“How can you own water really?”: rivers, (cash)flow and Ulysses

by Chris McCann, NUI Galway

This is the first of MSI’s 2021 series of writing about place in Modernism. In honour of Bloomsday, NUI Galway’s Chris McCann explores the relationship between two Dublin rivers and commercial interests in the city’s built landscape.

Despite the obvious centrality of water to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, watercourses are also important in Ulysses. Indeed, as Ariela Freedman notes, water “becomes the master metaphor for the economies of circulation in the novel.”[1] Both Freedman and Fredric Jameson emphasise a particular moment that takes place in “Ithaca.” As Bloom fills a kettle from the kitchen tap, the catechism asks: “Did it flow?” The answer is a detailed scientific delineation of the water’s journey from tap to source in the Wicklow mountains. Yet although “Bloom, waterlover” asserts the “universality” and “democratic equality” of water (624),[2] this moment instead evokes water as commodity, measured “by the distance it travels, by the cost of the pipes that carry it [and] by its cost to the city and its residents.”[3] Here Jameson sees the “object world of greater Dublin disalienated and by the most subterranean detours traced back … less to its origins in Nature, than to the transformation of Nature by human and collective praxis deconcealed.”[4] Water does not flow alone. Rather, it is constantly harnessed by human systems, represented physically in buildings, industry, agriculture. In exploring this concept, I would like to “deconceal” a river other than the Liffey. Though not explicitly referenced in Ulysses, the flow of the little-known Bradogue through its (literal) “subterranean detours” is present in the novel through its very absence.

The Bradogue[5] rises in Cabra in Dublin’s north-west and empties into the Liffey at Ormond Quay. When Dublin was still largely rural, the Bradogue was an important river: it marked property boundaries, supplied drinking water, and was even the subject of a fishing rights dispute in the Middle Ages.[6] Yet, like many of Dublin’s smaller waterways, today its course is entirely underground. Because of this, it is practically impossible to trace it back to its exact source. Through reference to the built environment, however, we can locate its significance as a symbol of human control over water.

Like the flow from Bloom’s kitchen tap, let’s work upstream from the Bradogue’s mouth. The tiny opening in the quay wall from which it trickles into the Liffey is only 150 feet or so from the Ormond Hotel of “Sirens.” First built around 1840 the hotel had expanded to encompass numbers 7 to 11 Ormond Quay by 1910.[7] A century later it was closed and dilapidated. Planning permission for a new €20 million hotel development was rejected in 2014, the developers’ design deemed unsympathetic to the quay’s amenity. Two years later, while reporting on a fresh planning application, the Irish Times closed by remarking perfunctorily: “Ormond Quay was reclaimed from the Liffey in about 1675 by Sir Humphrey Jervis.”[8] The historical (self-)importance of the built environment dwarfs the Liffey banks. Completely forgotten, moreover, is the Bradogue, despite its clear depiction in Speed’s 1610 Map of Dublin proceeding freely down what is now Green Street to reach the Liffey.

The present dilapidated site of the Ormond Hotel. The tiny sluice through which the Bradogue joins the Liffey is just barely visible in the bottom left, below the black car. (Author’s photograph)

Indeed, the cartographical representation of the Bradogue is telling of the gradual supremacy of Dublin’s built development. In Cooke’s 1831 Royal Map of Dublin, for example, it is entirely culverted from the Royal Canal Harbour (now the site of Broadstone Terminus)[9] downstream to Ormond Quay. Upstream of the harbour diverted under the then-Richmond Penitentiary (now part of TU Dublin), surfacing to the (rural) western side and continuing towards Cabra. The 1841 Ordnance Survey shows its emergence halfway between modern Cabra Road and Faussagh Road. With each subsequent suburban expansion, more of the Bradogue was culverted. By 1912 it extended a mere 500 feet north of Cabra Road; by the 1940s suburbia had swallowed it entirely. But where it finishes connects Ormond Quay of “Sirens” to Bloom and “Ithaca.”

One of Bloom’s schemes for acquiring “vast wealth […] through industrial channels” is the “reclamation of dunams of waste arenary soil” (670). As to whether there were “schemes of wider scope” (671), a few he proposes are particularly relevant. These include schemes “for the development of Irish tourist traffic in and around Dublin by means of petrolpropelled riverboats, plying in the fluvial fairway between Island bridge and Ringsend” as well as “the repristination of passenger and goods traffics over Irish waterways”. He also proposes connecting “the Cattle Market (North Circular road and Prussia Street) with the quays (Sheriff street, lower and East Wall)” through a tramline “between the cattle park, Liffey junction, and terminus of Midland Great Western Railway 43-45 North Wall” (671). As Gifford notes,[10] this line already existed, and a series of cattle holding yards occupy the space where later maps lose sight of the Bradogue. A “petrolpropelled riverboat” downstream on the Liffey from Islandbridge passes Ormond Quay; following the Bradogue’s subterranean course upstream leads to its source near Liffey Junction to meet Bloom’s tramline and the cattle yards.

This speaks to more than simply the covering of a waterway. Indeed, it involves a scheme of wider scope, to borrow Joyce’s phrase. Jameson argues that in the minutiae of “Ithaca” Joyce “force[s] us to work through in detail everything that is intolerable” about oppositions engendered by capitalism.[11] The silent permanence of the watercourse, its witness to myriad changes, is juxtaposed against the mutability of capital. Bloom praises water’s “docility” in industrial production (625), creating an opposition between the flow of water and “the velocity of modern life” (672) while unwittingly affirming water’s commodification at the service of capital. Improvement, as the case of the Ormond Hotel demonstrates, is sometimes prefaced by destruction or decay; expansion of the built city occurs at the expense of the contracted river. Bloom extols water’s “utility in canals, rivers, if navigable […] its potentiality derived from harnessed tides or watercourses falling level to level” (625). The culverted Bradogue, however, is neither navigable nor harnessable and long past “repristination.” Indeed, its final fate shortly before reaching the Liffey is to run into the sewage supply. This ironically recalls, of course, Bloom passing “Tommy Moore’s roguish finger” over the College Street urinal in “Lestrygonians”: “the meeting of the waters” (155).

What remains today of the built environments that encircle the Bradogue’s fate? They are gone and replaced, less to the “economies of circulation” than the “circulation of economies.” The cattle market on North Circular Road and Prussia Street closed in 1970 and was replaced by housing; Liffey Junction closed to passenger traffic in the 1930s, and only a watchtower remains (although the 21st century LUAS light rail system has made use of its old alignment). At the time of writing, €20 million wallows in the demolished, vacant Ormond Hotel site. A stone’s throw away from the Ormond’s hollowness, the Bradogue remains a constant but largely unspoken presence.

Dublin’s cattle market at North Circular Road and Prussia Street in 1935. In 1970 the market closed and the site was converted to a housing estate. Source: UCD Digital Library [link]

Two apartment complexes in north Dublin currently bear the name “Bradogue”: the first, closest to the rivermouth, is the unassuming modern Bradogue House on the corner of Wolfe Tone and Mary Streets. It stands directly opposite the Church Café and Bar, a pricey establishment whose tenancy of the old St. Mary’s Church of Ireland encapsulates neoliberal tensions between rejuvenation and conservation. Its foundation stone was laid in 1700; Arthur Guinness was married in the church in 1761, Theobald Wolfe Tone baptised in it. Our minds are returned to Ormond Quay through the inevitable reminder that Sir Humphrey Jervis developed the surrounding area.[12]  The second apartment space is Bradogue Court, a much larger residential complex on Annamoe Road in Cabra East. A 2004 piece in the Irish Times under the hamfisted headline, “Anyone for new scheme on former tennis club site?”, makes no mention of why the development is named after the subterranean river. What is interesting for our discussion here, though, is its location: off Hanlon’s Corner, North Circular Road, opposite the site of the former Cattle Market.

The uneasy dichotomy of preservation and “progress” also prompts us towards Chapelizod and anxieties surrounding the integrity of Dublin’s Joycean sites. In November 1998, the Mullingar House pub in Chapelizod (of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker fame) went up for auction. The “consortium of pub owners” who bought it then gutted the roof of the grade two listed building without permission. On April 2, 2000, the Irish Times ran an item under the headline “Historic Dublin village fears it may lose identity.” The article lists Mullingar House as one of Chapelizod’s jewels, but notes ironically: “Closed since renovation work destroyed much of its interior, a tourism plaque on the front wall proclaims it as the ‘Home of all characters and elements in James Joyce’s novel, Finnegans Wake’.”[13] It is not difficult to see a parallel with the Ormond Hotel here, or the more tragic case of “The Dead House” at 15 Ushers Island.[14] In 2017, the Times ran another item entitled: “Priced out of Dublin 8? Try Chapelizod”. This tone-deaf piece is at pains to repeatedly point out the selling point that the Liffey flows through the village, and how the town is “ripe for a developer to come in and construct complexes that would rejuvenate the town.” [15] Where would Bloom’s tourist boat scheme fit into this?

In each instance there is a sense of the mutability of capital juxtaposed against the permanence of the river. But their fortunes are also confluent. From a “slippery” neoliberal outlook, Gonzalez and Yanes assert, water becomes “‘an economic good’ as opposed to a human right.”[16] The same can be said of accommodation, especially considering Dublin’s current metamorphosis into a giant hotel in the midst of a housing crisis.[17] The gradual culverting of the Bradogue becomes an analogue for “economies of circulation” where water and the built environment are inextricable. To paraphrase Freedman, water/housing is (are) subject to “scarcity, fraud, and control” in their commodification.[18] Jack Sheehan of Trinity College has recently written passionately of how rentier capitalism within this milieu has deadened the 21st century Dublin metropolis. Springing to mind as well are the current mica building scandal and the disastrous Irish Water privatisation of the 2010s. This all recalls Bloom’s inner monologue in “Lestrygonians.” Seeing a rowboat floating down the Liffey displaying an advertisement, Bloom thinks: “Wonder if he pays rent to the corporation. How can you own water really?” (146).

Yet, there is one final link between the Bradogue and the Liffey, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, which might perhaps provide grounding in the midst of these modern anxieties. The Bradogue flows through Grangegorman—“Gurmund’s Grange, the territory of that celebrated Irish King who was the father of the beautiful Isolde, whose romantic story has inspired the musician and the poet.”[19] Both the Bradogue and the Liffey flow through what were once Gurmund’s extensive lands.[20] Unsurprisingly, the former river is mentioned in the collection of rivers in the Wake as “Melissa Bradogue” (212.09). The Liffey as ALP is linear and circular, local and universal, and the (Melissa) Bradogue gently joins its stream. Together they are emblematic of the impact of waterways on Dublin’s history and heritage and inextricable from the wider built environment. In this context, they indeed form a master metaphor of economies of circulation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris McCann is a doctoral candidate in the school of English at NUI Galway. Ordinarily, he focuses his attention on his Irish Research Council-supported project dealing with music as a literary device in twentieth Irish prose fiction. However, he is also a committed Joycean, having previously written on music in Joyce’s prose, and lives beside the Liffey in Islandbridge.


[1] Ariela Freedman, “Did it Flow?: Bridging Aesthetics and History in Joyce’s Ulysses”, Modernism/modernity, vol. 13, no. 1, 2006, p. 854.

[2] I give page numbers from Ulysses in parentheses, from the following edition: James Joyce, Ulysses: The 1922 Text, edited and with an introduction by Jeri Johnson, Oxford University Press, 2008.

[3] Freedman, “Did it Flow?”, p. 856.

[4] Fredric Jameson, “Ulysses in History”, in W.J McCormack and Alistair Stead (eds.), James Joyce and Modern Literature, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982, p. 140.

[5] The name comes from the Irish, bradóg, “young salmon” or “landing-net” – but also (as Joyce would surely have found amusing), “roguish woman” – see https://www.teanglann.ie/en/fgb/bradóg

[6] Peter Mooney, “Hidden River: The Bradogue”, RTÉ Documentary on One, broadcast 1985. This is a fascinating radio documentary and can be heard at: https://www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone/2013/0427/647400-documentary-podcast-hidden-river-bradogue-north-dublin-cabra/

[7] For more information, see the entry for the Ormond National Inventory of Architectural heritage, as well as this article on James Joyce Online.

[8] Olivia Kelly, “New application to demolish Dublin’s Ormond Hotel,” Irish Times, 2 April 2016. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/new-application-to-demolish-dublin-s-ormond-hotel-1.2595535

[9] The name Broadstone comes the Norse “Bradoge-Steyn,” the stone of the Bradogue.

[10] Don Gifford, Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988, p. 554.

[11] Jameson, “Ulysses in History”, p. 139.

[12] “St. Mary’s Church (The Church Bar)”, Buildings of Ireland: The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, 28/10/2011. Available at: https://www.buildingsofireland.ie/buildings-search/building/50010453/saint-marys-church-the-church-bar-mary-street-jervis-street-dublin-1-dublin

[13] “Historic Dublin village fears it may lose identity,” Irish Times, 22 April 2000. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/historic-dublin-village-fears-it-may-lose-identity-1.263709

[14] This might be particularly hard to swallow considering funding through official channels was found for the relatively sympathetic redevelopment of 18 Ormond Quay (which is, incidentally directly next to the Liffey-Bradogue confluence).

[15] Tadhg Peavoy, “Priced out of Dublin 8? Try Chapelizod”, Irish Times, 18 November 2017. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/priced-out-of-dublin-8-try-chapelizod-1.3294108

[16], Mike Gonzalez and Marianella Yanes, Last Drop: The Politics of Water, London: Pluto Press, 2015, p. 3.

[17] Indeed, the article linked within the text, written by the Times’ Deputy Property Editor, is problematic in that it analyses the glut of hotels in contrast to the housing crisis in terms of commodities rather than human amenity. While writing this piece it became apparent that all of my newspaper links were to the Irish Times. However, in a way this is fitting for this discussion as two things may be observed: 1) the newspaper’s generally neoliberal outlook; and(/but) 2) its willingness to wring hands over the loss of cultural landmarks (accordingly as it sees fit).

[18] Freedman, “Did it Flow?”, p. 859.

[19] Lily M O’Brennan, “Little Rivers of Dublin,” Dublin Historical Record, vol. 3, no. 1, 1940: p 23.

[20] Ibid., 25.