Tag Archives: The Irish Times

James Joyce’s Knocker.Here’s the story that started it…from my piece in The Irish Times

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.

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My reading list just gets longer. Time to prioritise…

Got to the Bodleian yesterday evening about 16:30 when the sky overhead was a deep, luminous blue which surely meant snow.
The book I had ordered was there, waiting for me in the Radcliffe Camera. Normally, for books on the open shelves, readers help themselves but we are temporarily barred from the lower Gladstone Link, due to a leak, and so enjoy the luxury of our books being carried up the metal stairs for us to the Camera.
The book I wanted was Travel A Literary History, by Peter Whitfield, published in 2011, by the Bodleian itself and available in the library’s excellent shop.

As with all books ordered, I did a skim read. Byron is there as is Joan Didion, Dante, Hannibal, Sara Wheeler and Jan Morris among many others. I’m not. (Yes, I checked. I am human, after all.) Egeria is there though Whitfield is a bit dismissive, saying that she tells little about the places she visited. Not so. Earlier this year, I sat in a shaded monastery garden outside Jerusalem, with Earl from the Falls Road, though now known as Gregory, Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery in Jerusalem’s old city. He knew of Egeria ( full marks, Abbot) because of her writings which are greatly valued as being among the earliest first-hand accounts of 4th century liturgy. Her descriptions of the rich hangings and drapes alone are worth reading. She also comments on the plants grown by the monks and on their irrigation systems. You can read more about her in my book The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt ( http://www.maryrussell.info) .

You can also read, in Blessings, about Margery Kempe, the noisy, obstreperous, talkative and, at times, infuriating pilgrim who travelled on foot and by boat from England to Jerusalem in 1414. Strange that she too has been left out of Whitfield’s so comprehensive book. By the way, if I’ve whetted your appetite, you’ll find the radio documentary I made about Margery also on my website.

Whitfield has included an apt comment by Paul Theroux made when a friend remarked that there was no point in travel writing since, said the friend, everyone travels so who wants to read about it. To which Theroux replied: ”Everyone gets laid too but that doesn’t eliminate screwing as a subject – I mean people still write about it.”
So Egeria is here as is Saint Brendan but not, and understandably perhaps, Saint Ia who sailed across the sea on a leaf from Ireland to Cornwall to found the settlement of Saint Ives. Or so I’ve been led to believe.

Whitfield’s book will demand time and attention which I didn’t have last night but I will be back. Not only to read Travel but also to read his upcoming book Mapping Shakespeare’s World, also published by the Bodleian.

This is going to be a fascinating read as it looks at the way in which Shakespeare locates his plays in places he had never – nor could have – visited, such as Verona, Elsinore and Ephesus.

The play I’m currently interested in is Othello, set in Cyprus and in which play Shakespeare moves dates around to suit his dramatic purposes. The Ottomans would have had a right to complain but they didn’t. Instead, they welcomed the Elizabethan travelling salesmen with open arms. And why not? Everyone wanted to hang their palaces and churches with silk from Damascus.Or clothe themselves in the precious silk:  Anne Boleyn wore a damask mantle when she went to her death.

Strange then that, in Whitfield’s book on travel and literature, there’s no mention in the index of Aleppo or Palmyra or, saddest of all, the great city of Damascus.

But here, cue my latest book My Home is Your Home http://www.maryrussell.info which tells you not just about the city and the country but the people who make up that country. Published in 2011 it is now a record of times past.

I will be back in the Bodleian to read more of Peter Whitfield’s travel book but first there’s my bookclub book to finish: Rose Tremain’s The Colour. Then there’s a book review to write for The Irish Times: Leaving Before The Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller whose Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, I reviewed and loved. And finally, there’s a post-Christmas gift: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

These may keep me going till Mapping Shakespeare’s World is published in June by which time it will be top of my reading list.

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Haven’t made your Christmas cake yet? Here’s Theodora’s: make one day, eat the next.

This is Theodora Fitzgibbon’s recipe for a barm breac. It appeared in The Irish Times quite a while back. I have adapted it to make a Christmas cake that is deliciously moist and can be made in a tryce.


500 grams each of brown sugar, raisens and sultanas.

500 grams of plain flour

1 teasp baking powder

3 eggs

3 cups of milkless tea

NOTE: there’s a lot of sugar in the dried fruit so I cut back on the sugar.

cWhat to do: Put the raisins, sultanas and sugar in a big bowl and over them pour the black tea. Soak overnight. In the morning, heat oven to 170c or gas 3. Beat eggs and add to mix. Sift flour and baking powder and add to mix. Now, throw in your own Christmassy extras such as cherries, candied peel, nuts etc. Slosh over a good dollop of brandy or whatever you have at the back of the cupboard. Put the whole lot in a couple of baking tins. You should get one big and one small or three small tins out of this amount. Bake for one and a half hours or when knife comes out cleanly. That’s it! Eat, enjoy and give thanks for Theodora and The Irish Times. Go raibh gach sonas ort an Nollaig seo

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