Bloomsday celebrations: outside Sweny’s, where you can still buy Leopold Bloom’s lemon-scented soap. Photo: JULIEN BEHAL/PA ARCHIVE/PRESS ASSOCIATION IMAGES
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Following in James Joyce's footsteps: meet the ordinary people keeping Ulysses alive

A visit to Sweny's chemist in Dublin, which still sells the soap Leopold Bloom buys in Ulysses, reveals those who are keeping the book alive.

In the “Lotus Eaters” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, en route to Glasnevin Cemetery, calls in at a pharmacy in Lincoln Place to pick up a face cream for his wife, Molly. Resolving to return for the prescription, which he then forgets to do, Bloom takes a cake of “sweet lemony wax” to use at the bathhouse around the corner. He is hot and bothered in the warm weather, and in gloomy spirits in the lead-up to the funeral in Glasnevin.

Still, Bloom finds some solace in the thought of “the gentle tepid steam” of the baths – not least, also, in the prospect of masturbating in the warm water, to which he alludes (“Also I think I. Yes I. Do it in the bath . . . Combine business with pleasure”). The episode takes up less than two pages but Poldy’s thoughts and interaction with the chemist make for yet another of Ulysses’s memorable depictions of everyday life in the Irish capital. Dublin may have changed considerably since 1904, but readers everywhere can relate to humdrum details such as Bloom browsing through the chemist’s selection of “coolwrappered soap”.

Indeed, one day last December, I found myself following a similar course to Poldy’s peregrinations as I searched for a quiet pub with a friend. Dublin at Christmastime is hectic, which doesn’t suit it: the usually friendly streets are stressful, and, worst of all, you’d be lucky to find two empty bar stools. However, passing Sweny’s – the same pharmacy portrayed in Ulysses; for, in Bloom’s words, “Chemists rarely move” – made me curious. I saw some old-school lemon soap in the window and decided to get some as a present for my sister.

I opened the door and saw about ten people huddled together, noses buried in books. The man behind the counter looked up and asked politely in French if we had come for the reading. Confused, I replied in my university French that I was looking for soap. After selling me the sweet-smelling bar, he asked my friend and me to sit in on the weekly reading of Ulysses in French. Given that we both study the language and are passionate about books, we agreed.

By the time we had finished struggling through the “Proteus” episode, the pub across the road was slightly less busy. We all went for a drink, and I got to know a little about the man behind the desk: P J Murphy, the intriguing curator of Sweny’s. Rather than being a fully equipped chemist’s, his shop is a Joycean curio and time machine to Edwardian Dublin. Little has changed inside from when it was built in 1847. Six years ago, some friends of Murphy’s told him that “their chemist’s” had fallen on hard times. Being a Joyce enthusiast, he offered to take over its management.

Murphy, originally a shoe salesman by day and language teacher in the evening, reopened Sweny’s in October 2009. He relies on donations to keep the pharmacy afloat and staffs it with volunteers: a set-up that is popular with foreign students who come to Dublin to learn English. Murphy is an avid linguist, claiming to have studied 25 languages to some degree and to speak nine fluently – an impressive number that still pales in comparison with his estimate that Finnegans Wake contains references to 57. Sweny’s holds several Joyce readings a week, in French and Italian, among other tongues, and there are plans to begin sessions in still more languages – book donations permitting.

The chemist’s receives many visitors who actively seek it out but Murphy believes that a large part of Sweny’s charm is the surprise passers-by get on wandering in by chance. It was heartening to see such a love of Dublin in the staff of this appealing time capsule. Stumbling across hidden gems such as the French reading group makes you realise that you don’t know your home town as well as you think.

Naturally, 16 June (the day on which Ulysses is set) is the busiest day of the year for Sweny’s; Murphy says that up to €5,000-worth of lemon soap is sold on this date alone. Many Joyce fans celebrate “Bloomsday” by wearing period clothes, retracing the footsteps of Poldy and Stephen Dedalus, and quoting their favourite passages from the book.

Joyce is one of few authors who inspire such devotion, but Murphy argues that the writer’s deep affection for Dubliners comes across in his work. Murphy has read Ulysses 19 times and bemoans its reputation as a weighty, intimidating book; he prefers to think of it instead as an honest, amusing portrayal of ordinary people.

“It’s great fun. Joyce was a great listener: he talked to everyone and wrote it all down. Irish people are very good at that,” he says over a pint, smiling. “Read it, let it come to you, enjoy it and read it again. Each time something new pops out.” I first read Ulysses a year ago. This Bloomsday, I might well take Murphy’s advice. 

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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