“She gazed out towards the distant sea. It was like the paintings that man used to do on the pavement with all the coloured chalks and such a pity too leaving them there to be all blotted out, the evening and the clouds coming out and the Bailey light on Howth…”
James Joyce, Ulysses

Much has been said and written about James Joyce’s obsession with Dublin’s streets, but his work was equally inspired by the city’s perfectly framed seascape. His most famous work, Ulysses (1922), was based on the first sea-narrative in Western literature, Homer’s The Odyssey. Joyce’s characters are not seafarers, but they are constantly drawn to the vista of Dublin Bay, from Howth Head to Dalkey.

The Baily Optic

“Thalatta! Thalatta!”, calls Buck Mulligan to Joyce’s artist hero, Stephen Dedalus at the beginning of the novel, beckoning him to look out at the sea, “She is our great sweet mother. Come and look.” Throughout Joyce’s work, characters are drawn towards the sea, to observe the comings and goings of ships, to contemplate the stories and myths of seafarers, and to gaze out at the Baily and Kish lighthouses which mark the perilous passage into the bay.

The Baily Optic now housed in the National Maritime Museum is the one which Joyce has Leopold Bloom observe in Ulysses: “Howth. Bailey light. Two, four, six, eight, nine. See. Has to change or they might think it a house. Wreckers. Grace Darling. People afraid of the dark.” It is characteristic of Bloom to think in practical terms of the function of the lighthouse, and also for his mind to wander over its associations with shipwrecks and the heroism of coastguards, such as the famous story of Grace Darling. The flashing beacon of the Baily was a constant reminder to Dubliners of the city’s historic dependence on the sea. For Joyce, Dublin was defined by this maritime history, and so the Baily light is as much part of the city’s heritage as the Ha’penny Bridge or St Stephen’s Green.

Professor John Brannigan
School of English, Drama and Film
University College Dublin