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  • Joyce's 'Araby' and the Historical Araby Bazaar, 1894
  • Stephanie Rains (bio)

In Joyce's story 'Araby', the Araby Bazaar is presented at the end of Saturday night, when most of the stalls have been closed down, almost all the visitors have left, and only a very few bazaar-workers remain at the Royal Dublin Showgrounds (RDS). Through the eyes of the increasingly disillusioned young narrator, the largely deserted bazaar is a drab and disappointing contrast to the oriental spectacle of colour, commodities, and crowds which he had anticipated. The story's use of the bazaar to convey this sense of disappointed anticipation has perhaps been responsible for the lack of attention paid to the actual Araby Bazaar by Joycean critics. Presumably, supposing that the real event was, like its fictional recreation, small and drab, most critics have ignored the substantial archival history of the Araby Bazaar of 1894 and the similar events which took place in Dublin during that decade. Those who examine the archives, however, are likely to conclude that Joyce was basing his story very loosely indeed upon the real event.1

The Araby Bazaar was, in reality, one of the largest public spectacles held in Dublin in the late nineteenth century. Attended by 92,052 visitors, it filled the large indoor and outdoor spaces of the RDS for over a week, with elaborate stage-set backdrops, a wide range of goods for sale, multiple restaurants, bars, firework displays, tight-rope demonstrations, and 'Princess Nala Damajante, Hindoo Serpent Charmer, with her Boa Constrictors and Pythons'.2 It was staffed by over 1,400 female volunteers, who received detailed daily coverage in The Irish Times, and was served by special trains, as Joyce describes in his story ('Araby', p.25). The attendance figures are especially striking given that the 1891 census gave Dublin's total population (including the unincorporated suburbs) to be just 347,912 (See Plate 1).3

The Araby Bazaar, along with the other charity bazaars held in the city, became something of a Dublin institution during the middle of the 1890s. This is demonstrated by, among other indicators, the extent of the press coverage they received each year. The Irish Times, for example, published lengthy preview articles about each bazaar during the weeks before they opened, and almost daily reports on the proceedings after they had been launched. These [End Page 17] reports included detailed accounts of all the volunteers working at the bazaar, along with full descriptions of the design and layout and daily attendance-totals in addition to first-person accounts of the 'sensation' of participating in the events. The Lady of the House, Ireland's only ladies' journal, published even more detailed accounts of the bazaars, along with some photographs. The Illustrograph, a short-lived photographic magazine dedicated to improving Ireland's tourist trade, published a series of very high-quality images from the bazaars, some of which are reproduced in this article.

The 1890s bazaars were, therefore, an important part of the social history of Dublin, and they need to be better understood if their influence upon Joyce is to be fully explored. They were striking examples of an Irish popular culture during the 1890s which was already part of a modernized, international sphere of commodified leisure. The extent to which this was consciously recognized in Dublin at the time is also worth noting. In its extensive coverage of the preparations for the Araby Bazaar, The Irish Times published an article on the very concept of such events, tracing their origins to church 'sales of work', especially in Britain, over the preceding thirty-five to forty years. The concept, it argued, was:

borrowed from the enchanted East of tale and fable [and] the short, sweet Persian dissyllable now familiar in our ears. Recent development shows an inclination to depart from the word, and choose some specific name, like 'Araby' for instance, to comprehend, not a bazaar only, but a whole group of specific entertainments, massed together for the once in one large area. Nowhere in the United Kingdom has this been more plainly seen than here in Dublin [...]. A marked feature of the modern development of bazaars is the gigantic outlay...