Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

The day James Joyce came up north for a blooming great time

One hundred years ago on this very date, Dubliner James Joyce walked the length and breadth of Belfast city.

A good 13 years before Leopold Bloom walked the streets of Dublin in one day, although the seeds of Ulysses were being souped in Joyce’s creative cauldron since 1906.

Joyce was in the company of two Italians: Antonio Machnich, an upholsterer, and Giovanni Rebez, a leather merchant. After they had trodden thrice the pockmarked pavements of Belfast, they adjourned to a hostelry to consider their utter failure to achieve that for which they had primarily come to the city on the Lagan.

Their quest had had its beginning in another hostelry, in the city of Trieste, then in Austria until it was ceded to the Italians in 1918, and where Joyce was an impecunious teacher of languages.

That day in Trieste, as they lingered over coffee, Joyce severed the silence and spoke, his tone measured: “I know a city of 500,000 inhabitants where there is not a single cinema.’’

Let me dare to interrupt Mr Joyce in full flow by saying that Signori Machnich and Rebez had been doing remarkably well in the, then startlingly novel, role of cinema proprietors.

In 1896, American Thomas Edison successfully demonstrated his Vitascope projector and it was the first commercially successful projector in the US, building on the pioneering work in France, decades earlier, of Louis Lumiere.

Motion pictures were the (silent) talk of the town and Joyce’s aquaintances had two picture houses in Trieste and one in Bucharest with the resounding title of Cinematograph Volta.

Joyce produced a dog-eared map of Ireland from inside his threadbare tweed coat.

He laid it open on the table. First he pointed to Dublin, then Cork and then to Belfast.

“They’re all panting to see animated pictures,’’ he declared.

The other two were suitably impressed and appointed Joyce their Irish agent at an accepted sum: 10% of all monies made from the new Irish operation and an allowance of 10 Austrian crowns (about eight shillings) a day.

The deal done, the coffee consumed, Joyce was on his way back to Ireland. First to Dublin where he found a building, 45 Mary Street, just off today’s O’Connell Street. Making sure it met the requirements for a cinematic licence, he set about having it renovated.

On November 19, 1909 Machnich and Rebez arrived in Dublin and decamped in Finn’s Hotel, now part of Trinity College and where Joyce had met future wife Nora Barnacle, whom he immortalised as Molly Bloom in Ulysses. She had worked there as a maid.

Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus, at once renamed Rebez, ‘the hairy mechanic with the liontamer’s coat’.

All was not to swim smoothly and the opening of Dublin’s Volta was put back when the only ‘official’ who could grant a licence was described as “not sitting’’. So the three buckos took themselves off to Belfast.

The day was Saturday, November 27, 1909. Joyce was 27.

Their mission, however, to find a premises for a cinema in Belfast proved unproductive and, as dark descended on the city, Joyce abandoned his colleagues to their own devices and set out to tour the city’s factories. (He had a thing about factories, apparently).

He went in search of Belfast linen and bought some sheets. He rounded off that Saturday with the conviviality and dubious discourse of one WB Reynolds, music critic of the Belfast Evening Telegraph. Reynolds was the first Rathcol music columnist of the Tele. He was also to set some of Joyce’s lyrics to music.

Next day James Joyce made tracks for his native Dublin. While it is the only time recorded that he visited the city, Joyce had another link with Belfast, of a musical nature.

Hubert Hughes (1882-1937) was a composer and song collector, born in Belfast. Some of his more famous ballads were Johnny |I Hardly Knew Ye and The |Spanish Lady. He and Joyce must have had some communication, if not actual meeting in the flesh, for Joyce penned the lyrics to Hughes’s She Weeps Over Rahoon.

Hughes made his main money with the Daily Telegraph in London until he wrote a review of a concert that didn’t take place and he was fired.

To while away his unemployed days he edited a collection of Joyce’s poems entitled The Joyce Book, which was published in 1933 on mould-made paper and bound in blue handwoven silk.

It had a print run of 500 copies and republished Joyce’s 13 poems from his 1929 collection, Pomes Penyeach, though this time set to the music of 13 different composers. It also included a prologue by James Stephens, the Dublin-born novelist who once had lived as a vagrant on the streets of Belfast.

Perhaps Stephens, who liked to bleat that he was born on the same day as the Dubliner (in fact he was two years older), bumped into Joyce on that fateful day.

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet.

Somewhere in Belfast city.

Joycean scholar Dr Jorg Rademacher will give a lecture on the writer’s 1909 visit at the Black Box, Hill Street, Belfast tomorrow (1pm), sponsored by the Belfast Telegraph and Feile an Phobail. Admission is free.

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