Rambles in Éirinn, by William Bulfin
Title: Rambles in Éirinn
Author: William Bulfin
Publisher: Out of Print
Order: Available as a PDF or try secondhand suppliers for a 1990s facsimile reprint
What it is: An early twentieth century Irish travelogue written by a recently returned émigré
Strengths: If you’re travelling in Ireland and plan passing through any of the places Bulfin visited the author offers a glimpse of a past that hasn’t yet fully faded
Weaknesses: Bulfin’s patriotic fervour – nurtured by a decade and a half of living outside Ireland – can at times grate, particularly when he sets himself up as more Irish than those he meets on his travels
Time for a story. One that begins with a tower and Napoléon Bonaparte, moves on through James Joyce and Ulysses, and eventually arrives at the Tour de France and its maillot jaune. Central to this story is an Irish gaucho recently, returned from the Argentine. Every good story should have an Irish gaucho, a Che O’Shay, if you will. If we reverse that logic then any story that has an Irish gaucho in it must be good.
Before we get to the twisted logic of Irish gauchos we need to deal with Bonaparte. It was because of Boney that they built the tower, one of the Martello variety. And it is in one of those Martello towers – Tower Number 11 in Sandycove, north of Dalkey, in the suburbs of Dublin – that Ulysses opens, with stately, plump Buck Mulligan, in his yellow dressing gown, looking out over the snotgreen sea of Dublin Bay and giving it his blessing.
The double-dactyled Malachi Mulligan – Buck to his buddies – was not just some character carved out of the imagination of his author, James Joyce. He was a real man, of a sorts, Oliver St John Gogarty, and it was this real man that lived in that real Martello tower, the one in Sandycove, north of Dalkey (where, in an alternative time, lived the renowned philosopher and scientist De Selby, famed for his mollycule theory), in the suburbs of the city that are today sometimes referred to as Dublin’s Bel Éire. And one time the Ulysses author stayed in that tower with Gogarty, the one built to stop Bonaparte invading Britain through Ireland’s back door.
By a strange coincidence of timing – Joyce’s sojourn in that tower forever associated with him actually having been mayfly brief in duration – there came a calling to the tower the Irish gaucho, riding a steel horse. Not Che O’Shay, that would be too good. This was Che Buono. Or, when he wasn’t hiding behind a good pen name, William Bulfin. Here’s the man himself writing in Rambles in Éirinn of how he came to call upon Joyce in that tower on that day:
“On a lovely Sunday morning in the early autumn two of us pulled out along the road to Bray for a day’s cycling in Dublin and Wicklow. We intended riding to Glendalough and back, but we were obliged to modify this programme before we reached Dalkey, owing to a certain pleasant circumstance which may be termed a morning call. As we were leaving the suburbs behind us my comrade, who knows many different types of Irish people, said casually that there were two men living in a tower down somewhere to the left who were creating a sensation in the neighbourhood. They had, he said, assumed a hostile attitude towards the conventions of denationalisation, and were, thereby, outraging the feelings of the seonini. He, therefore, suggested we pay them a flying visit.”
At this time Bulfin was recently returned to Ireland from the Argentine and renewing his acquaintance with the Auld Sod by riding around it on a Wexford-built bicycle, made by the Pierce iron works. Bulfin’s descriptions of those rides were published in papers in Ireland (the United Irishman), America (the New York Daily News) and Argentina (the Southern Cross) and subsequently collected in book form (Rambles in Éirinn). Here he is again, describing the occupants of that tower that day:
“We entered and found some of the men of Ireland in possession, with whom we tarried far on in the morning. One of them had lately returned from a canoeing tour of hundreds of miles through the lakes, rivers, and canals of Ireland, another was reading for a Trinity College degree, and assiduously wooing the muses, and another was a singer of songs which spring from the deepest currents of life. The returned marine of the canoe was an Oxford student, whose button-hole was adorned by the badge of the Gaelic League – a most strenuous Nationalist he was, with a patriotism, stronger than circumstances, which moved him to pour forth fluent Irish upon every Gael he encountered, in accents blent from the characteristic speech of his alma mater and the rolling blas of Connacht. The poet was a wayward kind of genius, who talked in a captivating manner, with a keen, grim humour, which cut and pierced through a topic in bright, strong flashes worthy of the rapier of Swift. The other poet listened in silence, and when we went on the roof he disposed himself restfully to drink in the glory of the morning. It was very pleasant up there in the glad sunshine and the sweet breath of the sea. We looked out across the bay to Ben Edair of the heroic legends, now called Howth, and wondered how many of the dwellers in the ‘Sunnyview Lodges’ and ‘Elmgrove Villas,’ and other respectable homes along the hillside knew aught of Finn and Oisin and Oscar.”
The returned marine of the canoe was Samuel Chevenix Trench, who became Haines in Ulysses. Gogarty was the wayward kind of genius reading for a degree in Trinity (in medicine, in case you’re curious). The singer of songs who disposed himself restfully on the roof, he was Joyce.
The particular Sunday in autumn on which Bulfin visited the tower can be dated clearly, September 11, 1904. Joyce’s stay in the tower had begun the previous Friday and ended in somewhat odd circumstances just six days later (he fleeing in the night after both Trench and Gogarty had fired off a revolver within the tower, Gogarty in the direction of where Joyce was sleeping). A month on from that Joyce left Ireland behind him, he and Nora Barnacle – who he had first stepped out with just five months earlier, on the first Bloomsday – decamping to the Continent, starting a new life in Trieste. Zürich and Paris would later also be called home by Joyce and his family, but never again Ireland.
Joyce’s tower – as Tower Number 11 in Sandycove has come to be known – was built in the early years of the nineteenth century, 1804 or shortly thereafter, to ward off the French. A few years before – 1798, the year of the French – Bonaparte’s army had helped the Irish rise up in rebellion, General Jean Humbert landing troops in the west, Killala Bay in Mayo, and driving before them the British redcoats all the way to Castlebar, before the rout was halted and reinforcements drove back the invaders and quelled the insurrection. A century after its construction the military tower was demilitarised and rented out for the princely sum of £8 a year. Gogarty was its first tenant, moving in little more than a month before Joyce came to kip on his sofa.
Of the two – Gogarty and Joyce – it is Buck Mulligan who is more known as a cyclist, the young Gogarty having been quite keen on the sport, even quite good at it. He was, alas, lost to the fellowship of the wheel when he was banned from racing for swearing too much. One of Gogarty’s novels – Tumbling in the Hay, a thinly disguised memoir – was particularly overloaded with references to his youth awheel, so much so that one critic said of it (privately) that it was “nothing but bicycle races bicycle races bicycle races. I was never able to finish it, it was so tedious. In between the bicycle races he would say Joyce was a little blind pauper, too poor to wear anything but tennis shoes, and tell about four or five times he beat Joyce up and made him look ridiculous, and then he returns to the bicycle races.”
Joyce himself, he is known to have straddled a bike, though not to the same level as Gogarty, or with the same level of interest as the man who became his amanuensis, Samuel Beckett, whose novels and stories and poems are filled with les bicyclettes. But Joyce did have some references to cycling in Ulysses. Bloom himself contemplates cycling across the country to his daughter Milly, in Mullingar, and he had published in the Irish Cyclist a letter headed ‘In Darkest Stepaside.’ Then there’s Gerty MacDowell, who loves the boy that has the bicycle, off the London Bridge Road, always riding up and down outside her window, turning at the lamp with his hands off the bars. Most notably, of course, are the College bicycle races, with Bloom noticing a poster for them near Oriel House, once the home of the Dunlop tyre company:
“College sports today I see. He eyed the horseshoe poster over the gate of college park: cyclist doubled up like a cod in a pot. Damn bad ad. Now if they had made it round like a wheel. Then the spokes: sports, sports, sports: and the hub big: college. Something to catch the eye.”
Later, while crossing Westmoreland Street, Bloom remembers the college races when he sees the Rover cycleshop. The races themselves also feature, when Dilly, the sister of Stephen Dedealus, is waiting for her father outside of Dillon’s auction room and Joyce reports the end of one of them:
“Bang of the lastlap bell spurred the halfmile wheelmen to their sprint. JA Jackson, WE Wylie, A Munro and HT Gahan, their stretched necks wagging, negotiated the curve by the College Library.”
Were one of the type that can spin Marie Marvingt doing a tour of France on her bicycle into the claim that Marvingt not only rode the Tour but finished within a handful of minutes of the winner, here we could engage in a flight of fancy and suggest that Joyce was quite deliberate when specifying the colour of Buck Mulligan’s dressing gown: the choice of yellow was a gift to Gogarty, the former cyclist, a honorary maillot jaune. Such a speculative leap, of course, would need to appear to be buttressed by evidence, so perhaps one would remind people that Joyce lived in Paris, first in 1902-1903 around the time that the Tour was being launched, and then again in 1920 when he was completing Ulysses and Philippe Thys was winning that year’s Tour. The Tour and its yellow jersey, we could argue, would have been known to Joyce. We could even bring in the fact that Joyce was buddies with every literary cyclists’ third favourite author, Ernest Hemingway. The evidence is there, all you have to do is join the dots.
How about if we claim that Ulysses was inspired, in part, by William Bulfin and his Rambles in Éirinn? Here we would be on firmer ground than that yellow jerseyed flight of fancy, with Joycean scholars claiming that Ulysses is a novel form of travel writing. Joyce opening it with parallax take on a tale already told by Bulfin in Rambles is an acknowledgement of this fact. This claim is supported by knowing from Joyce’s letters that he was a regular reader of Bulfin’s writings when they appeared in Irish newspapers, referring to him by both his pen name, Che Buono, and as “that Southern X chap, Señor Bulfin”.
So who was this Señor Bulfin, the Irish gaucho and early cyclotourist? Born in 1864, in Derringlough, Birr, county Offaly (or King’s County as it then was) to a Catholic family (nine sons, one daughter), Bulfin was aged 20 when he and one of his brothers emigrated to Argentina, at a time when the Argentine government was sending out a siren call to Europeans to come and prosper (outside of the Anglosphere countries Argentina claims the highest number of people descended from Irish stock). Starting out as a hand on an Irish-owned estancia with a vast flock of sheep, Bulfin – who was of commanding character, standing six foot four tall – rose to become the ranch’s general manager. It was during these years that he became a gaucho, living a life on the pampas – the country’s grassy plains – like that lived by Argentina’s cowboys.
Farming was not how Bulfin intended to live out his life and in time he became a contributor to various journals, including one of Buenos Aires’s Irish newspapers, the Southern Cross. As he had on the pampas, in the city he soon rose to a position of power, becoming the paper’s sub-editor, and – in 1896, a dozen years after he’d arrived in the country – its owner and editor.
Bulfin travelled wide and far on his bike in Argentina (“I had cycled from Olivos to Tigre in Buenos Aires. I had cycled from the Once to Lujan on the roadless Pampas.”) and in Rambles he tells us that often he dreamed of riding in Ireland (“How often during the cloudless dog days of the Pampas had I yearned for a cycling tour through Ireland!”). That opportunity arrived in 1902 when he returned to the country, with a view to sorting out schooling for his four children. It was during this trip that he started visiting parts of the country on his Wexford-made bicycle and writing up his trips, principally for readers of his Southern Cross newspaper. Bulfin returned to Argentina in 1903 and then, in 1904, once more visited Ireland, where he undertook some more cycling trips, including the one that took him to Sandycove that Sunday morning in September when Joyce was there.
That one Sunday in September when Bulfin and Joyce met is the primary reason Rambles in Éireann is remembered today. Even without its link to Joyce, that ride into the Wicklow Hills is still the best part of Rambles, covering as it does roads that are staple to Dublin’s touring and racing cyclists even today. Elsewhere in the book Bulfin recounts occasional rides that are worth repeating in whole or in part today, but the primary value of the book here is the window it offers us on an Ireland that was growing out of being a child of Empire and set on becoming an independent state. Along with the Halls’ Ireland and Thackeray’s Irish Sketch Book Bulfin’s Rambles offers the modern traveller a valuable window into a past that sometimes can still be glimpsed today.
Bulfin was not, by a long chalk, Ireland’s first cyclotourist. That honour traditionally goes to Richard Brennan, from Dungarvan, who toured Ireland by bike in 1869. Seven years later two Irishmen – CW Fegan and Louis Meldon – rode their bikes over the Simplon Pass in the Alps. And then there’s RJ Mecredy – the inventor of bicycle polo, in which sport Ireland once reigned supreme in the Olympics – whose Irish Cyclist magazine thrived on the back of the popularity of the bicycle in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. But the popularity of Rambles in Éirinn certainly makes Bulfin Ireland’s second most famous cyclotourist (Dervla Murphy being the one who eclipses him).
For many, the chief import of Rambles isn’t in the fact that it is one of the first cyclotourist’s accounts of a trip around Ireland. For them, Rambles matters because of the warmth with which it was greeted by those who, a decade after the book’s publication, rose up and hurled the little streets upon the great, the men and women of 1916 finding the way Bulfin wrote of Ireland to be refreshing and in tune with their own nationalist ideologies. By the time 1916 came around, though, Bulfin was already six years in the grave, having died in 1910, still a relatively young man – not yet into his fifties – who had led quite a full life.
There is one more link between Bulfin and Joyce. Bulfin’s journey out through Sandycove and up into the Wicklow Hills ends back in Dublin city centre late at night on a very particular street:
“It was very late when we parted in Eccles Street, and our cyclometers marked seventy-three miles [117 kilometres] for the day. We had spent as much energy on some of those miles as would have taken us many leagues on the level. But now that the ride was over, I knew I should always think of it with unclouded pleasure.”
Eccles Street is where Joyce had Leopold Bloom living. Joyce himself spent one night on the street, during a brief return to Ireland in 1909, staying with a friend who lived there. But maybe his choice of residence for Bloom was also a sly nod to Bulfin and the small but important influence he had over one of the twentieth century’s greatest novels.
(1) The evidence that Buck Mulligan’s dressing gown was inspired by Henri Desgrange’s yellow jersey may all be there but so too, sadly, is the evidence that this flight of fancy is the kakapo of Tour myths and won’t ever get off the ground. Buck Mulligan first appeared in his yellow gown sixteen months before Eugène Christophe donned the first maillot jaune, with a literary magazine in America, the Little Review, beginning its serialisation of Ulysses in March 1918.
But if that tall tale is dead on the wing, try this Tour connection: during Bulfin’s time as editor of the Southern Cross newspaper in Buenos Aires a young Frenchman called Lucien Mazan was making a new name for himself, Lucien Breton. He later became Lucien Petit-Breton, one-time winner of Milan-Sanremo and two-time winner of the Tour de France. It would be something wonderful if the two crossed paths in the Paris of the South, wouldn’t it?