Sweny’s Pharmacy & James Joyce by Pat Liddy
Author James Joyce, his major work Ulysses and Dublin are inextricably intertwined. You can’t really have one without the other. Published in 1922, this seminal mammoth of fiction depicts a day in the life of the city on the 16th June 1904 (now celebrated annually as Bloomsday). The characters weaving their way through the pages are often based on real-life people that Joyce knew in Dublin or met as he moved around his adopted homes in Trieste, Zurich and Paris (for more information on James Joyce see the June 2017 issue: travelirelandmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Travel_Ireland_38_FINA22.pdf).
Joyce’s main hero in Ulysses is Leopold Bloom and the book is mainly concerned with his wanderings around the city and the people he meets in real terms or in his head. In Episode Five, Lotus Eaters, Bloom travels up Westland Row to call into Sweny’s, his regular pharmacy at number 1, Lincoln Place. He is on a mission on behalf of his wife, Molly, but he has forgotten to bring the prescription for her face cream. It was the custom then to compound most cosmetic and medicinal preparations on the spot. This was the era before the marketing of the big brand names we are so familiar with today.
“When was it I got it made up last? Wait. I changed a sovereign I remember. First of the month it must have been or the second. O he can look it up in the prescriptions book.
The chemist turned back page after page. Sandy shrivelled smell he seems to have. Shrunken skull. And old. Quest for the philosopher’s stone. The alchemists. Drugs age you after mental excitement. Lethargy then. Why? Reaction. A lifetime in a night. Gradually changes your character. Living all the day among herbs, ointments, disinfectants. All his alabaster lilypots. Mortar and pestle……………………………
— About a fortnight ago, sir?
— Yes, Mr Bloom said.
He waited by the counter, inhaling the keen reek of drugs, the dusty dry smell of sponges and loofahs. Lot of time taken up telling your aches and pains…………………………….
— Yes, sir, the chemist said. That was two and nine. Have you brought a bottle?
— No, Mr Bloom said. Make it up, please. I’ll call later in the day and I’ll take one of those soaps. How much are they?
— Fourpence, sir.
Mr Bloom raised a cake to his nostrils. Sweet lemony wax.”
When in 2018 you walk into Sweny’s it probably looks no different than it did to Bloom in 1904. The original furnishings are still in place and the drawers are still full of uncollected prescriptions and photographs wrapped in brown paper. It also looked the same to Oscar Wilde, who lived just around the corner, when he called around in the 1860s to collect medicines for his doctor father. In fact, it probably looked very much the same when it first opened for business in 1853. It traded in its steady, unfaltering, unchanging way up to 2009 when the then owners, the Quinn sisters, locked the pharmacy doors for the last time. The building was ripe for a good gutting and redevelopment as was so often the norm.
Thankfully, within months, Brendan Kilty, a Joycean enthusiast, secured a lease on the shop to reopen it and turn it into a Joyce mini-museum and a place equally welcoming to the scholar and the beginner. The segway to an introduction or a deeper understanding of Joyce and his works are the regular readings that are held daily on the premises. P J Murphy and a team of other volunteers crew this ship as it almost literally transports the visitor to other times and literary experiences. P J, who has mastered 10 languages and can also greet visitors in many other tongues, proudly displays editions of Ulysses and the other works of Joyce printed in many of the world’s languages. To fund the operation an eclectic variety of books are for sale but, more significantly, the shop still sells the very lemon-scented bars of soap that Bloom bought for his wash in the nearby Turkish baths (that building is now sadly demolished).
If you can’t make Sweny’s on Bloomsday rest easy. Every day there is a little Bloomsday, and, in some ways, the almost frantic buzz of Bloomsday can be a slight distraction from walking in when it is a bit quieter and taking in the atmospheric ambience. P J and his amiable volunteers will entertain you with the stories of the pharmacy itself and its throughput of historic characters and will invite you to find out more about Joyce and the Dublin of his time. The readings are a most intimate way to soak in Joyce and even to learn more about his work in the shared vocalisation of his words.
The hours of opening are like a Joyce novel; difficult to comprehend until you see the context. It opens every day at 11.00am except Sunday when it’s at 10.00am. Closing is dependent on the readings (see below). Monday at 5.00pm, Tue at 6.30pm, Wednesday at 5.00pm, Thursday at 9.00pm, Friday at 6.30pm, Saturday and Sunday at 7.30pm. Readings from the works of Joyce take place as follows (in English unless otherwise specified); Monday: Finnegan’s Wake at 1.00pm, Tuesday: Dubliners at 1.00pm and Dubliners in Spanish at 2.00pm. Wednesday: Portrait of the Artist at 1.00pm, Thursday: Dubliners at 1.00pm and Ulysses at 7.00pm, Friday: Dubliners at 1.00pm, Saturday: Ulysses at 11.00am, at 3.00pm in Portuguese and 6.30pm in French and, finally, Sunday:1.00pm Ulysses in German, 3.00pm in Italian and 6.00pm Finnegan’s Wake.