Elektropolis Coked to the Eyeballs: Berlin’s Modernist Identity Crisis

By Casey Lawrence, Trinity College Dublin

In this month’s MSI New Writing about place in Modernism, TCD’s Casey Lawrence uncovers Berlin of the Modernist period, at once impoverished and decadent, as seen through the eyes of the oft-forgotten writer Robert McAlmon

Berlin underwent significant changes and took many names during La Belle Époque: The Garrison City. New Athens. The German Chicago. Elektropolis. Babylon-on-Spree. World City of the Future. This part of the city’s tumultuous history and its many identities can be hard to reconcile with the Berlin known today, but one might see traces of it written on the façade of the grand Adlon Hotel on Unter den Linden. Intended to compete with the luxury of The Savoy in London, L’Hôtel Ritz Paris, and New York City’s Waldorf Astoria, the Hotel Adlon opened in 1907 with 391 beds, 140 bathrooms (with both hot and cold running water), on-site laundry, its own power plant to supply electricity, a restaurant, café, library, barber shop, and numerous lounges and grand ballrooms.[1] Though the building was largely destroyed in the closing days of World War II, literature from the period solidifies the hotel’s importance to the city’s identity and culture as a modern, up-and-coming metropolis to rival Paris in style, luxury, and debauchery. Today’s Adlon-Kempinski, rebuilt on its original site adjoining Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, is an homage to this epicentre of modernist decadence.

The Adlon Hotel on Berlin’s Unter den Linden, c. 1910

The road to Berlin’s reputation as a World City of the Future—and the construction of the extravagantly modern Hotel Adlon—was not a smooth one. Prior to the German unification of 1871, Berlin was a Prussian military base lacking in modern sanitation and sewage facilities. Though not the most idyllic start for the new capital, the barracks and training grounds were soon overtaken by commercial and residential development under Kaiser Wilhelm I. By his death in 1888, Wilhelm I had overseen the installation of Berlin’s S-Bahn, city-wide electric lamps, and in a few places, telephones. Yet in 1892, when it was proposed that Berlin host the next World’s Fair, his grandson, Wilhelm II was staunchly opposed. He wrote to Leo von Caprivi, Bismarck’s successor as Chancellor, that

Berlin is not Paris. Paris is—what Berlin hopefully will never be—the great whorehouse of the world; therein lies its attraction independent of any exhibition. There is nothing in Berlin that can captivate the foreigner, except a few museums, castles, and soldiers.[2]

The Kaiser dreaded the attention a World’s Fair would bring to the still-developing city, believing that his uncle, King Edward VII of England, thought Berlin a “beastly hole.”[3] To prove him wrong, Wilhelm II was relentless in his modernization of the city, preparing the capital to enter the world stage once he was sure it could rival London and Paris.

Berlin underwent an unprecedented technological transformation over the next decade to become a true “Elektropolis,” allegedly boasting more electrical lighting than Paris at the turn of the century. The U-Bahn opened in 1902, and automobiles and electric streetcars quickly filled the streets. By 1905, Wilhelm II seems to have decided that the city could now call itself a Welstadt and was ready to entertain foreign visitors. At the cost of US$250 million in today’s money, the Kaiser invested in the construction of the Hotel Adlon, which he hoped would become the heart of a new luxury tourism industry in Germany.

Berlin’s economy boomed in the first decade of the twentieth century, and decadence accompanied in short order. Despite Wilhelm II’s hope that Berlin would “never be … the great whorehouse of the world,” David Clay Large estimates that just prior to World War I, Berlin had upwards of forty gay bars and between one and two thousand male prostitutes active in the city.[4] The Kaiser was also wrong that “nothing in Berlin … can captivate the foreigner,” as Berlin would soon be overrun with Americans who couldn’t care less about the city’s museums, castles, and war monuments.

Of course, catastrophic economic instability hit the Weimar Republic at the height of literary modernism and artistic prosperity elsewhere in Europe. From 1918 onward, political turmoil, assassinations, war reparations, debt and hyperinflation threw the city (and indeed the country) into a tailspin that contributed to the rise of Nazism. Mia Spiro writes in Anti-Nazi Modernism (2012) that “despite that which they could not know, the novels that Barnes, Isherwood, and Woolf wrote…reveal the historical, cultural, political, and social conditions in 1930s Europe that made the continent ripe for disaster”.[5] To this list I would like to add Robert McAlmon, an oft-forgotten Modernist whose Berlin stories provide a unique flavour of the city at its lowest point, the early 1920s.

Unemployment and homelessness were rampant for native Berliners during the 1920s, but the city’s misfortune was a boon for expatriates, whose lavish lifestyles gave Berlin new life as a haven for queers, prostitutes, drug addicts, and artists from the West. By police estimates, there were 25,000 prostitutes active in Berlin by 1920. American money could buy any luxury for cents on the dollar; when McAlmon visited the city in 1921, the dollar was worth nearly 300 marks.[6] While many businesses floundered, the Adlon Hotel thrived as Berlin became the European capital of sex, drugs, and decadence on the cheap. American tourists gorged themselves while Berliners starved, and when they ran out of money, they left. Set a decade before Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (1945),[7] which would become the musical Cabaret (1966), McAlmon’s Distinguished Air (1925) documents the lives of such “awful rats who have come to Berlin because of the low exchange” in 1921.[8] The stories, subtitled “Grim Fairy Tales” for their focus on queer characters and particularly gay men, offer an unsanitized look at a city on the verge of total collapse. Unlike Isherwood, McAlmon published his own work and thus had fewer concerns of censorship and public taste. As a result, his stories contain some of the frankest accounts of “under-world life in Berlin” (30), replete with homosexual sex, prostitution, cross-dressing, drag balls, violence, police corruption, and an astonishing amount of drug use, even to a contemporary audience.

Ernest Hemingway and Robert McAlmon, c. 1923. Credit: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

One of the more startling features of McAlmon’s Berlin stories is the excessive use of cocaine. In his memoir, Being Geniuses Together, McAlmon writes: “Dopes, mainly cocaine, were to be had in profusion at most night places. A deck of ‘snow,’ enough cocaine for quite too much excitement, cost the equivalent of ten cents”.[9] Throughout Distinguished Air, characters are depicted as “coked to the eyeballs” and often “completely intoxicated besides” (49). In the titular story, the unnamed narrator, who has never done cocaine, buys a ‘deck’ for the purpose of staying awake all night while giving a friend a tour of Berlin’s nightlife, and ends up partying until noon the next day. Hilariously inebriated characters flit in and out of the stories somewhat lightheartedly, yet the dual threats of overdose and withdrawal loom sinisterly over McAlmon’s Berlin. In the story “Miss Knight,” cocaine is served “by bowlful… [or] the barrel if you give them the sign” (4), and Miss Knight herself suffers several close calls. She describes waking “one night shivering all over” and worried that she “wuz going home in a crate” (6), and another time being “paralyzed from my nose to the top of my head with coke” (18). A friend of Miss Knight arrives at a party having “taken six decks of cocaine and uncounted cognacs—which she declared was the only safe drink to take when breathing snow” (10), but soon becomes belligerent and uncontrollable. Another woman is described rather glibly as being “batty in her belfry…from the d.t.’s” (27), and other addicts suffering withdrawal are similarly dismissed by the expatriate protagonists.

The dry comedy of McAlmon’s prose encapsulates the disassociation and dislocation of Americans benefiting from hyperinflation. The narrator of “Distinguished Air” travels the city in pursuit of decadence, wandering from the Tiergarten to Der Sturm and then lunching at the Adlon: “There were cocktails; pâté de foie; three bottles of wine, pheasant, Russian eggs, pastry, coffee, and afterwards several fines to round out the meal” (29-30). The day’s indulgence in high society is followed by a long night of drug-fuelled debauchery across Berlin: the Germania Palast, “a slow hangout, for men mainly” (30); the Palais de Danse, a dancehall; a Nachtlokal in the Kurfürstendamm neighbourhood; a nude burlesque on the outskirts of the city; a small queer café; and the O-la-la, an upscale men’s hangout. Yet this supposedly lighthearted café-crawl is in the shadow of Berlin’s penury. Between the Tiergarten and Der Sturm, the narrator encounters a gay aesthete who has lived in Berlin since before the war, Carrol Timmons. Timmons ironically remarks that “with this after-war atmosphere, and poverty amongst the few really likeable Germans one knows… [i]t’s all too tragic, I suppose, but I just can’t feel any further about that sort of thing. People will starve to death; people will die; or kill themselves; or drink themselves to death” (26). Haunted by poverty and death that surrounds him, the narrator sees his acquaintances in a new light at the end of the night, suddenly having the notion that “the circumstances [have] managed to make me feel confused and mean, as though I were in a way responsible for the economic condition of these people” (52). He proceeds to give the random followers he has collected each 500 marks, and Flora, the cocaine addict who showed them around, five thousand. The story ends with him lunching again at the Adlon in fashionable company, though he has decided to leave Berlin.

In “Miss Night,” the protagonist undergoes the reverse realization, blaming poor Germans for her financial woes. A bawdy drag queen with distaste for ‘refinement’, Miss Knight is on the hunt for cheap drugs, booze, and boys. The story is told mainly in anecdotal monologues as she trades stories for food, alcohol, cocaine, and companionship. Following a script beset with gay slang, Miss Knight’s dialogue is a time capsule:

‘I’m snowbound now, Mary,’ she confided to inform the others that she had just sniffed cocaine. ‘Just coked to the eyeballs, you know, an’ I’m looking for a bigger skatin’ rink.” (8)

‘But Paris wasn’t nothing like I’m getting’ it in Berlin, and I couldn’t even get a job in a house here. And do you know, last night I picked up a cop. How that guy had the nerve to go home with anybody I don’t get. You know I hate—well, you know—blind meat…” (18)

Miss Knight’s lowbrow, raunchy comedy serves as “relief from [the] after-war Berlin atmosphere” (9) for her companions, but only under specific conditions. Miss Knight is affronted to learn that “some of the people who were ready to encounter her in cafés which they had visited ‘to see Berlin night-life’ said it was a bore to have her greet them so familiarly in more respectable gathering places: the Adlon Hotel lobby, or semi-fashionable dance rendezvous” (9). While the affluent, straight-passing narrator of “Distinguished Air” is welcome in classy places like the Adlon, Miss Knight is not; her demeanour, camp, and elaborate costumes make it hard to resurface from the queer underground, and the dissonance between these spaces leaves her disoriented and vulnerable. She blames everyone but herself for her predicament when she overdoses on drugs and then suddenly leaves Berlin for New York.

The economic, political, and social conditions of the early Weimar years created a peculiar atmosphere that drew in societal rejects like Miss Knight. Like Paris, which was besieged by expatriates fleeing the repressive puritan values and Prohibition in America, Berlin became a hub of queer activity. In “Distinguished Air,” the Germania Palast is filled with “the queer types of Berlin, many of them painted up, two or three in women’s clothes, and great numbers…who were not obvious” (32). Earlier in the day, the narrator warns a “chichi” fairy, Foster Graham, that his camping might get him “picked up in a way you don’t want” (23), but he is unconcerned by the police, saying, “Tut, tut, this isn’t New York. It’s a shame for me to make an effort to get off with anybody here… I wouldn’t look like this in Paris, but it goes down alright here” (24). In chic clothes, with freshly ‘waved’ hair, plucked eyebrows, and waxed moustache, Graham advertises his queerness publicly without fear of arrest, and during the events of “Miss Knight,” a grand ball is arranged where “all queer people could go to the limit with costumes and there would be no police interference” (12). As Robert Beachy, author of Gay Berlin (2014), described in an interview with NPR, gay subculture managed to flourish despite homosexuality being illegal due to practical difficulties enforcing the law. As Beachy argues, conviction was impossible without a confession or credible witness. Seeing the futility in seeking prosecutions, the police commissioner at the time, Meerscheidt-Hullessem, implemented a policy of observing and monitoring suspected homosexuals, rather than arresting them. In practice, says Beachy, the police “simply tolerated all kinds of different…public accommodations, [such as] bars, cafes [and] eventually, large transvestite balls, where obvious homosexuals, or, at least, obviously suspected homosexuals, could congregate and socialize.”[10]

In addition to police indifference, sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld had significant influence on the treatment of queers in Berlin. In 1919, Hirschfeld founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a private research hospital where the first successful gender-affirming surgery took place over twenty years before similar procedures were attempted in the United States. Hirschfeld’s Institute is alluded to when “an elderly fairly, well known to various psychoanalysists in Germany” (32) arrives on the scene in “Distinguished Air.” Hirschfeld advocated for his patients extensively, eventually gaining them the right to “transvestite passes”, which would allow patients to present as their preferred gender in public without being arrested for cross-dressing.[11]

Transvestite pass issued to Gerd Katter on 23 November 28 by the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft

Yet evading police is a common theme in McAlmon’s Berlin stories, and their presence is keenly felt by many characters. Though in theory private sexual acts were not policed and public cross-dressing was tolerated, the threat of police violence nevertheless persisted for gay Berliners. Police efforts were concentrated on finding male prostitutes, drug addicts, and pushers, effectively targeting poor Germans while affluent foreigners with rooms at the Adlon were left in peace. Despite one character’s claims that the “chief of police in Berlin is as queer as they make them” and places like the Palast were thus “protected by the police” (31), raids of queer spaces were not uncommon. In “Distinguished Air,” a raid is conducted on a queer café in search of “unregistered prostitutes,” and the women in the establishment are placed under arrest—including one poor woman who “couldn’t get off with a man if she paid him” (49-50). Miss Knight, in contrast, tempts fate by sexually pursuing cops while in drag: “But, my god Mary, these Berlin cops is different. Please, Mister officer, won’t you arrest me? …I’m tellin’ you, Mary, if I sticks around Berlin much longer they’ll take me home in a little wooden box” (5). On one of her benders, Miss Knight succeeds in picking up “a beautiful blond policeman who was real rough trade” (11), and he accompanies her around the city, though she believes that “the policeman was just a war-made queer” (12). Many of Miss Knight’s anecdotes revolve around attempting to evade arrest in America while in drag, and though her stories quickly become stale to her Berlin audience, readers of McAlmon will find them a poignant reminder of state-sanctioned homophobic violence.

Robert McAlmon and James Joyce, drawn by Paul-Émile Becat, 1924

Now known almost exclusively as a minor friend of James Joyce or husband-of-convenience to lesbian poet Bryher, Robert McAlmon was once described by Ezra Pound as a better writer than Earnest Hemingway and was seen by many as a rising star. Though his creative work has mostly been excluded from the modernist canon, McAlmon’s memoir, Being Geniuses Together, which collects anecdotal stories of some of the most famous modernist writers, is highly regarded. Joyce dismissed the memoir as “the office boy’s revenge” for its depiction of his drunken escapades on the streets of Paris in the 1920s, and certainly parts of it were exaggerated; in a particularly apocryphal anecdote, McAlmon claims to have ignored the placement of Joyce’s additions while typing handwritten pages of “Penelope” and merely inserted them “wherever [he] happened to be typing”.[12] McAlmon’s recollection of events (which imply that Joyce did not care that he tampered with the text) have since been proven unlikely.[13]

However, despite perhaps smudging the facts to increase his own importance when writing nonfiction, McAlmon’s “Grim Fairy Tales” capture the essence of the fragile queer spaces of Weimar Berlin. Unlike his recollections of Paris, which are full of name-dropping and exaggeration, McAlmon’s Berlin stories gently obscure the identities of its flamboyant characters to reveal essential truths about that moment in time without risking libel: the slang, the atmosphere, the sex, the drugs, the music, the strippers, the policemen, the cafés, the balls, and the not-so-underground gay subculture that would, in short order, be wiped out of Berlin. As with the Nazi book burning of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft’s entire library, which set sexological research and civil rights back decades, the “cleansing” of Berlin in 1935 is a great loss to queer historians and the identity of a city that was divided along the lines of class, race, gender, sexuality, and nationality long before the Wall.


Casey Lawrence is a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin. Her thesis, supervised by Sam Slote, compares literary representations of crossdressing in Modernist texts. She works primarily on the novels of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Djuna Barnes, with a soft focus on textual genetics and the historical context of queer cultural undergrounds in the early twentieth century. Casey is also a published fiction author, with two YA novels, Out of Order (2015) and Order in the Court (2016), published by Harmony Ink Press. Both of her novels were nominated at the Bisexual Book Awards. Together with Tiana Fischer of NUI Galway, Casey convenes the weekly online Modernist Studies Ireland Finnegans Wake Reading Group. She is currently co-organizing the 2022 Wilde and Joyce Symposium


[1] Laurenz Demps and Carl-Ludwig Paeschke, The Hotel Adlon. Nicolai, 2004, p. 77.

[2] Letter from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Count von Caprivi dated July 20, 1892. In Norman Rich, MH Fisher and Werner Frauendienst (eds.), The Secret Papers of Friedrich von Holsteins. Vol. 3: Correspondence (January 30, 1861 to December 28, 1896), Göttingen, 1961, 375-6.

[3] See Victorino Matus, “The Once and Future Berlin.” Policy Review, 2001, pp. 61-71.

[4] David Clay Large, Berlin: A Modern History. Allen Lane, 2001, p. 97.

[5] Mia Spiro, Anti-Nazi Modernism: The Challenges of Resistance in 1930s Fiction. Northwestern UP, 2012, p. 244.

[6] Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1943). Banking and Monetary Statistics 1914-1941. Washington, DC. p. 671.

[7] The Berlin Stories (1945) is a republished collection of two Christopher Isherwood texts: Goodbye to Berlin (1939) and Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). The stories collected therein are set between late 1929 and early 1933.

[8] Robert McAlmon, Miss Knight and Others. Edited by Edward Lorusso, University of New Mexico Press, 1992, p. 24. Originally published under the title Distinguished Air (subtitled “Grim fairy Tales”), McAlmon and William Bird printed the book by hand at Three Mountains Press with a run of 115 copies in 1925. In-text references are to the 1992 reprint.

[9] Robert McAlmon, Being Geniuses Together: 1920-1930. Revised and with complementary chapters by Kay Boyle. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968, p. 107.

[10] Robert Beachy, “Between World Wars, Gay Culture Flourished in Berlin.” Fresh Air, interviewed by

Terry Gross, host. National Public Radio, 17 December 2014. https://www.npr.org/2014/12/17/371424790/between-world-wars-gay-culture-flourished-in-berlin?t=1629454375625

[11] See Michael T. Taylor, Annette Timm, and Rainer Herrn, Not Straight from Germany: Sexual Publics and Sexual Citizenship Since Magnus Hirschfeld (University of Michigan Press, 2017) for discussion on the implications of “transvestite passes.”

[12] McAlmon first made this claim in 1938, on page 91 of the first printing of Being Geniuses Together. It can be found on pages 130-131 of the revised edition. He apparently repeated this story to Richard Ellmann in 1954, who takes the claim as fact (see Ellmann, James Joyce [New York, 1959], p. 528).

[13] See, for example, James Van Dyck Card, “The Misleading Mr. McAlmon and Joyce’s Typescript.” James Joyce Quarterly, Winter 1970, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 143-7.

Hong Kong: The Archaeology of a Modernist City

By Dr. Emily Ridge, NUI Galway

In the latest of MSI’s 2021 series of writing about place in Modernism, NUI Galway’s Emily Ridge explores Hong Kong’s architecture and literature, and the traces of modernism within a postmodern “heterotopia”.

To me, Hong Kong has always more immediately evoked a postmodern rather than a modernist aesthetic. When, in 1997 (the year of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China), Dung Kai-cheung published his luminous work of fictional cartography, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, his key literary reference points in re-imagining the boundaries, landmarks and infrastructure of Hong Kong were Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, Roland Barthes, and Italo Calvino. Most particularly, he invokes – and the book itself has been compared to – Calvino’s Invisible Cities, his Preface emphasising the ‘dialectic between the visible and invisible’ in rendering an archaeology of Hong Kong ‘for the future’; his Hong Kong is a prismatic conception of factual and fabricated elements.[1] On a cinematic level, Hong Kong most prominently inspired what Evans Chan has described as the ‘postmodern pastiche stylistics’ of Wong Kar Wai’s Chunking Express, amongst his other films, as well as the dystopic cyberpunk vision of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.[2] Scott was drawn to Hong Kong’s distinctive and dramatic skyline in creating the visual backdrop to his narrative. On a more specific level, the unique architectural marvel that was Kowloon Walled City – once the most densely populated urban enclave in the world, demolished in 1993 – lives on in the cultural memory as a kind of postmodern ‘heterotopia’ writ large.[3]

However, the existing urban architecture and visual features of Hong Kong owe as much to modernist as to postmodern styles and developments. As Prudence Lau has documented through extensive archival research, colonial property developers of the 1920s and 1930s – most importantly, the Crédit Foncier d’Extrême-Orient (CFEO), originating in Belgium – set out to alter the urban landscape in Hong Kong for residential purposes in ways that drew on avant-garde Western techniques as well as Chinese influences: ‘Among their main strategies was the introduction of modernist exteriors characterised by Art Deco forms and experimenting with new architectural typologies adapted from the Chinese locality’.[4] Lau, along with Ophios Chow, has paid special attention elsewhere to the distinctly modernist qualities of more public-facing and recognisable structures of the post-war period (more precisely, the 1950s), such as the Star Ferry pier, the Queen’s Pier (now dismantled) and North Point’s State Theatre.[5]

Victoria Harbour in 1938 [Source]

As these examples might already suggest, modernist experimentation, on an architectural level, was bound up with Hong Kong’s colonial condition in the early-to-mid twentieth century. While focusing her discussion on other cities such as Singapore, Bombay and Dublin, Caitlin Vandertop nevertheless posits Hong Kong as one example of a ‘metrocolony’ in her 2020 monograph on the subject. Metrocolonial environments, according to Vandertop, presented a certain type of urban aesthetic and produced experiences marked by the city’s peripheral status in relation to the British imperial centre. She argues that the ‘stylistic importations of colonial planners’, not unlike those recorded by Lau, can be found to engender ‘striking and visible contradictions, contradictions which […] became important to the critical and aesthetic innovations associated with modernism.’[6] Such contradictions further informed – one might say they continue to inform[7] – the literary works of Hong Kong writers during this period. In her study, also published in 2020, C.T. Au delineates the contours of a Hong Kong Modernism, primarily through the writings of Leung Ping-Kwan, and she uses the term ‘altermodernism’ (adopted from Nicolas Bourriaud via Peter Brooker) to stress the necessity of a synthesised postcolonial/modernist theoretical approach in capturing the peculiarities of a colonial Hong Kong modernity and the complicated and multivalent discourse that emerged from it.[8]

Star Ferry Pier in the 1950s [Source]

British imperialism and its implications aside, representations of Hong Kong as a manifestly modernist place are also shaped by the imposing presence of mainland China. For Au, Hong Kong modernist writing, on a stylistic level, is as much indebted to Chinese literary traditions as to imported Western forms of modernist experimentalism. These modes are not always shown to be in sync. In the work of Shanghainese writer Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), the intersections between and conflicting interests of Chinese tradition and colonial Hong Kong modernity are rendered topographically. In her well-known 1943 story ‘Love in a Fallen City’, for example, Hong Kong is initially figured as a place of cosmopolitan possibility and reinvention for the female protagonist Liusu, a deliberate counterpoint to the staid and old-fashioned culture she leaves behind in Shanghai. Liusu, a divorcée who has come to Hong Kong to try to win the favour of a notorious playboy with a view to achieving long-term marital security, is comparable to the heroines of Jean Rhys’s novels in her precarious negotiation of the line between middle-class respectability and social ostracism. In relocating to the city, she ismaking herself new, away from the social strictures and judgements of the old world. The description of Hong Kong, on her arrival, indeed suggests a place of extreme novelty, in terms both of natural and more commodified forms of sensation:

Not until the ship had finally reached the shore did she have a chance to go up on deck and gaze out at the sea. It was a fiery afternoon, and the most striking part of the view was the parade of giant billboards along the dock, their reds, oranges, and pinks mirrored in the lush green water. Below the surface of the water, bars and blots of clashing color plunged in murderous confusion. Liusu found herself thinking that in a city of such hyperboles, even a sprained ankle would hurt more than it did in other places.[9]

As this passage implies, the excitement of hyperbolic novelty conceals something more painful and unsettling, pre-empting the story’s conclusion in which a clichéd narrative of romantic adventure is unexpectedly derailed by the ‘murderous confusion’ wrought by the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. Beyond the parameters of the story itself and with a nod to Hong Kong’s fraught history from World War II to the present day, I would argue that this passage articulates something more enduring and characteristically modernist about Hong Kong as a place: the ‘clashing’ sociocultural influences that have given the city its hyperbolic intensity and vitality have also repeatedly resulted in injuries, fractures and contradictions that, to paraphrase Chang, hurt more than they would ‘in other places’.


Emily Ridge is a Lecturer at NUI Galway, having previously taught at City University of Hong Kong and the Education University of Hong Kong. She works on modernist and post-war literature. Her first monograph, entitled Portable Modernisms: The Art of Travelling Light, was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2017 and she is co-editor (with Jeffrey Clapp) of Security and Hospitality in Literature and Culture: Modern and Contemporary Perspectives (Routledge, 2016). Her further work has appeared in journals such as Novel: A Forum on FictionModernism/Modernity and Textual Practice.


[1] Dung Kai-Cheung, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, trans. Dung Kai-cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012) xii, xi.

[2] Evans Chan, ‘Postmodernism and Hong Kong Cinema’, Postmodern Culture: Journal of Interdisciplinary Thought and Contemporary Culture 10.3 (2000). <http://www.pomoculture.org/2013/09/19/postmodernism-and-hong-kong-cinema/> Accessed 20/08/2021.

[3] See Matthew Hung’s ‘Kowloon Walled City: Heterotopia in a Space of Disappearance’, MAS Context, 19 (Fall 2013) <https://www.mascontext.com/tag/matthew-hung/&gt; Accessed 20/08/2021.

[4] Leung Kwok Prudence Lau, ‘Building a Modern City: Legacies of Residential Development and Architectural Adaptation in Colonial Hong Kong’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 28.2 (2018) 353.

[5] Leung Kwok Prudence Lau and Pak Yin Ophios Chow, ‘The Right to Landscape: Social Sustainability and the Conservation of the State Theatre, Hong Kong’, Sustainability 11.15, 4033 (2019) 1-16.

[6] Caitlin Vandertop, Modernism in the Metrocolony: Urban Cultures of Empire in Twentieth-Century Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020) 2.

[7] For an overview of some more recent Hong Kong Chinese literary texts that reflect the ‘city’s complex cultural character’ (62), see Tong King Lee, ‘Hong Kong Literature: Colonialism, Cosmopolitanism, Consumption’, Journal of Modern Literature 44.2 (2021) 62-75.

[8] C.T. Au, The Hong Kong Modernism of Leung Ping-Kwan (Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Lexington Books, 2020) 3-4.

[9] Eileen Chang, Love in a Fallen City, trans. Karen S. Kingsbury and Eileen Chang (London: Penguin, 2007) 131.

The crossbones of Galway, modernist vortex

By Adrian Paterson, NUI Galway

In the second of MSI’s 2021 series of writing about place in Modernism, NUI Galway’s Adrian Paterson explores modernism’s connections to Galway – a place not immediately obvious as one for modernist pilgrimage.

Time and space in the modernist period always collided and colluded, even before Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity suggested that at the macro level this contained a wider truth, and Wyndham Lewis denounced the ‘predatory time philosophy’ infecting modernist art which ought, he argued, to be pure space. Modernists tried to replace what they saw as Victorian nostalgia (naturally from Greek nostos, home-return, and now tending to mean fond memories of earlier times) with a more rigorous, future-driven look at the past.

This would have intriguing effects on conceptions of place. For Yeats in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, to reflect on ‘What is past, or passing, or to come’ seemed to require in all senses a Byzantine journey, even if its destination, impossibly, was sited long in the past and after the author’s anticipated death. In other words, even if after all the philosophy and science a real place could still be said to exist in real time, in this time-travelling era it was rarely experienced or represented this simply in imagination, memory, and art.

The uncertain destinations and indeterminate spaces of the COVID pandemic demand a new era of time travelling. Following Modernist Studies Ireland’s 2021 virtual Telling the Time: Modernism and Time Symposium, it seems worthwhile therefore reflecting on a specific place in time. At this point in the pandemic it seems almost nostalgic to imagine people arriving somewhere, but back in a distant past when travel was allowed and conferences gathered real people together at the same time in an actual place (and no-one could have conceived precisely this future), MSI’s inaugural conference on Modernist Futures gathered modernist pilgrims at the Moore Institute at NUI Galway.

And in coming to Galway you come to a modernist place. As recent scholarship attests, it is, as Ezra Pound might say, a vortex, a hub, even a shrine, which, as folk here quietly understand, is in its own way as significant as such places in time as Proust’s Paris, Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury, T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton, or Yeats’s mythical Byzantium.

This not being immediately obvious, it can come as a surprise to some. The poet Louis MacNeice, arriving in 1939, found a city whose medieval foundation and sixteenth-century heyday seemed long past, suffocated by the dregs of economic and social decline:

O the crossbones of Galway
The hollow grey houses
The rubbish and sewage
The grass-grown pier,
And the dredger grumbling
All night in the harbour:
The war came down on us here.

In this stanza from ‘Galway’ the main impression is neglect. Notwithstanding the notoriously fast-flowing river Corrib, the poem as a whole fastens on the slowmoving water of the ‘weir’, canal, and harbour, to suggest a sleepy, stagnant place well outside the mainstream of Europe.

By then Galway was a place people had acquired the habit of leaving. The famine-ships of the nineteenth-century had taken many, part of a continuing mass exodus driven by callous politics and brutal economics, with little return in transatlantic trade. By the time MacNeice arrived, even the railway line to Clifden that took tourists and supposed prosperity to Connemara (its tracks passing through university grounds within a few feet of where the Moore Institute now stands) was shuttered, leaving little but a few station platforms and an abandoned railway bridge across the water.

Galway’s plight was even memorialized in James Joyce’s modernist classic Ulysses (1922). There we overhear Stephen Dedalus digesting the headmaster Mr Deasy’s bristling letter to the papers about the dangers of laissez-faire economics, footrot, and

Our cattle trade. The way of all our old industries. Liverpool ring which jockeyed the Galway harbour scheme.[1]

Despite modest improvements Galway’s harbour and canal system was long out of date, built for an earlier time. Though a staunch Ulster Unionist Deasy is the more aggrieved at this neglect: Galway (for which read Ireland) according to this account was deliberately jilted, perennially passed over, subject to an unmanaged decline.

And yet, as Galway emerged blinking into the twentieth century light, it became a talismanic place to experience that collision of old and new that was the keynote of modernism. Here the friction of modernity and tradition was ignited by contested nationalities, changing rural and urban cultures, locals and new arrivals, and the slippages and fissures of (at least) two languages. There are plenty of contradictions and anachronisms in this story, partly emblematized by the peat fuel and donkey tracks employed to assemble and manage the huge electric apparatus that sparked and received the first ever transatlantic wireless telegraph service in acres of bog just outside Clifden. Yet precisely because modernism was not modernity, such juxtapositions might be fruitful: its contested languages and technologies, from telegraph to telepathy and mythos to modern plumbing, strangely energizing.

Marconi Station, Clifden, Connemara

Institutionally the university, courthouse, and the great gaol (featuring in Augusta Gregory’s stark play Gaol Gate) dominated the city; just as industrially (and contributing to her family wealth) the Persse Distillery had done. As the distillery declined and closed, in 1908 Galway would host the Irish industrial exhibition while depending on surrounding farming and fishing communities. However, some coastal areas under the control of the Congested Districts Board were still relatively densely populated, and briefly hosted Alcock and Brown’s transatlantic aerocraft as well as telegraphs. If you were a visitor here one hundred and twenty years ago, you were potentially one of many: travel being never before so easy, with trains from Dublin and Clifden and a horse-drawn tram running down to the coastal resort of Salthill. (More details and much more can be found in John Cunningham and Ciaran MacDonogh’s Galway: Hardiman and Beyond [2021]).[2]

In fact what became loosely known as the Irish Revival was in a sense powered by the railway. It allowed the promise of an overnight train from London to rehearse your play next day in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre – to spend the morning collecting folklore in Barna, say, or in the woods at Lady Gregory’s County Galway house at Coole Park, and end the evening at Hugh Lane’s modern and Irish art exhibitions in Dublin. George Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats, and Sean O’Casey would come to Coole for spells of splendid isolation that were highly connected, as evidenced by their frequent comings and goings, and avalanches of correspondence and telegraphs. Yeats was not the only poet to count Galway swans, but instead of tracking these writers’ migrations in their movement, more damningly MacNeice has them at rest, asleep, cut adrift:

Salmon in the Corrib
Gently swaying,
And the water combed out
Over the weir,
And a hundred swans
Dreaming on the harbour:
The war came down on us here.

And yet, as J.M. Synge recounts in The Aran Islands, letters, newspapers, and postal orders arrived in Galway frequently if circuitously from new and old worlds, sometimes via the occasional steam or packet boat nosing past the swans between Nimmo’s sturdy harbour walls, while from 1907 Marconi’s lightning-quick radio telegraph used Galway and Nova Scotia to connect London and New York. The shock when communication lines were cut at various moments during the Troubles of Easter 1916, the War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War potentially suggests a technologized hub, its interconnections deemed worth severing by various guerrilla forces.

These writers’ names should anyway be a reminder for Dublin folk that what became the Abbey, the Irish National Theatre, can be traced to Galway’s interconnections: a meeting between Gregory and Yeats by the sea in Kinvara, Co. Galway at the house of Comte de Basterot. Yeats had arrived with symbolist poet Arthur Symons and the Mayo novelist George Moore to meet Moore’s artistic cousin Edward Martyn who lived nearby at Tulira Castle. Naturally, they took a boat out to the Aran Islands, and shortly afterwards Yeats met Synge in Paris with his ‘head full of Aran’ and, according to his own account, urged him to come west. It is true Synge had family connections there – just as MacNeice had once in Omey Island – but it was then he chose to come. James Pethica’s new edition of Lady Gregory’s Early Irish Writings shows how much she was already mining local traditions in story and song, beginning her work on Irish in earnest and starting to frame culture in national terms.[3] But undoubtedly some of the energy came from Irish outsiders starting to realize what the west had to offer.

Thus Galway became an early if unheralded modernist vortex. Here Jack B Yeats and JM Synge might be encountered out walking about Connemara gathering material for articles in the Manchester Guardian; WB Yeats might be observed arguing over plot or salmon fishing with George Moore on the Corrib bridge, or with Gregory and Douglas Hyde (author and translator of the Love Songs of Connacht (1893]) on Taylor’s Hill, discussing their collaborative Irish-language plays.

Killineen Feis programme with doodles by Jack B. Yeats

Perhaps the best single image of this can be found in Jack B. Yeats’s doodles on a programme for the 1902 Killineen feis in honour of the Irish language poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí. Held to promote local culture and crafts as well as the language (‘Irish Singing, Dancing, Storytelling, Flute-playing &c.’ are enumerated, and a dancer depicted), it was attended by a host of writers, as his sketches attest. Present are a comfortably seated Augusta Gregory, a heron-thin WB Yeats, the behatted artist himself, and, before a crowd, the magnificently moustachioed Douglas Hyde, probably in one of his own Irish-language plays. ‘J.Q.’ was the New York lawyer, John Quinn, who had just lent WB Yeats his copy of Nietzsche, thus changing his poetry forever – and the fortunes of quite a few modernist artists. Through this connection, Quinn acquired the manuscripts of WB Yeats, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, TS Eliot, artwork from of Jack B Yeats and Wyndham Lewis, an intimate friendship with Gregory, and the questionable pleasure of looking after Yeats’ father John Butler Yeats in New York (connections traced in Pethica and Colm Toibin’s  New York exhibition about Lady Gregory).[4]

They came, as would close contemporaries Patrick Pearse, James Joyce, and many others, for a rich native tradition of story, craft, song, and many centuries of poetic tradition. At the fin-de-siecle the apparent attraction was a survival of older ways, cultures, and traditions supposedly untouched by modernity (though as Helene Lecossais’ new book suggests, Synge was increasingly aware of the contradictions, for instance, of sourcing local textiles that looked just right under electric theatre lights).[5] But precisely such collisions of old and new, whether Pound’s troubadour poets and modern French vers libre, or Eliot’s idiosyncratic juxtapositions of Dante, Wagner, and the First World War tended to be fertile ground for modernism.

Galway thus became the destination for that talismanic ‘going west’ both satirized and glorified by Joyce in his short story ‘The Dead’. Joyce himself was supposed to visit, but nearly didn’t: in Dublin to set up a cinema, in a fit of jealousy he wrote to his wife in Italy: ‘Nora I am not going to Galway and nor is Georgie’, going as far as to question his son’s parentage. Blithely, a few days later (26 August 1909) he wrote again, ‘I am writing this to you sitting at the kitchen table in your mother’s house!’ – that is from the small cottage in Bowling Green where Nora Barnacle was brought up. He went on:

I have been here all day talking with her and I see that she is my darling’s mother and I like her very much. She sang for me The Lass of Aughrim […]. I shall stay in Galway overnight. […]

How strange life is, my dear love? To think of my being here! I went around to the house in Augustine Street where you lived with your grandmother and in the morning I am going to visit it pretending I want to buy it in order to see the room you slept in. […] Who knows, darling, but next year you and I may come here. You will take me from place to place and the image of your girlhood will purify again my life.[6]

Joyce and Nora never did return together, though despite the exigencies of the Second World War Joyce took time to make sure her dying mother received a copy of his biography. Her song, as sung in the ‘old Irish tonality’, features centrally in ‘The Dead’. The real life inspiration for the story, Nora’s young sweetheart Michael Bodkin, was born in Eyre Square, and buried in Rahoon cemetery. Hence Joyce’s poem ‘She weeps over Rahoon’, commemorating a posthumous three-cornered love affair of the kind that animates Finnegans Wake, and later illustrated with ‘lettrines’ by his daughter Lucia Joyce in a ludic medieval-modern style.

The Tower by WB Yeats

But forget for a moment railways, cinema, modern warfare: instead there’s an argument such medieval survivals made modernism. Think of the fourteenth-century tower, originally built by the Burke or de Burgo family, that features in Yeats’s fittingly violent poetry of the 1920s. Ruined and restored as Thoor Ballylee, it presides over Thomas Sturge Moore’s cover of Yeats’s monumental book of poems, The Tower (1928), and remains a modernist icon, attracting thousands of visitors – although you’d better not steal apples from the garden, as did Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, shocking the poet Richard Murphy, well-remembered for his retrospective Galway poems like ‘The Cleggan Disaster’ and ‘The Last Galway Hooker’. It is sometimes forgotten that Yeats’s next book A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929), provocatively addressing the author of The Cantos (written in Italy and published in Dublin at his sister Elizabeth Corbett Yeats’s Cuala Press) directly recalls the jetsam and paraphernalia of those old steam packet or mail boats calling into Ireland’s west coast.

By then the wider county was hosting artists and writers of all kinds, some drawn by Robert Flaherty’s 1934 astonishingly manufactured documentary Man of Aran. London-born Micheál Mac Liammóir, founder of the Gate Theatre, set up in Roundstone, as did painter Gerard Dillon, while the Aran diaries of Ernie O’Malley feature the artists Charles Lamb, Elizabeth Rivers, and jazz-era novelist Ethel Mannin, whose book on Connemara attempted to revive (again) the rural getaway genre.[7]

So when the inventor of the ‘theatre of the absurd’, Antonin Artaud, arrived in Ireland in 1937 seeking the ‘sources of a very ancient tradition’ it was natural he should go to Galway. However, addled by drugs and Tarot cards, his pilgrimage was abortive: the playwright was arrested and gently repatriated. But not before he had discovered (so he announced), ‘an Advanced Calculation, of a type the current Era is too stupid to understand […] A prophecy written down 14 centuries ago, and which has been published, and which I’ve VERIFIED point by point, in  all of its F A C T S over the last months, [which] announces a horrendous future for the World’. In its millennial fervour it recalls the eccentric esotericism of Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’, later spelled out in A Vision – and what could be more modernist than that?

Notwithstanding such dramatic exits and entrances a different story might be told about locally-grown culture and artists. Galway’s vortex not only sucked people in, it nurtured them and (sometimes) spat them out, harnessing not only the centripetal energy of visitors but the centrifugal energy of those that were born hereabouts, and left, often to very different lives.

One of these was Frank Harris, hailed by Shaw as both genius and a charlatan on the model of Oscar Wilde, born in Galway to a Welsh naval officer before emigrating to America and self-fashioning himself as editor of the London Saturday Review, and becoming the transgressive author of the explosive novel The Bomb and the notoriously frank My Life and Loves.

Responsible for another kind of frankness was Liam O’Flaherty, an author bilingual in both Irish and English who had the honour of writing the first book to be banned by the new censor of the Irish Free State. The House of Gold is set in a fictional town of Barra, a coastal town remarkably like Galway. Grounded in pitiless reality, the novel tells a strange folkloric fantasy that at times anticipates magic realism, with a bitterness about money and morals that recalls Conrad or O’Casey (its antihero Ramón is based on local magnate Máirtín Mór McDonagh, dominating subject of Jackie Uí Chionna’s He Was Galway[8]). It also features recognisable touches of Yeats and Joyce: this is a novel that takes place in a single day and night, featuring a much-desired woman called Nora, ‘terrible in her beauty’ and associated with the mournful cry of curlews.

Yet Yeats is by no means the only modern poet associated with Galway. Máirtín Ó Direáin, born on Inis Mór in Aran to an Irish speaking family, became one of the most prominent Irish-language poets of the century. Like Flann O’Brien, he found employment in the machinery of the new Irish Free State, working at the Post Office in Galway city (those lines of communication again) before publishing numerous books of poetry unpicking the disjunctions between modernity and tradition.[9] Highly influenced by modernist writing, Ó Direáin included in ‘Homage to John Millington Synge’ a sincere but pointed tribute to an earlier visitor: as translated by Deirdre Ní Chongaile, the last lines read ‘the words you once gathered / Will live on in an alien tongue’.[10] The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who lived in Connemara in the 1950s, might have added something about the limits of language. 

But these limits could be stretched. Inspired by Hyde’s example, the foundation on the ruins of the Augustinian Friary of the Irish language theatre An Taibhdhearc with Mac Liammóir and Ó Direáin as early central players would give the city a new impetus, creating opportunities for Galway actor, playwright, and novelist Walter Macken, the actress and writer Siobhán MacKenna and many others.

So when Louis MacNeice visited Galway in 1939, whether he knew it or not he found more than a sleepy backwater. In fact, his poem was as much a political comment on how unprepared Ireland (and Britain) was for the coming war, something his Autumn Journal (1938) had bitterly predicted.

The night was gay
With the moon’s music,
But Mars was angry
On the hills of Clare,
And September dawned
On willows and ruins:
The war came down on us here.

His repeated refrain ‘The war came down on us here’ thus also half-hints at Galway as garrison town, its encircled feeling stemming from the city’s original Norman occupation. In a way its ‘ruins’ and history of violence made it an oddly appropriate place for this dramatic intrusion of European history, as looking south to Clare the red planet Mars, God of War, hovers over Galway Bay. And while MacNeice returned to London to work for the BBC, as the rest of the poems in the Closing Album confirm, he had come to Galway from Sligo on the track of Yeats, on whom he was writing a book, one of the first and best critical studies of the poet. All these poems were printed in The Last Ditch by what remained of Elizabeth Corbett Yeats’s Cuala Press, intimating some kind of handcraft co-existence amidst the crashing intrusions of modernity.

As with the railway bridge stumps standing in the Corrib river now proposed as pillars for a bicycle track, and a quixotic small-scale revival of the Connemara steam railway in Maam Cross, such collisions, anachronisms, and replayings of new and old abound in Galway, blurring the borders between modernity and tradition, nostalgia and revival. It is ‘traditional’ around these parts to meet at what is locally known as the Big Yellow Thing, that unmissable clanking metal sculpture a few steps from the door of the Moore Institute. Called ‘Galway Yellow’, it is a stark declaration of late modernity. But, according to the artist Brian King, it is also a ‘derivation of the Celtic Knot’. As the modernists figured, making it new always seems to require the old. That periodic urge Chaucer described when ‘longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’ will come again: as Joyce wrote hopefully, ‘Who knows […] but next year you and I may come here’. When in real life visitors return to the west of Ireland, they might just find themselves, in Galway as much as in Harlem or Bloomsbury or Montparnasse, on the track of an intricately local, global modernism.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adrian Paterson is Lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has published widely on eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century literature from pianos to poems, with a particular interest in the artistic interactions of modernism and Irish literature. Co-editor (with Tom Walker and Charles Armstrong) of the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to W.B. Yeats and the Arts, and with Christine Reynier two special editions of the E-rea journal on Modernist Non-Fiction, he is director of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society and currently President of Modernist Studies Ireland.


[1] James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), Jeri Johnson (ed.) (Oxford University Press, 2008), 33.

[2] John Cunningham and Ciaran McDonough (eds), Galway: Hardiman & Beyond: Arts & Culture in Galway 1820-2020 (Arden, 2021).

[3] James Pethica (ed.) Lady Gregory’s Early Irish Writings (1883-1893) (Colin Smythe, 2018).

[4] ‘All This Mine Alone’, curated by James Pethica and Colm Toibin, New York Public Library and online https://www.nypl.org/events/exhibitions/all-this-mine-alone

[5] Hélène Lecossais, Performance, Modernity, and the Plays of J.M.Synge (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

[6] James Joyce, Letters of James Joyce, ed. Richard Ellmann, (Faber, 1966), II, 240.

[7] for more on The Gate’s Galway connections, see David Clare, Des Lally, Patrick Lonergan (eds.) The Gate Theatre, Dublin: Inspiration and Craft (Carysfort Press, 2018).

[8] Jackie Uí Chionna, He Was Galway (Four Courts Press, 2016).

[9] For more see Síobhra Aiken (ed.) An Chuid Eile Díom Féin: Aistí le Máirtín Ó Direáin (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, 2018) and exhibitions curated by Síobhra Aiken at NUI Galway and University of Limerick.

[10] Deirdre Ní Chongaile, ‘Urraim agus uafás ionchollaithe: Ómós do John Millington Synge le Máirtín Ó Direáin’ EAGRÁN 5, (2019) https://doi.org/10.18669/ct.2019.01. Ní Chongaile’s new book, Collecting Song in the Aran Islands (University of Wisconsin Press, 2021) considers wider poetic and musical collisions in Aran.

“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.