As Bloomsday approaches, Mary Russell goes on a transatlantic odyssey to solve the mystery of No 7 Eccles Street’s multiple door knockers
We met in Manhattan, Fred and I, in a small cafe 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, as would the number seven, though I didn’t yet know it.
Fred was part of an international organisation I belonged to, which helped you to meet local people wherever you were staying.
We had lunch, chatted and then he took a metal object from his bag and placed it on the table between us.
“What’s this?” I asked, though I could clearly see it was an old, black door knocker.
“It’s the door knocker,” he said and paused dramatically, “from No 7, Eccles Street, Dublin.”
The table shuddered slightly as if an earthquake were on the way. No 7 Eccles Street, after all, was the fictional home of Ulysses’ Leopold and Molly Bloom. When James Joyce discovered the house was empty in 1904, he conveniently installed the Blooms in it without so much as a by-your-leave.
And then along came Fred Seiden. In July 1966, he 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 No 7 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 now 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.
Thirty-eight years later, he looked gobsmacked when I told him 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 as soon as I got back to Dublin I hightailed it to the James Joyce Centre to examine the knocker. I saw from the marks on the door 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, Joycean scholars, understandably, are not overly interested in the door knocker. Austin Briggs of Hamilton College, New York, however, wrote in a short innuendo piece (knockers, geddit?) that he thought he must have seen the door in Eccles Street before the house was demolished, but felt sure the knocker now on the door in the James Joyce Centre was not the same one as he had seen.
David Butler, the centre’s education officer, isn’t overly surprised: “A lady gave us another one only last year, ” he says.
Famous Joycean David Norris was able to reveal the identity of “the lady” – none other than Mary Maher, one-time women’s editor of The Irish Times and “a fierce union woman”, as a colleague described her.
“Yes,” Mary says, “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.” It’s on display upstairs in a glass case.
Which means we have three No 7 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 James Joyce Centre, as I talk to David Butler, a visitor approaches the door and reverently strokes its knocker. Politely, I avert my eyes during this sacred moment so I am not able to tell if the pilgrim is Japanese or American or from another of the many far-flung outposts of Joycean culture. Naturally, I don’t tell him about my discoveries.
We’ve managed to deal with the fact that St Patrick was a fictitious 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.