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Dear Dirty Dublin: Irish Literary Perspectives on Slums and Dirt from the 1880s to the 1920s

By Nils Beese (18.11.2014)

My dissertation scrutinizes the representations of Dublin slums in Irish Literature from the 1880s to the 1930s. Closely connected to these representations is the trope of dirt. This trope can be found in various forms in Irish Modern Literature, yet seems intricately connected to representations of the slums. By focussing on a variety of historical issues and themes concerning the Dublin slums from the 1880s to the 1930s, I will try to examine how this seemingly intricate relationship between the tropology of dirt and Irish slum literature came to fruition.

[Bildunterschrift / Subline]: Brady's Cottages. Photograph by W. J. Joyce (http://dublincitypubliclibraries.com/content/038bradyscottages)

Moreover, I will study whether there is a link between the rhetorics of dirt and the creative energy and success of early Irish Modernism. During this endeavour, my methodology will be in coherence with a perspective of cultural poetics. One of my main contributions will be to answer how a relatively underdeveloped city like Dublin was able to turn into a hotbed for Modernist literature. I will begin my research by analysing formerly popular (but nowadays largely forgotten) writers, who concentrate their literary endeavour on the Dublin slums. Then I will trace and assess the relative silence of the leading Revivalists concerning matters of slums and dirt. After this, I will focus my analysis on the writings of James Joyce. I will scrutinize in how far the slum and dirt discourse can be detected as a form of influence in the Joycean textual world. As a further step, I will examine in what ways the forms and functions of dirt in his literary cosmos distinguish themselves from the popular discourse, and how these modifications on the tropology of dirt lay a literary foundation for writers after him. As a final step, I will give an outlook to what extent some contemporary Irish writers may still subsist on the trope of dirt and thus, continue to possibly contribute to the particular creative energy, which is inherent in Irish writing.

As an example, if we have a quick look at some quotes from Joyce’s books, we realize that allusions to dirt, slums and poverty of Dublin are present in his works:

He emerged from under the feudal arch of the King’s Inns, a neat modest figure, and walked swiftly down Henrietta Street. … A horde of grimy children populated the street. They stood or ran in the roadway or crawled up the steps before the gaping doors or squatted like mice upon the threshold” (Dubliners 66).

He had wandered into a maze of narrow and dirty streets. From the foul laneways he heard bursts of hoarse riot and wrangling and the drawling of drunken singers” (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 106).

By lorries along sir John Rogerson's quay Mr Bloom walked soberly, past Windmill lane, Leask's the linseed crusher, the postal telegraph office. Could have given that address too. And past the sailors' home. He turned from the morning noises of the quayside and walked through Lime street. By Brady's cottages a boy for the skins lolled, his bucket of offal linked, smoking a chewed fagbutt. A smaller girl with scars of eczema on her forehead eyed him, listlessly holding her battered caskhoop. Tell him if he smokes he won't grow. O let him! His life isn't such a bed of roses. Waiting outside pubs to bring da home. Come home to ma, da. Slack hour: won't be many there” (Ulysses 5.1-10).

The slums are thus a recurrent feature in the Joycean textual body and can function as seismographic indicators concerning historical processes and developments of the slum and dirt discourse in Dublin. Joyce is no exception concerning this literary processing. As I will analyse, his works reverberate moods, which can already be found in (today mostly forgotten) literary slum writers before him. Yet, next to analysing such a literary genealogy, also the breaks and changes from the predominant discourse and their successive results will be scrutinized—How did Joyce (and of course other modernists such as W.B. Yeats and George Moore, too), dwelling on the trope of dirt, manage to lift Dublin to a literary modern city on a par with London or Paris?

At first, reflecting on the socio-political and economic circumstances within the actual city space of Dublin during the late 19th and early 20th century, one feels bewildered how a vividly literary modernist culture could actually emerge. Dublin did not experience an industrial revolution as London did. The unemployment rate was exorbitantly high during the 1880s and between 1904-1912. Furthermore, the mortality rate was higher than in any other European capital—perhaps due to the fact that 35 per cent of the inner city population in 1914 still lived in slum dwellings, which were deemed unfit for human habitation.

Generally speaking, the housing situation and its knock-on-effects such as health and safety issues were very important factors, which denied Dublin the status and the reputation of being a flourishing European modern capital. Since the 1840s a myriad of sanitation reports documented the plight of the citizens of Dublin, so that it was well known to the political leaders. Yet the Dublin Corporation, for various reasons such as financial straits and a laissez-faire attitude, did not gain control of the situation. Dirt, poverty and plight permeated almost the entire city space. Moreover, disease epidemics and various scandals, such as the collapse of two houses in Church Street in 1913, which entailed a huge media echo, made the majority of the citizens aware of the distress of their city. Slums were omnipresent, yet hidden from the displayed grandeur of Georgian Dublin. Much was known about the so-called ‘fever nests’, yet mostly from outsiders’ perspectives. Lack of control of how to contain the ‘slum evil’ and a fear of the unknown created a divided city. Soon a huge proportion of the middle-class moved to the suburbs in order to remove themselves physically and mentally from the sights of plight. However, next to the repulsion, there was also a lure that surrounded the slums. Slumming, tours to the ‘underworld’ under the guise of philanthropy, was en vogue. Overtly, what separated slum inhabitants from the better off citizens was the housing situation in tenement buildings, their poverty and, according to some middle-class views, their general dirtiness. Covertly, there was an almost magical attraction to the ‘other’, the unknown, which interested the middle-class.

Due to the fact that dirt was often seen metonymic for the slums and their inhabitants per se, I believe that it will be very fruitful to focus my thesis on issues of dirt. Scrutinizing the trope of dirt (in Mary Douglas’s famous words, “matter out of place”) is highly fascinating, as it stands on a crossroad of many disciplines. Dirt is not essentially material but almost always entails a metaphorical level, as dirt can be only identified when it is put into words. Talking about dirt, in other words defining something as dirt (before this process it is simply matter), involves a form of structural judgement, which most likely includes moral, religious, socio- and geopolitical, historical and environmental dimensions. In most cases, these dimensions can tell us more about the definer of dirt than about the defined. That is to say that the discourse about dirt is mostly the discourse about something else, whether it is the prevalent 19th century middle-class idea that dirty living conditions of the poor mirror their moral standards or whether it is the environmental question about waste management of human effluvia and excrement, which, in its measures to deal with it, reflects a particular attitude concerning dirt. Due to the fact that the slum reality as a continuous part of the city’s existence and heritage is also noticeable in the literature of its time, I will analyse such attitudes in the literature from the 1880s to the 1930s and will try to embed them into a historical structure.

Scientific Career
  • 2005-2009
  • B. A. English Studies und Geschichte, Universität zu Köln
  • 2007-2008
  • ERASMUS-Auslandsaufenthalt, University College Cork (UCC), Irland
  • 2009-2010
  • M. A. Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft (Comparative Literature), University of Rochester, New York
  • 2010-2011
  • M. Phil. Irish Writing, Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Irland
  • 2012-2016
  • Promotionsstudiengang „Literaturwissenschaft“ (ProLit), LMU München
  • Februar 2016
  • Ph.D. in English Literature
  • Titel der Promotion: "Writing Slums: Dublin, Dirt, and Literature"

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  • * “‘Closed Communities’: Kafka in the Criticism and late Poetry of Louis MacNeice.” Boundary Crossings. Herausgeber: Michaela Marková und Radvan Markus. Prag: Centre for Irish Studies, Karls-Universität, 2012, S. 62–73 (Dezember 2012)