The demise of Ithaca
For Clive Hart1
Why was No. 7 Eccles street demolished in April 1967? I wish I knew for sure. What does seem likely is that No. 7 was hit by a perfect storm of issues that came together just before the cultures of Joyce, architectural conservation and tourism in Dublin were starting to change.
Figure 1: 1793 map of Dublin with Eccles street creeping across the map border2
So, briefly, as the endgame is our main concern here, the process towards creating the fabric of Eccles street, Dublin started on 6 March 1769 when Isaac Ambrose Eccles leased off three parcels of land at the east end of Eccles street at Drumcondra Lane (Dorset street). On the North side the land covering Nos 1-5 was leased to John Darley, stone-cutter and Nos 6-8 to Daniel Goodwin, carpenter. The south-side land covering what is now Nos 76-81 was leased to William Adair, carpenter.3 As can be seen by the still extant Nos 76-81, this initial set of houses was of modest construction, being three storeys over a basement and having a 20-foot width. Later building in Eccles street added additional storeys and had wider plot sizes.
Figure 2: Street numbering post-1870 when No. 38 onwards were renumbered
The impression is that Daniel Goodwin and John Darley knew each other and probably matched their skills to help realise the construction of their houses. No 7 was built and occupied by 29 April 1771, when Daniel Goodwin passed the property to a Margaret Reed.
Now fast forward to 1938, and things are changing for No. 7. From around the mid 19th century there was a steady drift of gentry and merchants from the inner Dublin Georgian terraces out to large villas and landed estates in the suburbs. This migration exposed the original Georgian properties to new economic realities, and there was a general deterioration in the upkeep and condition of the housing and a growth towards multiple-occupancy housing.
Figure 3: OS Map overlay on detail from Housing Map in The Dublin Civic Survey, 1925
showing areas of decayed housing (grey) and third-class tenements (black)4
Editions of Thom’s directories document the growth of the designations ‘let in flats’ and ‘Tenements’ into once grand Georgian streets. No. 8 Eccles street was designated ‘Tenements’ in the 1932 Thom’s directory, with No. 7 acquiring that label in 1937. This made Patrick Joseph Wade in 1936 the last-named occupant of No. 7 in Thom’s. The terms ‘let in flats’ and ‘tenements’ appear to be used interchangeably in the directory but with ‘tenements’ being usually the final occupied stop before dereliction and demolition.
This fall from grace coincides with a change of ownership in December 1938, when Edward Spierin acquired the ‘plot of ground upon which the dwelling house now known as Number 7 Eccles Street in the Parish of St. George and County of City of Dublin now stands’6 from John Clinton, who had acquired the estate from his brother Michael after he died intestate in July 1938.
The photograph commissioned by J. F. Byrne for the frontispiece of his book Silent Years very likely shows members of the O’Connor family at the first-floor window.
Figure 4: Frontispiece from Silent Years by J. F. Byrne7
The break-up of Joyce’s Ithaca continued apace when in August 1946 Edward Spierin sold off the garden at the rear of No. 7 to James Whelan, draper.
In the 1950s, the building and its occupants would see a growing procession of Joyce pilgrims gathering in the street to stare at their building and take occasional pictures. Some were bolder and would attempt to explore the interior of the building.
One of these was Clive Hart who visited in 1958:
In March 1963 Edward Spierin died, and by 29 June 1963 his son Denis Spierin had been granted probate and the ownership of No. 7 Eccles street. Between these two dates an event happened that would make this bequest much less welcoming than would initially appear. In early June 1963 a tragedy happened in Dublin that would have an impact on properties such as No. 7 Eccles street. Two children died when two four-storey houses collapsed in Fenian street on 12 June 1963.9 The event happened ten days after an earlier collapse in Bolton street, and caused an outcry for action.
The corporation was spurred to survey the buildings and discover the perilous state of much of the inner-city housing, and the scares went on.
The subsequent condemnation of many buildings, causing an instant housing shortage, would seem understandable in the circumstances, but a hint at a more cynical motive is flagged up by the Irish Times when it refers to an article in the October 1964 issue of the Irish Architect and Contractor.
This is an interesting point in light of what happens in Eccles street, where Nos. 6-9 are very quickly demolished and existing plots live on like a gap tooth in the street for many years, as the plots were bought up piecemeal by the Dominican College. However the collapse of the Dublin tenements is still highly likely to have precipitated the de-tenanting of No. 7 Eccles street in early Autumn 1964.
Anthony Burgess and a BBC film crew, with director Christopher Burstall, filmed in No. 7 Eccles street during 3-5 February 1965, for part of what was to become the Silence, Exile and Cunning “Monitor” programme on James Joyce. In the film you can see gaps in the roof and open and gutted windows at the rear of the property. It is obvious from this film and from the pictures that appeared in The Listener magazine that the building was being stripped of salvageable timber.11
showing a hole in the roof
Figure 6: Anthony Burgess at the rear of No. 7 Eccles street in February 196512
Without tenants, No. 7 became uneconomic and prohibitively expensive to repair, especially as the surrounding properties were also in multiple occupancy and disrepair. It was put up for sale by auction on 12 July 1965 by Messrs. Jackson-Stops and McCabe.13 Its description as a ‘Four-storey city house needing repairs’ is a marked understatement.14
All this is far too soon for any white knights to appear in early 1960s Dublin, and the next headline we see is ‘“Bloom’s House” Not Sold’.
The house is shut down and goes into a decaying limbo. A few people manage to gain access. Paddy Tutty and Vivien Igoe (Veale at the time) visit and Vivien manages to salvage the grate from the fireplace in the fictional Molly Bloom’s bedroom. Fred Seiden of New York, touring Europe, pops by Eccles street and prises the knocker off the door on 8 July 1966.15
Figure 7: No. 7 Eccles street basement in 1963. Photograph: Michael Hancher
The condition of No. 7 Eccles street started to draw the concern of new Dublin residents and visitors. In a letter to the Irish Times in May 1966 a Mrs Angela M. Aspinwall writes:
She goes on to suggest a ‘Joycean town centre, complementary to the Martello Tower at Sandycove’, a point taken up by visiting Joyce scholar Fritz Senn from Switzerland, who found himself quoted in the Irish Press in July 1966:
So why is it outsiders calling in the press for something to be done, and not local Dubliners? This is where we have to look a bit more closely at the culture of the times.
Large swathes of Georgian Dublin were in decay, and concern was being voiced about ‘Dublin’s Rotting Heart’, with Donal Dorcey writing a four-part series of comment in the Dublin Evening Press in September 1965.16 There was also an established Irish Georgian Society founded in 1958. Unfortunately there were so many buildings at risk, and understandably attention was focused on the bigger, grander houses with notable features to save. No. 7 was a modest house by Georgian standards, of no great architectural value. Its claim to fame was literary, and, worse still, based around a fictional character. As a result it was only literary people who noted the problems, and the tourist value hinted at above was not at that time recognised by the wider population. The first James Joyce Symposium in June 1967 came too late for No. 7, and even that event was looked on as something of a curiosity by Dubliners and the local press. It wasn’t until the James Joyce centenary in 1982 that Joyce started to be fully accepted as a possible Dublin asset.
Politically the ‘modern’, with its association of progress and rationalism, was seen as the goal of Irish planning, and the Georgian legacy was viewed by many in the circles of power as a ‘foreign landscape on native soil’17 and a colonial relic best done away with.
There was money to be made from new office buildings, and prime inner-city sites were in demand for speculation and investment. The firm Demolition Ireland Ltd captured this culture in a series of advertisements in the Irish Times, with eye-catching headlines such as the self-explanatory one in Figure 8 below.
Figure 8: Irish Times (1966), 6 October p.18
The law on demolition also seems to have encouraged a speculative approach to property, with little regulation of what was happening.
This was all against the swift-flowing tide of property development which is neatly captured in a passage by Erika Hanna, in her essay ‘Dublin’s North Inner City, Preservationism, and Irish Modernity in the 1960s’.18
The writing was on the crumbling wall for No. 7 Eccles street. The Dominican College had been slowly encircling the house, by purchasing No. 8 in December 1965, No. 6 in January 1966, and the areas to the rear of Nos 6-8 in December 1966. There is no doubt this time that there would be an interested buyer for No. 7 Eccles street.19
There is no exact date given for when the demolition of the main building took place and nothing in the local press highlighted the event taking place. Sometime around the week of 10 April 1967 seems likely, and we have to rely on the tales of the retrieval of the door of No. 7 by John Ryan and company for information on the event.
In a piece in the Sunday Independent in January 1995, Leslie Mallory attempted to give a definitive account of the rescuing of the door.
Mallory then goes on to detail the rather fanciful story of the negotiations with the nuns and the salving use of a cheque-book. It makes a good story, but No. 7 Eccles street did not become the possession of the Dominican College until the deeds were signed on 12 June 1967. Until that time No. 7 was owned and therefore demolished by the current owner Denis Spierin. Negotiations on the sale may have been going on for a while, so John Ryan’s alleged visit to the nuns may have been more of a courtesy call than a necessity, or perhaps the state of the purchase process required him to deal with all parties. This is hinted at in a statement in the Irish Times of 2 May 1967 where John Ryan has:
This suggests a more torrid and semi-legal process than the more engaging
cheque-book tale and we are left to speculate on what really did happen.
All this happened within weeks of the first James Joyce Symposium in Dublin in mid June 1967, where delegates from around the globe were bused down Eccles street to look at the dust settling on the single-storey facade. The cavalry had arrived too late.
Figure 9: No. 7 Eccles street 1972. Photograph: William P. Keen.
This gap-tooth view of the street was to remain the same right through until the Mater Private Hospital was built and then opened in 1986.
By 1972, the Dominican College appears to have given up its plans to expand into lower Eccles street, and the plots of Nos 6-9 Eccles street are put up for auction by Jackson-Stops & McCabe on 16 February on behalf of T.T.L. Overend, McCarron & Gibbons, 9 Upper Mount Street. Exactly what happened at that auction is unclear as the plots appear again a year later for auction on 7 March 1973.20 However the Dominican College was still in possession of the plots when they are finally sold to the Mater Hospital Pools Society Limited in July 1975.21
Figure 10: Irish Times (1972), 21 January p. 20
Figure 10: Detail of plan from 1975 purchase of Nos 6-9 Eccles street by the Mater Hospital. Image courtesy the Mater Hospital
Could No. 7 have been saved? Well, yes - this wasn’t an act of God – but too many factors were working against it. It was in decay, uneconomic, of no great architectural significance, had a literary link to a rather notoriously unread book - so where was the incentive? It would have needed a white knight with resources, but the people with resources were looking the other way and making good money knocking down buildings and erecting office blocks and roads for cars. Even the Joyce scholars themselves escaped off into literary theory in the 1970s, and such things as bricks and mortar became rather unimportant.
It is easy to see now in the modern Dublin, with its outward-looking approach and strong awareness of tourism, how much more could have been made of the house today. Maybe providing a final goal and shelter for those pilgrims, standing across the street, in the rain outside No 77 Eccles street for a start.
Perhaps the last word should go to Brian Spierin, the son of the last owner of the full-standing house:
You can imagine children catching muddled cryptic references to the house and observing the many curious visitors, and concocting a story about the place being haunted… and, I suppose in a way, it was.
Figure 11: The ghost of No. 7 Eccles street22
1 While I have lost Clive Hart as a physical person, I will never lose him as an inspiration. His clear-sighted empirical approach to research is what drew me into studying James Joyce’s Ulysses in the first place. This essay is culled from a long-gestating biography of No. 7 Eccles street which spun off from the publication of the James Joyce’s Dublin, A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses in 2004. I have been helped by many people in my still-continuing research into Eccles street and too many to mention here – but you know who you are, so hats off to you all.
2 Detail from A Plan of Dublin 1793, published by Z Jackson for Paynes new System of Universal Geography.
3 Registry of Deeds: Darley, B. 270 Pg. 515 No. 174754; Goodwin, B. 270 Pg. 518 No. 174757; Adair, B. 270 No. 517970.
4 Detail from housing map fold-out in The Dublin Civic Survey (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1925).
5 In Scotland the term ‘tenement’ has less of a pejorative ring to it as many single-stair properties were purpose-built as multiple flats, and the term is less a sign of change of use or decline.
6 Registry of Deeds: 1967-49-197; 1975-105-282.
7 Silent Years, Memoirs of Our Ireland and James Joyce (New York: Farrer, Straus & Young, 1953).
8 Philip Phillips, photograph of 7 Eccles St. Dublin, May 1950. EMS 1330/1. The photograph can also be seen on p. 70 of the original 2004 edition of James Joyce’s Dublin, A Topographical Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses.
9 ‘Two Girls Killed as Houses Topple’, Irish Times (1963), 13 June p. 1.
10 BBC Written Archives, Reading. Monitor file for Silence, Exile and Cunning. A fuller story of the BBC visit to Eccles street can be found in ‘Mr Burgess goes to Eccles Street’, Ian Gunn, James Joyce Broadsheet (2014), No. 97, February p. 1. I have had to rely on the BBC end of this correspondence to get a clue to the de-tenanting issue, as repeated attempts to penetrate the City archives of Dublin for information have failed.
11 The Listener (1965), 22 April p. 610; 6 May p. 661.
12 The Listener (1965), 6 May p. 661.
13 ‘Home of “Ulysses” character to be sold’, Irish Times (1965), 17 June p. 1; ‘For Auction on Monday 12th July, 1965’, Irish Times (1965), 19 June p. 19; see also the Elinor Wiltshire Collection photograph.
14 ‘Eccles Street’, Irish Times (1965), 17 June p. 13.
15 It was duly returned by Fred Seiden in June 2013. "A Loud Proud Knocker: Returning the Original Knocker to the Door of No. 7 Eccles Street" at The James Joyce Centre, 35 North Great George’s Street , Dublin 1. 12 June 2013.
16 ‘Dublin’s Rotting Heart’, Evening Press (1965), 14 September p. 15; Evening Press, 15 September p. 8; Evening Press, 16 September; Evening Press (1965), 17 September p. 12.
17 Erika Hanna, ‘Dublin’s North Inner City, Preservationism, and Irish Modernity in the 1960s, in Historical Journal, 53.4 (2010) p. 1023.
18 Erika Hanna, ‘Dublin’s North Inner City, Preservationism, and Irish Modernity in the 1960s’, in Historical Journal, 53.4 (2010) pp. 1015-35. See also Erika Hanna, Modern Dublin, Urban Change and the Irish Past, 1957–1973 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
19 Unfortunately, multiple attempts to get information from the Dominican Collage over the years have so far failed to get even an acknowledgement in return. This contrasts with the Mater Hospital, who have been nothing short of very helpful.
20 ‘Jackson-Stops & McCabe’, Irish Times (1972), 21 January p. 20; ‘Jackson-Stops & McCabe’, Irish Times (1973), 9 February p. 26.
21 Registry of Deeds: Memorial 1975-105-282, 10 July 1975.
22 Overlay of de-skewed photograph of No. 7 Eccles street by Noel Moffett, from Patricia Hutchins’s James Joyce’s Dublin (London: The Grey Walls Press, 1950), p. 95 placed on the current facade of the Mater Private Hospital.
Joyce's Environs >