Bulldozers bring gloom to Bloomsday

Today is Bloomsday, the most important date on the James Joyce calendar. All over the world, Joyce aficionados are celebrating the anniversary of the author's famous first rendezvous with Nora Barnacle, on 16 June 1904, when the enterprising Galway lass unbuttoned the writer's trousers and made him a man. The act earned her a lifetime's role as the author's lover and muse.

It is also, of course, on 16 June that all the action of Joyce's great novel Ulysses takes place. But despite the official opening by the Irish President, Mary Robinson, of the James Joyce museum and educational centre in Dublin last week, for many Joyce fans Bloomsday 1996 has lost its bloom. The childhood home which inspired his early novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man will shortly be flattened by bulldozers and replaced with a block of flats unless a campaign launched on the Internet to save it succeeds.

"Don't let Bloomsday wilt in Dublin this year" urges the Internet message, adding: "Send a written objection to the Planning Officer, Dublin Corporation Planning Dept before June 20."

Supporters include Joyce's nephew Ken Monaghan, the administrator at the new Joyce centre, who views the prospective destruction of the house as "a great pity". Among numerous American Joyce fanatics who have lent their support is Professor Robert Paul of Portland University in Oregon. "It is a scandal that it has been allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair that its destruction can seem a matter of indifference to the authorities," he says.

The Joyce family first moved to Holywell Villas - now 2 Millbourne Avenue, Drumcondra - in May 1894. There Freddie, May Joyce's 12th child was born - and subsequently died.

After Joyce senior was forced to sell the remainder of the properties he had inherited in Cork in order to pay off his debts, the family lived in penury. "They would live a few weeks in one place and then flee the landlord," says Anne Holliday, who is leading the campaign.

This poverty is vividly evoked in Portrait of the Artist when Joyce describes how his alter ego Stephen Dedalus "pushed open the latchless door of the porch and passed through the naked hallway into the kitchen".

The scene continues: "A group of his brothers and sisters were sitting around the table. Tea was nearly over and only the last of the second watered tea remained in the bottoms of the small glass jars and jampots which did service for teacups."

A rare break for the Joyces was when young James won a prize in the Intermediate Examination at nearby Belvedere College and was able to treat his family to new footwear and clothing.

This will not be the first time that a Joycean building has ended up beneath the bulldozer. Because there is no official provision for the protection of buildings of literary or historical importance in Ireland, it is difficult to campaign for their preservation. As a result, 7 Eccles Street, the home of Ulysses' Molly Bloom, was demolished some 20 years ago, while Holywell Villas has of late been the home of squatters.

Attitudes are changing: the Dublin planning department has recently turned down a similar plan to demolish a house with connections with Lord Byron. Likewise, the setting for Joyce's short story The Dead has just been bought by developers who have pledged to restore it and eventually open it to the public. No doubt the film based on the story, starring Anjelica Huston and directed by her father John, helped.

In the case of Hollywell Villas, however, the developers are lying low. According to Miss Holliday they are Elgin Properties, though there is no such company listed in the Dublin telephone directory. Nor will they answer any inquiries, she says.

Should her campaign be successful, she will need a "wealthy benefactor" to try and buy the house, making it "a place of pilgrimage for Joycean scholars and enthusiasts from all over the world".

Meanwhile, every day a new batch of frantic messages wings its way round the Net, as Joycean surfers register their support from as far afield as Amsterdam and Tasmania. Canadian poet John Oughton has even composed and filed a poem entitled "Domistyle", including the lines: "If words are worth keeping/The house is also."

8 The campaign's E-mail address is mnugent&iol.ie.