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.