Newsboys and the child-biting bellows

U 7.966-9:Telegraph! Racing special! […]

A newsboy cried in Mr Bloom’s face:

— Terrible tragedy in Rathmines! A child bit by a bellows!

Newsboys were a characteristic feature of Joyce’s Dublin, ill-kempt street urchins bumping up against the respectable citizenry in their attempts to hawk the various editions of the Freeman’s Journal, the Penny Journal, the special editions, the racing press. They make Bloom rather uncomfortable, mocking him as he leaves the newspaper offices in Aeolus to look for Alexander Keyes:

Taking off his flat spaugs and the walk. (U 7.448)1

Walk after him now make him awkward like those newsboys me today. (U 13.1056-7)

The Dublin newspapers relied on newsboys to sell the news on the street, and the newsboys themselves enjoyed something of a mythological status in the city. Readers of Ulysses have been perplexed by the fact that some of the headlines shouted by the newsboys are nonsensical. Was there really a newspaper that traded on a story about “a child bit by a bellows” in residential Rathmines? Did any of the Dublin papers announce a “sea serpent in the royal canal”?

Brandon Kershner notes that on page 3 of the Dublin Evening Telegraph for 13 June 1904, just before Bloomsday, we may find the sad headline “Child Drowned in a Bath at Rathmines”.2 Perhaps this informed Joyce’s headline, but there is a more solid source.

The Irish Independent for Thursday 16 January 1908 published a long article by “Dominic Dovetail” on Dublin street urchins. There can be very little doubt that Joyce saw this story. The writer, who contributed occasional articles on Dublin life to the paper at this time, is very much in favour of seeing the best in the street urchin, who is typically “regarded by some very respectable persons as a noisy animal, whose sole object in life is to annoy very respectable persons”. If the respectable person was to enquire a little further, we are told:3

They would find that he is a wonderful creature indeed. He has an amazing fund of energy and good spirits; and no matter how cold, wet, and hungry he may be, he is always mercurial, and always keen on business.

These latter-day artful dodgers can be trusted, according to Dominic Dovetail, to mind your bicycle for a while (for a small consideration), and they are also often seen selling matches, if they do not have access to the more profitable newspapers.

Rushing back to the Telegraph office in Middle Abbey Street to confront the editor with news about Keyes’s ad Bloom is “caught in a whirl of wild newsboys”. The Irish Independent describes the typical situation:

[The newsboy] is standing outside in the cold, wet street, his legs encased in leggings manufactured out of old newspapers or pieces of cardboard, yelling with all his might so that no person in need of an evening paper may pass without noticing him […] when, behold! a very respectable person appears. The hungry boy foolishly thinks that perhaps there may be an odd copper burning a hole in the very respectable pocket, and so he does his level best to get it for himself through soft persuasion and cajolery.

Bloom feels jostled and uncomfortable – not in control. Then the journalist notes, in passing, that:

Though he cries his wares continually he does not often mention any item of news.

On reflection, this is true of Ulysses. The newsboys yell the names of newspapers, or the type of edition (“Racing special”), but Joyce does not have them shout realistic news items.

But he was clearly struck by the next statement in the Irish Independent piece:

Sometimes, however, in a fit of wild exuberance he manufactures such startling imaginary news that even the yellowest of yellow journals would hesitate before owning it.

On the face of it, this is an extraordinary statement of newsboy practice, but there would doubtless be an attraction in grabbing the attention of a passer-by, and perhaps even demonstrating the chirpy, Cockneyesque character of the street urchin, by throwing humour into the mix.

Later on in Ulysses we find Joyce offering just such imaginary news items in a dreamscape environment:


Stop press edition. Result of the rockinghorse races. Sea serpent in the royal canal. Safe arrival of Antichrist. (U 15.2140-1)

This practice on the part of the young newsvendors would helpfully account for the apparent ridiculousness of these “headlines”.

The Irish Independent in 1908 offers two instances of manufactured headlines, one of which made it into Ulysses:

Could anything be more sensational than "Horrible accident in Rathmines - Child bit by a bellows', or 'Shocking railway accident - Train runs into a station'?4

Not a real headline, but one manufactured in an attempt to sell newspapers and carefully filed away by Joyce for use in his novel ten years later: one more element in his carefully constructed web of “windy” references for the episode called Aeolus.

John Simpson


1 See the article Stealing upon larks.

2 R. Brandon Kershner, The Culture of Joyce’s Ulysses, p. 88.

3 Irish Independent (1908), 16 January, p. 4. Gordon Bowker writes in his biography of Joyce (ch. 13) that Joyce’s brother Stanislaus was sending him in Rome, in 1906-7, copies of Sinn Fein and the Irish Independent, and there is no reason to suppose that this arrangement did not continue when Joyce moved back to Trieste in 1907.

4 Irish Independent (1908), 16 January, p. 4.

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