Grand tours: On the skive with a catapult

Great writers' adventures in literature: James Joyce bunks off school in Dublin

Irrevocably associated with Dublin, James Joyce (1882-1941) did most of his writing, including 'The Dubliners', from which this is an extract, while living in Trieste. While writing this series of short stories detailing the lives of ordinary Dubliners, Joyce was struggling to survive in the Italian port, working variously as a teacher, tweed salesman, journalist and lecturer. He made several visits to Ireland, to the sick bed of this mother and to try to convince Maunsel & Co to fulfill its contract to publish 'The Dubliners', but never returned to live. Joyce moved his family to Zurich at the start of the First World War and died there, still largely disappointed with the reception of his work, in particular that for his final book, 'Finnegan's Wake'.

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The summer holidays were near at hand when I made up my mind to break out of the weariness of school life for one day at least. With Leo Dillon and a boy named Mahony I planned a day's miching. Each of us saved up sixpence. We were to meet at 10 in the morning on the Canal Bridge. Mahony's big sister was to write an excuse for him and Leo Dillon was to tell his brother to say he was sick. We arranged to go along the Wharf Road until we came to the ships, then to cross in the ferryboat and walk out to see the Pigeon House. Leo Dillon was afraid we might meet Father Butler or someone out of the college; but Mahony asked, very sensibly, what would Father Butler be doing out at the Pigeon House. We were reassured, and I brought the first stage of the plot to an end by collecting sixpence from the other two, at the same time showing them my own sixpence. When we were making the last arrangements on the eve we were all vaguely excited. We shook hands, laughing, and Mahony said:

"Till tomorrow, mates." That night I slept badly. In the morning I was firstcomer to the bridge, as I lived nearest. I hid my books in the long grass near the ashpit at the end of the garden where nobody ever came, and hurried along the canal bank. It was a mild sunny morning in the first week of June. I sat up on the coping of the bridge, admiring my frail canvas shoes which I had diligently pipeclayed overnight and watching the docile horses pulling a tramload of business people up the hill. All the branches of the tall trees which lined the mall were gay with little light green leaves, and the sunlight slanted through them on to the water. The granite stone of the bridge was beginning to be warm, and I began to pat it with my hands in time to an air in my head. I was very happy.

When I had been sitting there for five or ten minutes I saw Mahony's grey suit approaching. He came up the hill, smiling, and clambered up beside me on the bridge. While we were waiting he brought out the catapult which bulged from his inner pocket and explained some improvements which he had made in it. I asked him why he had brought it, and he told me he had brought it to have some gas with the birds.

Mahony used slang freely, and spoke of Father Butler as Old Bunser. We waited on for a quarter of an hour more, but still there was no sign of Leo Dillon. Mahony, at last, jumped down and said:

"Come along. I knew Fatty'd funk it."

"And his sixpence..." I said.

"That's forfeit," said Mahony. "And so much the better for us - a bob and a tanner instead of a bob." We walked along the North Strand Road till we came to the Vitriol Works and then turned along the Wharf Road. Mahony began to play the Indian as soon as we were out of public sight. He chased a crowd of ragged girls, brandishing his unloaded catapult and, when two ragged boys began, out of chivalry, to fling stones at us, he proposed that we should charge them. I objected that the boys were too small, and so we walked on, the ragged troop screaming after us "Swaddlers! Swaddlers!" thinking that we were Protestants because Mahony, who was dark-complexioned, wore the silver badge of a cricket club in his cap.

We came then near the river. We spent a long time walking about the noisy streets flanked by high stone walls, watching the working of cranes and engines and often being shouted at for our immobility by the drivers of groaning carts. It was noon when we reached the quays and, as all the labourers seemed to be eating their lunches, we bought two big currant buns and sat down to eat them on some metal piping beside the river. We pleased ourselves with the spectacle of Dublin's commerce - the barges signalled from far away by their curls of woolly smoke, the brown fishing fleet beyond Ringsend, the big white sailing vessel which was being discharged on the opposite quay. Mahony said it would be right skit to run away to sea on one of those big ships, and even I, looking at the high masts, saw, or imagined, the geography which had been scantily dosed to me at school gradually taking substance under my eyes. School and home seemed to recede from us and their influences upon us seemed to wane.

This extract from 'The Dubliners' was reprinted by kind permission of Wordsworth Classics. Readers of 'The Independent on Sunday' can order a copy for £1.50 plus £1.50 p&p (UK only). Contact Bibliophile Books (020-7515 9222), Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm, and quote Independent Reader Offer.

Follow in the footsteps

Man about town

To learn more about the life of one of Dublin's most famous sons, visit the James Joyce Centre (00 353 1 878 8547; www.jamesjoyce.ie), 35 North Great George's Street, open Monday to Saturday, 9.30am to 7pm, and Sunday, 12.30pm-5pm.

Folk trails

Follow in the footsteps of a Joycean creation, the character of Leopold Bloom, by picking up a "Ulysses" walking map of the city at the Dublin Tourism centre located in St Andrew's Church in Suffolk Street price €1.30 (90p).

Getting there

Aer Lingus ((0845 084 4444; www.aerlingus.com) offers return fares to Dublin from around £80 return from several locations throughout the UK. Travelscene (0870 777 4445; www.travelscene.co.uk) offers two-night breaks in Dublin from around £254 per person, based on two sharing, in September, including return flights and b&b accommodation.

For further information contact Tourism Ireland (0800 039 7000; www.tourismireland.com).

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