Bloomsday Bummer: City Government’s Lust for Taxes Destroys Another Cultural Gem

by Tim Cavanaugh

Today may be the final Bloomsday for Sweny’s, the Dublin drugstore featured in a key episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The store, which ceased functioning as a retail operation in 2009 and has been hanging on as a Bloomsday destination since then, is being done in by a 244 percent tax hike imposed by the city of Dublin.

In the fifth chapter of the 1922 novel, Leopold Bloom stops into the store to order some lotion for his wife and picks up a bar of lemon soap. The book goes on to chronicle 18 hours in the life of Bloom, his wife, and another character on June 16–17, 1904. The soap theme gets revisited (or “paid off” in screenplay terms) multiple times through the book, notably in a late-night apotheosis wherein the soap recites the non-immortal couplet:

We’re a capital couple are Bloom and I;
He brightens the earth, I polish the sky.

Sweny’s itself is unable to pay its “rate,” however, after the government upped the establishment’s tax bill from €1,800 to €4,400. Sweny’s is staffed by volunteers. The store has been trying to get what we in the U.S.A. would call not-for-profit status, and a representative of the Dublin City Council says the city had no choice but to impose the tax while waiting for some Lois O’Lerner in the Department of Finance to decide on that application.

The Irish Times plays up a cut in UNESCO funding to Dublin as the culprit. (And next time America’s non-payment of its United Nations bill comes up for discussion, keep in mind that your money is going to prop up a turn-of-the-20th-century soap shop in the seventh city of Christendom.) But the amount mentioned from that funding — €2,000 — is less than the €2,600 tax increase.

Joyce posited that Ulysses was such a detailed vision of Dublin that the city could be reconstructed from the book after it suffered major artillery damage in the 1916 uprising, so the loss of one location seems less than fully tragic. And I’m not sure why what looks like an attractive retail address in the center of a fine European city should have been paying less in taxes than I pay on a fairly decrepit single-family home in the suburbs. But in Slate, Mark O’Connell makes the case for saving the shop:

In that passage in Ulysses, as he waits for old Sweny to finish putting together Molly’s potions behind the counter, Bloom inwardly observes that “chemists rarely move. Their green and gold beaconjars too heavy to stir.” The observation has certainly remained true of Sweny’s, whose beaconjars can still be seen behind that same counter—at least for now. Modern Dublin as a whole is by no means lacking in physical links to the city of Ulysses—in fact it can, as I’ve written, sometimes seem like an exhaustive urban index to Joyce’s work. The National Library, Glasnevin Cemetery, the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street, Sandymount Strand: All these place and more are locations from Ulysses that still remain largely as they were when Joyce’s characters frequented them. But all those places are larger than their Joycean associations; their presence in the novel is only one element of their place in the city’s life. What’s special about the tiny time capsule of Sweny’s pharmacy is that it when you walk through its door, you are in a place that is pure, concentrated Ulysses. There’s no other place that quite has that quality, and it would be a sad thing if it were to be lost.

The city of Dublin and the Republic of Ireland have a convoluted love-hate history with the most famous Irish writer of modern times, but for the last few decades they have been making a concerted effort to brand Joyce on everything, including money. As with so many problems government sets itself up to solve, the government could have solved this problem by not creating it in the first place. The city of Dublin uses substantial public resources to preserve Joyce landmarks; it could do better by just not driving them out of business.

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