On this day…31 December

On 31 December 1918 Joyce finished the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ episode of Ulysses.

The ninth episode of Ulysses is set in the National Library of Ireland where Stephen Dedalus is depicted pontificating about Shakespeare’s Hamlet to the librarians and others. Throughout the episode, Joyce mixes the real-life of the Library as he had known it with a more fictional representation.

The National Library of Ireland was established in 1877 when parts of the collections of the Royal Dublin Society became the basis for new national collections. William Archer, who was the Society’s Librarian, became the first Librarian of the new National Library, and the new buildings on Kildare Street opened to the public in 1890.

The Library was the main public reference library for Dublin, but many of the librarians and readers were interested in writing and publishing. The porch of the Library was a place where readers, especially the students, gathered to chat and smoke, as depicted in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce frequented the Library as a student and was even ejected from the Library on one occasion when he burst out laughing at the title of a book one of his university friends was reading. The book was called A Treatise of the Diseases of the Ox by JH Steel, and is the book that Cranly is reading at the Library in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

TW Lyster became Librarian in 1895, and Richard Best and William Magee were librarians there in Joyce’s time: all three appear in the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ episode. Magee (known as John Eglinton) was an editor of Dana, a magazine in which a poem of Joyce’s was published. Magee also rejected another piece by Joyce entitled ‘A Portrait of the Artist.’ Joyce also met WB Yeats and Oliver St John Gogarty for the first time at the National Library, and it was the first place he went after leaving the Martello Tower in Sandycove in September 1904.

Joyce’s description of the Library is reasonably faithful to real life. There is a photograph of TW Lyster sitting at his desk in the Librarian’s Office which is pretty much as Joyce describes it. On the mantelpiece in the photograph there is even a picture of Shakespeare who is the presiding genius of the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ episode. However in writing the episode Joyce also fictionalises a great deal. Though Richard Best was a librarian at the Library and known to Joyce, Joyce depicts him in the episode using the phrase ‘Don’t you know?’ repeatedly, something which the real-life Richard Best never did.

When programme-makers from BBC radio came to Dublin to make a programme about Joyce, they asked Best if they could interview him in connection with Joyce. When Best asked why, one of them replied, ‘But you can’t deny your connection. After all, you’re a character in Ulysses,’ to which Best replied, ‘I am not a character in fiction. I am a living being.’


Sources & Further Reading,

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Long, Gerard: ‘A Twinge of Recollection – The National Library in 1904 or Thereabouts,’ National Library of Ireland Joyce Studies no. 18, Dublin: National Library of Ireland, 2004.

McSharry, Katherine: A Joycean Scrapbook From the National Library of Ireland, Bray: Wordwell in association with the National Library of Ireland, 2004.