Near the end of “The Sisters,” we learn from Eliza that she, her brother Father James Flynn, and their other sister Nannie are all originally from Irishtown:
“But still and all he kept on saying that before the summer was over he’d go out for a drive one fine day just to see the old house again where we were all born down in Irishtown and take me and Nannie with him. If we could only get one of them new-fangled carriages that makes no noise that Father O’Rourke told him about, them with the rheumatic wheels, for the day cheap — he said, at Johnny Rush’s over the way there and drive out the three of us together of a Sunday evening. He had his mind set on that…. Poor James!” (16)
There are several places in Ireland that carry the name “Irishtown,” and most likely, because of its proximity to the priest and his sisters’ home in Great Britain Street, Don Gifford identifies the reference as the Irishtown that is the “poor, working-class slum just south of the mouth of the Liffey and therefore east and south of Great Britain Street” (Gifford 34).
The location, however, could be more ambiguous than this obvious assumption. At the very least the reference holds ambiguous connotations. First, the general nature of the name parallels the general political implications of the earlier reference to Great Britain Street. That the priest was born in a house in Irishtown and died in an apartment above a Great Britain Street drapery shop brings up the ever-present theme of Ireland versus Britain in Dubliners as a whole.
Additionally, we might explore the alternative locations implied by the name Irishtown. At least two other Irishtowns existed as medieval periphery villages or sections of larger cities. These villages were home to people who identified as pre-Anglian Irish. One of these areas (pictured below) is what one history identifies as “probably the original town of Kilkenny,” in the shadow of St. Canice’s Cathedral (Murtagh and Patterson 5). A transcript of the Corporation Book of the Irishtown of Kilkenny, 1537-1628 provides a fascinating log of the rules for pricing materials as well as names of town officials, including the watchmen of the three city gates. According to the introduction, “The Corporation Book of the Irishtown, Kilkenny, has been known to historians at least since the time of Graves and Prim, who quote from it more than once in their History of St. Canice’s Cathedral (1857); in 1874 Sir John Gilbert, presumably with publication in view, had the greater part of it transcribed” (Ainsworth 3).
Another Irishtown, in Limerick, is part of the locale for the legend of the Brazen Head. According to legend as published in The Old Limerick Journal, “the women from the Abbey and the lrishtown were joining with the hard pressed garrison in repelling the Williamites” who were all defeated when, under the command of William of Orange (a figure also referenced in “the Dead”), they assaulted the Black Battery (Gleeson ?8).
While neither of these places, nor two others listed in Counties Antrim and Mayo, would have been comfortably accessible for a Sunday evening drive in a “new-fangled carriage…with rheumatic wheels” (such a carriage would have been a horse-drawn cart, making the journey between 7 hours [by bicycle] and 23 hours [by foot], according to the map), it is nonetheless characteristic of Joyce to inject layers of implication into such a seemingly simple geographical reference. It’s worth noting that another priest in Dubliners is connected with an ambiguous location as well. In “Eveline,” the unnamed priest in the photograph is said to have moved to Melbourne. It’s all Eveline’s father will say of him, and the vagueness of her father’s explanation (“[w]henever he showed the photograph to a visitor her father used to pass it with a casual word”) is enough of an intrigue to warrant her focus on the matter as something worth noting (37). “Melbourne” would most likely refer to Melbourne, Australia, but Melbournes also exist in England as well as Canada, a place Frank has been known to travel.
Basically, the reference to Irishtown in “The Sisters” is anything but a simple Sunday destination. It swells with political and historical implication and generates avenues of exploration among many other works by Joyce.