A floor plan for the Holles Street Hospital

U 14.1: Deshil Holles eamus. Deshil Holles eamus. Deshil Holles eamus.


The action of the Ulysses episode known as “Oxen of the Sun is set principally in Dublin’s National Maternity Hospital, just off Merrion Square, and generally known as Holles Street Hospital or just ‘Holles Street’.1 Many Joyce enthusiasts visit the National Maternity Hospital, imagining that the “Oxen of the Sunepisode occurred in the hospital as it now stands. This is understandable. The hospital, taking up most of one side of Holles Street and a significant portion of the North side of Merrion Square, looks as if it could have been there in 1904, or at least it does to somebody unfamiliar with the history of architecture. But the plaque commemorating the hospital’s role in Ulysses correctly observes that the episode was set ‘in the original National Maternity Hospital which stood on this site’.

Holles Street Hospital as it looked in Joyce’s time: apparently just a group of Georgian houses,

here showing the doors of Nos 30 and 31. The arch to the left of the photo is

Holles Lane, with the doorless façade of No 29 to its right.

What was the original hospital and what form did it take? Our ideas about the hospital and its internal layout have mostly been informed by a couple of photographs of its exterior taken before the current facade was constructed. The writer hopes that the discovery of architectural plans of the hospital, dating from the years immediately before 1904, will allow readers to visualise the action of the episode in a way that has not previously been possible.

Holles Street and its development

Prior to the foundation of the National Maternity Hospital, Dublin had two lying-in (i.e. maternity) hospitals: the Rotunda at the northern limit of O’Connell Street, and the Coombe in Dublin’s Liberties area.2 They were founded in 1745 and 1829 respectively, and were prominent Dublin institutions. The Rotunda, in particular, had strong affiliations to the established Anglican church in terms of its administration, staff and ethos. The ‘lying-in’ aspect of the names refers to the fact that mothers would be able to remain under the care of the hospital for an extended period after giving birth, and thus would be released from domestic drudgery in order to recover and spend time with their new baby. These lying-in hospitals had an obvious inpatient component, but perhaps as important was the service provided to women in their homes by doctors, midwives and, importantly for this narrative, medical students. This practice, known to medics as being ‘on the district’, continued well into the second half of the twentieth century.

1829 was the year in which the Coombe hospital was founded, but it was also the year of Catholic emancipation, and for the remainder of the nineteenth century a new layer of Catholic institutions was added to Dublin. The National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street was part of that mushrooming of Catholic voluntary hospitals and schools.

In the south of the city there was no lying-in hospital for the densely populated areas of Ringsend and Sandymount and the suburban areas extending beyond the canal and along the seashore into south County Dublin. A small maternity hospital had existed on Holles Street between 1884 and 1893. This was run by a Dr William Roe, and seems to have been secular in nature. It had little financial support and floundered in 1893. But in 1894 it was reborn as the National Maternity Hospital, now under the patronage of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr William Walsh.3 The religious nature of the institution was outlined by a Governor some years later, in 1929, during the fund-raising campaign for the present-day building:

We are seeking to build a National Maternity Hospital worthy the country; worthy, we may say, of our Catholic people. The hospital is non-sectarian and admits all patients without question of religion; but it was founded by Catholics and under the patronage of the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, and should therefore make special appeal to all Catholics who have the means at their disposal to further Catholic charities.4

William Roe’s hospital of 1884 was located at No 32 Holles Street, and in 1894, when The National Maternity Hospital was founded, it used the same building and the same equipment and facilities. One year later, Nos 30 and 31 were leased and by 1901 Nos 28 and 29 had been added to the hospital site. At this stage No 32 became a Nursing Residence, so that the clinical hospital was housed at Nos 29, 30, and 31. These were the three houses immediately North of Holles Row. They are also the three houses mentioned in Ulysses:

In a recent public controversy with Mr L. Bloom (Pubb. Canv. ) which took place in the commons’ hall of the National Maternity Hospital, 29, 30 and 31 Holles street. (U 14.1299-1302)

The phrase “commons’ hall” is a reference to the room used by the medical students in Oxen”: a room for students to dine on shared or common food.

It can be seen that, at the time Joyce knew the hospital, it had control of and was using Nos 10, 28, 29, 30, 31 and 32 Holles St.

Joyce with the Medicals

James Joyce attended University College in Dublin between the years 1899 and 1902. The University was small, and all of its activities took place at 84-6 St Stephen’s Green, where Cardinal Newman’s Catholic University had been established.5 A Medical School associated with Newman’s University had been in existence since 1855, but this was situated some distance away at Cecilia Street. Strictly, the two groups of students were not attending the same college, but there was a natural affinity on account of their shared religion and, presumably, nationalism. Frequently the students of the Medical School had studied for their BA at University College. Indeed, the entities would come together again as UCD in 1908.6

J. F. Byrne’s autobiography, The Silent Years, implies that the Stephen’s Green students and the Cecilia Street students did not have much contact with each other until Father Darlington (Fr Butt in Portrait) arranged a series of dinners at the Dolphin Hotel.7 At around the same time (1902), Byrne organised a handball tournament between the two colleges. Handball was an important activity for the students and a handball alley in the garden of the college can be seen in the background of the well-known photograph taken of Joyce’s graduation class by another of Joyce’s college friends, Constantine Curran.8 The fourth member of Joyce’s main group at University College was Vincent Cosgrave. Of them all, J. F. Byrne was his principal friend.

Byrne’s book also recalls an event in 1902 when he accompanied Joyce and two fellow students to Cecilia Street to meet with Ambrose Birmingham, the Registrar of the Medical School. The two other students were John Bassett and Vincent Cosgrave. The intention was clear. The group were interested in entering the Medical School now that they had passed their bachelor’s degrees. Byrne also confirms that Joyce attended lectures in the School in the autumn of 1902, including biology lectures from George Sigerson. Joyce, however, left for Paris soon after. His flirtation with medicine continued, as he wrote to the Faculté de Médicine there enquiring about entry. Having gained entry, he does appear to have attended some classes before stopping abruptly, as fees were due immediately.9 Joyce returned from Paris on 23 December 1902. But there had been a significant break with Byrne over postcards that Joyce had sent Byrne and Cosgrave from Paris. Joyce was annoyed with Byrne for being offended at the postcard to Cosgrave. The serious break with Cosgrave would occur much later, on a rare Joyce return to Dublin in 1909.

"To fill the void left by Byrne’s defection" says Ellmann, "Joyce discovered, about this time, a new and more spectacular comrade."10 This was Oliver Gogarty, a medical student in a different medical school, that belonging to Trinity College.11 Ellmann describes the two meeting for the first time in the National Library. The pair knew of each other from at least 1901, and well enough through 1902 such that correspondence passed between them frequently.12 No correspondence has survived from 1902/3. It was during Gogarty’s stay at Oxford for the Newdigate that he exchanged letters with Joyce. In one of them (3 February 1904) he writes: "- To those at Holles Street {Madden's lot in particular} Say - 'a little time and they shall not see me'", which suggests that Joyce obviously paid visits to the common rooms there on a fairly regular basis.

Stanislaus Joyce was unhappy with the deepening relationship between Gogarty and his brother. In My Brother’s Keeper he refers to the medicals as “drunken yahoos” and “that group of ribalds”. This book is also useful for giving us a description of Cosgrave, whom Stanislaus describes as the “eternal student”. The main members of Joyce’s group in 1902/3 were, therefore, Gogarty, Cosgrave, Madden and another medical student named John Elwood. When Stanislaus asked his brother what he could find to say to the drunken yahoos of medical students, James replied: “at least they don’t bore me as you do.” This was a particularly hurtful remark for Stanislaus, who was then a mere clerk at the Apothecaries’ Hall and likely to be sensitive to the difference in rank between him and his brother’s medical friends.

Lyons credits Gogarty with introducing Joyce to the maternity hospital on Holles Street, but it could just as likely have been any of the group.13 Indeed, the family of Dr Andrew Horne, one of the two Masters at Holles Street at the time, has been recorded as asserting that Dr Horne was forced to eject the young Joyce from the labour ward because of his raucous behavior.

It is necessary to understand the role of medical students in these hospitals. Compared to the present day, they had a critical role in service provision; equally important was the fact that their tuition fees were a vital source of income to the hospital. They were catered for in terms of accommodation and common rooms, especially when they were in ‘residence’. During the period 1903/4, one duty doctor (referred to rather grandly as the Resident Surgeon) was accompanied by two or three medical students on any given night. This constant presence meant that non-resident medicals had access to the hospital at all times, and that their presence was tolerated. Gogarty, as a Trinity College student, would have been expected to attend the Rotunda for his midwifery training, but instead opted for Holles Street, possibly on account of his Roman Catholic background (it is tempting to imagine that his mother insisted). In his autobiographical novel Tumbling in the Hay, Gogarty’s alter ego, Gideon Ouseley, says that he chose Holles Street for midwifery training as his home was too close to the Rotunda.14

The rooms in Holles Street Hospital, therefore, came to be a convenient meeting place for the (mostly medical) students centred around Gogarty. It allowed for relatively comfortable and cheap evening drinking before they visited the kips on the other side of the river later at night. This was presumably a common event for the group, as Gideon, the narrator in Tumbling in the Hay, talks about one of the characters carrying out an act in Holles Street “every night we were in session”.15 Indeed, Gogarty sent a postcard to Joyce in 1903 asking about “all at Holles Street”, an indication that they identified themselves by these evenings in the hospital. Furthermore, there is a long tradition of ‘Res Parties’ in teaching hospitals, often within shouting distance of the wards. This remained the case until very recently.16

The same issue of St Stephen’s (February 1903) that announced Jack O’Hare’s appointment to Holles Street also provides an insight into the student accommodation at there:

Talking of Holles Street Hospital, we learn that there is considerable friction between the Resident medical Staff and the pupils. There is a code of rules for both: we believe that these rules are never kept. The resident pupils’ rooms are in a scandalous condition, and compare very unfavourably with the luxurious apartments of the Matron and Assistant Master. One of our contributors called to see a student friend of his some time ago and his description of the students’ sitting-room was certainly a revelation to us. We believed a memorial was sent to the Masters, but up to going to press no notice has been taken of it. The Matron, however, informed one of the resident students that supper was going to be done away with. We hope not. It is a well-known fact in the School that the hospital has been boycotted by a great section of the students this year, and as resident pupils pay nearly twice what is paid in the Coombe Hospital, they expect to get at least proper attention. The hospital is a Catholic one, and deserves every support from Catholic University students, but something must be done by the proper authorities to remove existing grievances. The best students in the School are going elsewhere, although their advantages for learning their work are as good in Holles Street. We hope in our next "Notes" to congratulate the Committee on improvements made, and we are assured that all our students will co-operate with them in making Holles Street second to none in Dublin, from a student’s point of view.

The March 1903 issue of St Stephen’s observed that things had improved for the students.

Gogarty’s autobiographical novel Tumbling in the Hay (chapter xvii) gives an account of the medicals’ antics in the rooms at Holles Street that closely parallels the students’ meeting in “Oxen of the Sun”. Gogarty is present as Gideon Ouseley (the narrator), Joyce is present as ‘Kinch’, Vincent Cosgrave as Cosgrove and John Elwood as the Citizen. Other characters (Lame Murta, Medlicott, Weary and Barney are not recognisable from “Oxen”, but the extended group was probably large and varied over time). Thus, at least three of the medical students mentioned in Ulysses are also present in Gogarty’s account of the lying-in hospital. In Gogarty’s novel, the room involved is referred to as the Residents’ room, the apostrophe indicating more than one Resident, and also that the room was the Resident Students’ room, as opposed to that of the Resident Surgeon.

“J. J. O’Hare (House Surgeon)”, from a photograph of the Resident Staff at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Dublin taken in Summer 1902: reproduced by kind permission of the Hospital

In the “Oxen of the Sun” episode, Leopold Bloom arrives at the hospital at about 10 o’clock in the evening, to enquire after a friend, Mina Purefoy, who is an inpatient.17 He is greeted by Nurse Callan, who was a former neighbour of his. He speaks with her briefly about a mutual acquaintance, Dr O’Hare. Although O’Hare is mentioned as having died of cancer in the Oxen episode, he was in fact one of the Resident Surgeons at the time of the Joyce/Gogarty visits to Holles Street. St Stephen’s, the University magazine, celebrates his recent appointment (from the Mater) in its issue of February 1903.18 As the Assistant or Resident Surgeon, J J O’Hare would have been the doctor on duty in Holles Street every second or third night during 1903. Gogarty appears to have been there during the late summer of the same year.19 Also registered as students there that year were Thomas Madden, Robert Crothers (is Crothers the Medlicott of Tumbling in the Hay?) and Oliver Gogarty, all of whom appear in the Oxen episode in Ulysses and are present in the students’ room when Bloom enters. Also present were Lynch (Vincent Cosgrave) and “Punch” Costello. “Punch” is probably the real Dublin doctor, Francis Xavier Costello. Stephen Dedalus was also there, along with Lenehan, neither of whom were medicals.

Even though Joyce and Gogarty were inseparable during 1903, by the time the Oxen episode was written (1920) they were not on good terms, and this is reflected in the characterisation of Buck Mulligan in Ulysses. Similarly, when Gogarty was writing Tumbling in the Hay, he was harsh on Joyce by having Gideon (Gogarty) refer to the Kinch (Joyce/Dedalus) character with disdain, focusing on his lack of medical knowledge: 20

Kinch had poor manners. His laughter was to disguise his ignorance of the medical term for a man-woman pair of hips, and to entice the hearer to placate him and to provide the information that, once obtained, he would pose as having known. But I knew Kinch to the bone, and it was not well covered: so I said, making it as difficult for him to cod medicals as I could (for he was only a medical student’s pal, not a medical by any means).

The Plans

Architectural drawings of Holles Street Hospital, dating from the first years of the twentieth century, have recently been discovered.21 Unfortunately they are undated, but their approximate date can be deduced from the composition of the buildings and the works proposed in the drawings.

Plan 1 - Holles Street Hospital Proposed Additions: Basement Plan

The relevant drawings consist of a set of four formal plans of Nos 29, 30 and 31 Holles Street (Plans 1-4). These four plans are of the basement, the ground floor, the first floor, and the second and top floors. The plans for the second and top floors are on the same sheet. All accommodation and utilities are shown, as well as room designation and use. The works involved are the conversion of No 29 into hospital use and therefore can be dated to 1901 (No 29 was purchased in late 1900). No 28 is not included in the hospital complex at the time Plans 1-4 were drawn up and therefore the drawings are likely to predate 1901 (the year No 28 was purchased).

Also discovered was a single sketch drawing of the ground floor of the hospital. This drawing does not appear to propose any works, but shows a rough outline of the accommodation at a given point in time (Plan 5). This sketch drawing is also undated but does include No 28 as part of the hospital complex and not just as a neighbouring building. This being the case, it dates from slightly later, and perhaps closer to 1904.

From the point of view of the reader of Joyce’s “Oxen of the Sun”, it becomes easier to imagine the action of the episode.

Plan 2 - Holles Street Hospital Proposed Additions: section of Ground Plan, showing Nos 29, 30, 31 (the stairs shown here are at right centre of the single-sheet plan above)

Firstly, it is important to point out that by 1903/4 the door of No 29 (above) was replaced by a window, giving the impression that there were two houses, instead of three. Bloom therefore knocked at either No 30 or 31.

Both doors were indeed used for access in 1903, with No 30 being the patient/public access.22 For this reason, and because the Lady Superintendent’s Sitting Room (Nurse Callan’s room in Oxen) is nearest, it seems more likely that Bloom knocked at No 30. It also seems likely that No 31 was the point of entry for the doctors and medical students (all male), as the doctor’s sitting room was on that side of the complex. Professor Lyons has stated that the room where the meeting of medicals and others took place was the front ground-floor room of No 31 but, as can be seen in Plan 2, this was the room designated the Resident Surgeon’s Sitting Room. It is most likely that this room would have had the large pine table used by the group, and capable of seating five on either side. There is a room on the ground floor (Plan 2) designated a Students’ Room, and it is possible that this was the room used by the medical students. It may have had the long table required. But it seems to be very close to the Lady Superintendent’s rooms, and therefore less suitable for the purpose of late-night revelry.

The room on the ground floor that would certainly have had a large table was the room at the rear of No 31, designated in Plan 2 as the Committe [sic] Room. This room was also contiguous with the Resident Surgeon’s Sitting Room. It is interesting that, in the later sketch drawing (Plan 5), this room has been reassigned to be a second student room. Indeed, this addition to the students’ facilities may have occurred after the complaints mentioned in St Stephen's magazine. It is not unreasonable to assume that the committee would have left their long table in this second student room. It is also important to note that these ground-floor Student Rooms are not bedrooms, as those are clearly marked along with the Resident Surgeon’s bedroom and the nurses’ dormitory on the top floor (Plan 4). Of course, during the houses’ previous lives as domestic houses these rooms would have been the servants’ quarters.

Plan 3 - Holles Street Hospital Proposed Additions: First Floor Plan

In Tumbling in the Hay Gogarty (through Gideon) refers to the Labour Ward as being “a back drawing room of some forgotten, gentile family”. This indicates with reasonable certainty that the room where Mina Purefoy was in labour in Ulysses was one of the rear rooms marked Ward on Plan 3. It is unfortunate that none of these wards are specifically designated as a labour ward. If we assume the group of medicals was in the former Committee Room and she was directly overhead, she would have been in the first-floor rear ward of No 31.

Plan 4 - Holles Street Hospital Proposed Additions: Detail from Third Floor or Top Plan

Plan 5 - Holles Street Hospital: single sketch drawing of the ground floor


It is self-evident that there are limitations to this interpretation of these plans and their relation to two works of fiction. There were many nights in Holles Street over at least a year, and it was at a time when the hospital complex was changing in terms of size and room utility. Furthermore, the plans are undated. However, these drawings should prove useful to those attempting to visualise the action in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses. There is a certain delight in seeing the room Nurse Callan would have sat in before Leopold Bloom called, and the route she would have taken to answer. Similarly, we can easily imagine Bloom making his way to the students’ room and the long pine table therein. Furthermore, we can now picture where the group was in relation to Mina Purefoy in the labour ward. Locations of students’ bedrooms and the doctor’s sitting-room enable us to have a small sense of the experiences of both the fictional characters and their real-life counterparts. It is of course possible that either or both of the two rooms marked ‘Students’ Room’ were used by the actual group. For the reasons stated above this room seems most likely to be the rear ground floor room of No 31.

Aidan Collins


1 In Dublinese, most churches and many hospitals are known by the streets on which they are located and not by their institutional names. Context is everything: to say of an injured man, “He’s gone to Baggot St”, means that he’s gone to the Royal City of Dublin Hospital for treatment; similarly, getting the 10 o’clock in Marlborough Street is a reference to attending Mass, not catching a tram.

2 The Rotunda was originally known as the Dublin Lying-in Hospital and later as the New Lying-in Hospital; it came to be known by its most prominent architectural feature.

3 Archbishop William Walsh is alluded to several times in Finnegans Wake.

4 Extract from fund-raising pamphlet ‘The Story of the National Maternity Hospital, Holles St Dublin 1884-1929 told by A Governor’ (Dublin: 1929).

5 Known to later generations of UCD students as Newman House. It is now (2019) MoLI - The Museum of Literature Ireland.

6 James Joyce did not, therefore, attend UCD, but its precursor University College. Nor was he a graduate of either UCD or University College, his degree having been awarded by the Royal University of Ireland. He is, however, considered to be an alumnus of University College/UCD.

7 John Francis (J. F.) Byrne was known as ‘JeffByrne’ by the students, and appears in Portrait as Cranley. The Silent Years - An autobiography with Memoirs of James Joyce and Our Ireland was published, in New York, in 1953.

8 See Constantine Peter Curran’s James Joyce Remembered (OUP: 1968) for a wonderful account of the erudite atmosphere of the student group and, in particular, the breadth of Joyce’s reading whilst at University College.

9 Described in Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce (OUP: 1982), p.113.

10 Ellmann p. 117.

11 The University of Dublin has one constituent college, Trinity.

12 Ulick O’Connor, Oliver St. John Gogarty (Jonathan Cape: 1964), p. 62.

13 J. B. Lyons, James Joyce and Medicine (Dolmen Press: 1973), p. 69.

14 Gogarty, Oliver St John; Tumbling in the Hay (Constable: 1939), p. 184.

15 Ibid. p. 184.

16 At one such Res Party in 1986, the present writer met his wife-to-be.

17 Joyce used the name of Dr Richard Dancer Purefoy, a previous Master of the Rotunda.

18 St Stephens: a record of university life (1903), February p. 222 (https://digital.ucd.ie/view-media/ucdlib:48164/canvas/ucdlib:48433).

19 Costello, Peter, “James Joyce, Ulysses and the National Maternity Hospital”, Appendix 3 of Tony Farmar, Holles Street 1894-1994 (Dublin: 1994).

20 Oliver Gogarty, Tumbling in the Hay (London and New York: 1939), p. 188.

21 These Plans are now in the author’s possession. They were formerly stored in the offices of the Dublin architect W. H. Byrne and Co (no longer in business).

22 J. B. Lyons, during a conversation with me some 15 years ago, indicated that this was the case.

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