When a modern-day Dubliner refers to Merrion Street, it’s likely she’s referring to, in general, the Irish government. The Irish Government Buildings are located in Merrion Street, part of which, as it extends northward, forms the western edge of Merrion Square as Merrion Square West, where the Leinster House is located. However, in 1906, by the time Joyce finished “Two Gallants,” the only story that references the street, the street was markedly different. It did not house the Government Buildings. It was lined on both sides with Georgian houses, all of which had only sprung up since the Leinster House had been built in 1748 for the Earl of Kildare, who became the Duke of Leinster in 1766. Prior to the construction of the mansion, affluent Dubliners generally lived north of the Liffey. But the Leinster House (originally the Kildare House) established the south part of Dublin, especially the area of Merrion Square, as the more desirable and elite neighborhood for the wealthy. In fact, Donald Torchiana argues that “Two Gallants” references many places that “reflect[…] the historic pomp and grandeur of Ascendency treacheries that cast long shadows behind the otherwise mean and stunted posturings of Corley and Lenehan near the end of Irish enslavement” (115).
Merrion Street first appears in the story in reference to the planned meeting place for Lenehan and Corley once Corley finishes his business with the “slavey:”
“–And after? Where will we meet?
–Half ten, answered Corley, bringing over his other leg.
–Corner of Merrion Street. We’ll be coming back.
–Work it all right now, said Lenehan in farewell.” (55)
After Corley leaves Lenehan alone, Lenahan watches his friend greet the young woman and spies on them for a while until they catch a tram from the square. The street they walk along is Merrion Square West, which is what Merrion Street becomes when it reaches the southwest corner of the square from the south. Thus, Lenehan would have his back to Merrion Street as he followed the couple north along the square.
“Lenehan walked as far as the Shelbourne Hotel where he halted and waited. After waiting for a little time he saw them coming towards him and, when they turned to the right, he followed them, stepping lightly in his white shoes, down one side of Merrion Square” (56).
Torchiana explains “[a] house [in Merrion Square] … was an almost certain entré into high society in the 18th century” (123). Corley’s girl is said to be a “slavey,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “[a] female domestic servant, esp. one who is hard-worked; a maid of all work.” No doubt she works in one of the houses on the square or in Merrion Street.
For the next couple hours, Lenahan back-tracks along his previous route with Corley and wanders through Dublin contemplating his circumstances and paralysis and potential. Just after ten he returns to Merrion Street to find out whether or not his friend had been successful:
“When he reached the corner of Merrion Street he took his stand in the shadow of a lamp and brought out one of the cigarettes which he had reserved and lit it. He leaned against the lamp-post and kept his gaze fixed on the part from which he expected to see Corley and the young woman return” (59).
He waits longer than he feels he should have to, and when he finally sees his friend, he has “[a]n intimation” of failure. He assumes Corley was not able to get the money.
In 1904 the demolition of some of the Georgian houses along the west side of Merrion Street was only just beginning. By 1922, they would be replaced by the The Royal College of Science for Ireland. Both the Leinster House and the College would become government facilities by 1926. At the time Lenehan and Corley use the street as their point of separation and reunion, it was somewhat in transition but not yet as strongly associated with Irish, or even British, government as it is today. So while the reference was not necessarily politically charged, it certainly carried economic implications at the time of its writing and publication.