Places generate their own atmosphere. Dalkey’s is particularly intense, signalled by a street sign that brazenly says Atmospheric Road. Its narrow winding streets are lined with probably the most varied, personable, and charming collection of dwellings in Dublin, hunkered together at the edge of the sea. The street is patterned like some maze around the village centre. Even the most humble of cottages has been gentrified, with tiny gardens bursting with flowers. They hold their own with the mansions, manses and tony new builds. The crammed and crowded little restaurant, the Corner Note Cafe (www.thecornernotecafe.ie), echoed Dalkey’s jumbled charm as it served hearty breakfasts for the Sunday crowd.
Breakfast in Dalkey is as good a way as any to start a trip to the museum at the Joyce Tower, Sandycove (@JoyceTower and http://www.joycetower.ie). It is free to the public and its attendants are a welcoming and informative bunch. A treasure trove of artefacts awaits: books, letters, and photographs of the great man and his circle are within inches of scrutiny. Joyce’s guitar is there with his cigar case, his last walking cane, even his hunting waistcoat made by his grandmother and passed on from his father.
Joyce’s death mask is startling; his blighted eyes look small and shrunken under tiny lids, his nose is strong with a deep dent from a lifetime of wearing glasses, his cheeks hollow. But death couldn’t dent that chin, strong as an iron mandible. A strong chin was a fitting gift from nature because he led with it for most of his life, challenging the literary orthodoxies and social mores of his time.
However, the true prize is the tower itself. Its thick solid blocks of Wicklow granite were fitted together into a short stump strong enough to withstand a canon ball from a Napoleonic fleet. Its walls are so thick that it seems capable of standing against pretty much anything. The narrow spiral staircase looks like a granite digestive tract. The first landing opens to the famous room featured in the opening chapter of Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus spent an unsettled night.
The narrow and steep staircase continues, leading to the stairhead and round roof top. It is from this stairhead that Buck Mulligan emerges as the great novel begins. I have to say that if Buck Mulligan did indeed walk those perilous stairs delicately bearing a bowl of lather with mirror and razor crossed on top, he was an agile fellow, plump or not.
Being in that room and emerging from the stairhead feels like a significant act, a portal between the real and the fictional. It is as close to actually entering the narrative of Ulysses as one is likely to experience.
The Martello tower at Sandycove is but one of a series built around the Irish coast (except in the northeast, naturally) during the Napoleonic Wars and designed to warn of a French invasion. The gun mounted on top could turn 360 degrees which was probably an added advantage if the natives turned restless.
From the roof one can see men and women diving into the Forty Foot, another star location in Ulysses. It is a gray yet balmy day and indeed under leaden skies the sea in parts is snot green. But here we must part fact from fiction if we can. I, like many people, assumed that ‘forty foot’ referred to the depth of the inlet but my grandfather told me that in fact it referred to the British Army unit stationed at the tower, namely the Forty Foot and Light.
And Atmospheric Road? Alas no reference to Dalkey’s charm but an inheritance from history when it served as the terminus for the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in the mid-1800s.