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'Erin's King'- a Joycean Steamship on Bloomsday

16th June 2021
The Erin's King, which features in James Joyce's in Ulysses. She is shown here in her original manifestation as a Mersey Ferry, Heather Bell. When launched in 1865 she cost £7,500 to construct. She was sold in 1891 for £950 and renamed Erin's King
The Erin's King, which features in James Joyce's Ulysses. She is shown here in her original manifestation as a Mersey Ferry, Heather Bell. When launched in 1865 she cost £7,500 to construct. She was sold in 1891 for £950 and renamed Erin's King

On the 16th June each year people come from far and wide dressed in Edwardian attire to walk, talk and perform around Dublin in commemoration of James Joyce's famous modernist novel "Ulysses". You see lots of bowler hats, parasols and long dresses but you never spot an Edwardian Captain or even a haggard sea-dog in the crowd. This is surely a surprising outcome for a book which is the modern reliving of the adventures of a great sailor i.e. Odysseus and his ten-year voyage home from Troy.

It's not as if ships and the sea don't feature in Ulysses. The book is teeming with marine allusions, references and characters which, given Joyce's capacity for inch-perfect description, can be relied upon to hold many satisfying insights. Take the case of the steamship Erin's King.

The Erin's King arrives into the novel as Leopold Bloom reflects on a letter from his daughter Milly who has just celebrated her fifteenth birthday -

"On the Erin's King that day round the Kish. Damned old tub pitching about. Not a bit funky. Her pale blue scarf loose in the wind with her hair."

Later the ship returns to Bloom's thoughts as he crosses O'Connell Bridge -

"Looking down he saw flapping strongly, wheeling between the gaunt quay walls, gulls…They wheeled lower. Looking for grub. Wait. He threw down among them a crumpled paper ball… The ball bobbed unheeded on the wake of swells, floated under by the bridge piers. Not such damn fools. Also the day I threw that stale cake out of the Erin's King picked it up in the wake fifty yards astern. Live by their wits. They wheeled, flapping".

That evening he sits at Sandymount strand near St. Mary's, Star of the Sea, church. Noticing the distant twinkle from the Kish lightship he again recalls the trip with Milly -

"Day we went out for the pleasure cruise in the Erin's King, throwing them the sack of old papers. Bears in the zoo. Filthy trip. Drunkards out to shake up their livers. Puking overboard to feed the herrings. Nausea. And the women, fear of God in their faces. Milly, no sign of funk. Her blue scarf loose, laughing. Don't know what death is at that age."

Was there ever a real ship named Erin's King? An examination of Lloyd's register for 1904 (the year in which Ulysses is set) reveals no such vessel. It requires a wider trawl of thirty-five years of Lloyds to reveal her full story.

For the greater part of her life she was named Heather Bell. Built in 1865 by T. Vernon & Son of Liverpool she was a twin funnel vessel, 159.8ft in length with paddles to stern, a steam engine rated at 80 horsepower and registered tonnage of 205. She was owned by Wallasey Local Board and worked as a Mersey Ferry on the Wallasey to Liverpool route. Heather Bell had a reputation as a good ship.

In 1891 her ownership changed to an individual named Ward who registered her with Lloyds as "Erin's King (ex Heather Bell)". Thereafter she operated as an excursion steamer taking sightseers out around Dublin Bay.

Erin's King berthed at Custom's House Quay and travelled out as far as the Kish lightship to the south and northwards to Ireland's Eye island. The fare was a shilling and she sailed several times a day in the Summer.

In the Lloyd's Register for 1901, her details are overprinted with a stamp "Broken up 00". Erin's King ex Heather Bell was dismantled on the Mersey not far from where she was built.

From the above, we can see that Bloom's trip on Erin's King had to be some years before 1904 and that the fictitious Milly Bloom would have been a young child when they rounded the Kish. The point for the reader is that the ship and the excursions are already in the past and that as Milly moves into adolescence Bloom is making a fatherly recall of her as a child. That Joyce intended this is clear from the words "Don't know what death is at that age".

The final mention of Erin's King is in the Nighttown episode where Bloom's deepest fears, anxieties and guilt rise up in a series of fierce assaults on his mind. It occurs in a single sentence which Joyce has placed in parenthesis and italics in the manner of a stage direction.

"(Far out in the bay between Bailey and Kish lights the Erin's King sails, sending a broadening plume of coalsmoke from her funnel towards the land.)"

It is the last we see of Erin's King as she sails into eternity.

Footnote

Erin's King which features in James Joyce's in Ulysses is pictured at the top of this page. She is shown here in her original manifestation as a Mersey Ferry, Heather Bell. When launched in 1865 she cost £7,500 to construct. She was sold in 1891 for £950 and renamed Erin's King.

The author is researching the Erin's King and would be interested in hearing from anybody who has items, photos, material or information about the ship and/or the St. George Steam Tug Company, Dublin. Contact him below by email.

Works consulted for this article were:

  • Ulysses by James Joyce. The 1934 text, as corrected and reset in 1961, The Modern Library. Quotations are from pages 67,152,379 and 550.
  • Ulysses annotated, Notes for James Joyce's Ulysses. Don Gifford with Robert J. Seidman (Author). University of California Press, Berkeley 94704.
  • Website: History of Wallasey Ferries
  • Lloyds Register of Shipping Online
  • The Coming of the Comet – The Rise and Fall of the Paddle Steamer. (2012) Nick Robins (Author). Seaforth Publishing.
Joe Kenny

About The Author

Joe Kenny

Email The Author

Joe Kenny is a retired accountant who is active in various Joyce reading groups in the Dublin area.

He's a former director of the world-famous Sweny's Joycean Pharmacy in Lincoln Place.

He currently runs an online Joyce Reading Group for people outside Dublin and/or overseas seeking access to Joyce's works.

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