pocket-watch
John O’Connell’s 18ct gold hunter case pocket-watch and chain mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses is estimated at £50,000-80,000 in the November 4 auction at Bonhams Paris.

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As well as readily identifiable locations, the author also incorporated real Dubliners into his fictional world. These included the superintendent of Glasnevin Cemetery, John O’Connell (or caretaker as Joyce calls him).

At one point in the narrative Joyce refers to O’Connell’s watch and it is that same watch that leads Bonhams' Time is Precious Sale in the French capital, estimated at £50,000-80,000.

John O’Connell

John O’Connell’s 18ct gold hunter case pocket-watch and chain mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses is estimated at £50,000-80,000 in the November 4 auction at Bonhams Paris. O’Connell is pictured here wearing the watch.

The mention comes in Hades, the sixth episode of Ulysses. The novel’s central character Leopold Bloom travels with the funeral procession from Paddy Dignam’s house to the cemetery where O’Connell regales the small group of mourners with an anecdote. Joyce writes: “The caretaker hung his thumbs in the loops of his gold watch chain and spoke in a discreet tone to their vacant smiles."

John Kileen O'Connell (1844-1925) was a well-known and respected Dublin character. In Ulysses, Joyce described him as a ‘portly man’, who “ambushed among the grasses, raised his hat in homage” as the coffin of the deceased Dignam passed by on a barrow.

Ulysses completed

Joyce had a strong association with Paris. He and his wife Nora moved to the French capital in 1920 having lived in Trieste, Zurich and Rome since leaving Ireland in 1904.

It was in Paris in 1921 – 100 years ago – that Joyce finally completed Ulysses, on which he had been working since 1914. Although sections of the novel had appeared in literary magazines, the first full-length edition was published in Paris in 1922 by Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company.

The book itself at auction

Copies of Ulysses offered at auction in recent years include the stand-out lot in a June 2019 Irish sale: one of the 100 special copies printed on Dutch handmade paper by Van Gelder that Joyce signed on publication in Paris in 1922 (ATG No 2401).

That sale held by Fonsie Mealy (20/25% buyer’s premium) contained copy No 30 of the select part of the complete edition of 1000 copies produced by Shakespeare & Company.

In a later morocco gilt binding by Buddenbrooks of Boston, but with the simple and well-known ‘Greek flag’ or bluish green paper covers bound in, it sold at a near high-estimate €85,000 (£75,895).

The Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, auction house noted at the time that most of these special copies are now in either institutional or private collections.