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“Vartryville”: Dublin’s Water Supply and Joyce’s Sublation of Local Government

From: Joyce Studies Annual
2013
pp. 252-293

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Oh! lovely Lucy Lanigan, my distant twinkling star!
She walks in beauty every day through haughty, blue Rathgar,
She wears a frock from Chester and a London blouse and hat,
And she owns a British pugdog and a doaty Manxland cat.
      Oh! Lucinda!
    My beaming, gleaming star,
    I would that I were good enough
    To dwell in dear Rathgar.1

The Irish engagement with Leopold Bloom’s question “How can you own water really?” (U 8.93–94) can be traced back at least as far as one of the earliest legal tracts, the seventh-century Coibnes uisci thairidne (“The Kinship of Conducted Water”).2 The Irish predilection for asking apparently imponderable questions and attempting to answer them with a seemingly inexhaustible stream of pedantry has been ridiculed since at least the age of Charlemagne. Both of these concerns are reflected in the “Ithaca” episode of Ulysses, which poses the Heraclitian question, “Did it flow?”

Yes. From Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage constructed at an initial plant cost of £5 per linear yard by way of the Dargle, Rath-down, Glen of the Downs and Callowhill to the 26 acre reservoir at Stillorgan, a distance of 22 statute miles, and thence, through a system of relieving tanks, by a gradient of 250 feet to the city boundary at Eustace bridge, upper Leeson street, though from prolonged summer drouth and daily supply of 12½ million gallons the water had fallen below the sill of the overflow weir for which reason the borough surveyor and waterworks engineer, Mr Spencer Harty, C.E., on the instructions of the waterworks committee had prohibited the use of municipal water for purposes other than those of consumption (envisaging the possibility of recourse being had to the impotable water of the Grand and Royal canals as in 1893) particularly as the South Dublin Guardians, notwithstanding their ration of 15 gallons per day per pauper supplied through a 6 inch meter, had been convicted of a wastage of 20,000 gallons per night by a reading of their meter on the affirmation of the law agent of the corporation, Mr Ignatius Rice, solicitor, thereby acting to the detriment of another section of the public, selfsupporting taxpayers, solvent, sound.

(U 17.163–82)

In terms of form, Joyce’s answer is a bravura display of enumeration, having its antecedents in the quaestio format of Hiberno-Latin and Old Irish texts.3 Yet in terms of content, the response has elicited a number of interpretations, and has been held up as “a kind of master-metaphor for the modern state,” in which “innumerable other social services and institutions” are “metaphorized in the waterworks,”4 or as an example of Joyce’s obsession “with the networks of clocae.”5 This article will argue that Joyce’s ironically mimetic excursus on Dublin’s water supply in “Ithaca” is actually grounded in an intimate knowledge of local government politics during his formative years, informed by his father’s occupation, which he draws on repeatedly from Dubliners to Finnegans Wake. Moreover, this excursus is motivated by the direct effect that “municipal water” (U 17.175) had on the death of his siblings. It is hardly the case that “Water is disappearing, but we’re not sure why; something is being done about it, but we’re not sure what; somebody is acting on behalf of someone else.”6

Joyce’s consistent preoccupation with the minutiae of local government throughout his writing career has been largely overlooked. Yet his engagement with Dublin’s water supply in Ulysses, which he revisits from a panoptic, historio-topographical perspective in Finnegans Wake, can only be understood fully in the context of radical changes in the political representation and administration of the city and county of Dublin, effected by Catholic Emancipation, which culminated in the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 (10 Geo. IV c.7). In Ulysses, Joyce is particularly concerned with the standoff between the “ratepayers and corporators” of the city, who paid the maximum levy of “the poor and water rate” (U 12.754; 1000) supporting...



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