and paused dramatically, “ from Number Seven, Eccles Street, Dublin.”
The table shuddered slightly as if an earthquake were on the way. Number Seven Eccles Street, after all, had seen some comings and goings in its time though not, strangely, in 1904 when Joyce, discovering it had been empty that year, conveniently installed Molly and Leopold in it without as much as a by your leave.
And then along comes Fred Seiden, who, in July 1966, was an eager young American doing a sort of odyssey on wheels around Europe. Arriving in Dublin, he immediately pedalled off to retrace some of Bloom’s steps. In Eccles Street he found Number Seven dilapidated and certainly not celebrated as home to the most well-used marital bed in literary history. Then – and put your hands over your ears for the next bit if you don’t want to be an accessory after the crime – he wrenched the door knocker from the door believing he was saving at least one small part of a house that clearly would not survive much longer.
38 years later, he looked gobsmacked when I told that, in fact, the door was alive and well, its knocker in situ, and on display at the James Joyce Centre. We eyeballed each other, neither flinching from these two versions of the truth but I have to say that as soon as I got back to Dublin I hightailed it to the JJ Centre to examine the knocker where I saw that, yes, there had been a number of previous ones.
In New York last year, I met up with Fred again and compared notes and drawings. His knocker could have come from the door, as he says, though its shape didn’t seem to fit the fading outline of previous ones.
The thing is, none of the Joycean scholars, understandably, are interested in the door knocker though Austin Briggs of Hamilton College, New York, in a short innuendo piece (knockers, geddit?) thought he must have seen the door in Eccles Street before the house was demolished but felt sure the knocker on the door in the JJ Centre was not the same one. David Butler, the Centre’s education officer wasn’t overly surprised: “A lady gave us another one only last year, ” he told me.
It was Joyce supremo David Norris who revealed the identity of “the lady” – none other than Mary Maher, one-time features editor of The Irish Times and “a fierce union woman” as a colleague described her. “Yes,” Mary said, “a friend gave it to me years ago. I can’t say how he came by it or who he was but I decided to donate it to the Centre last year.” Which means we have three Number Seven door knockers and you can’t get a better magical mix than that so don’t anyone even think of finding a fourth one.
Back at the JJ Centre, as I talked to David Butler, a visitor approached the door and reverently stroked its knocker. Politely, I averted my eyes during this sacred moment so I wasn’t able to tell if the pilgrim was Japanese or American or from another of the many far-flung outposts of Joycean culture. Naturally, I didn’t tell him about my discoveries. We’ve managed to deal with the fact that St Patrick was a fictive person but how awful it would be to learn that, when it comes to the door knocker, we’ve all been rubbing the wrong relic.