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Who will buy the £80,000 watch from James Joyce’s Ulysses?

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October 20, 2021, 2:01pm

Big news for fans of James Joyce, or of time: the pocket watch worn by John O’Connell in James Joyce’s Ulysses is going up for auction at Bonhams on November 4th. The 18-carat gold watch and chain could fetch £80,000. Bonhams described the watch as a “tangible item from the pages of one of the most famous books of modern times.”

For clarification purposes: yes, Ulysses is a novel, but the character John O’Connell was based on the real John O’Connell, the superintendent of Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery. O’Connell is described in Ulysses as a “decent fellow . . . [a] real good sort,” telling humorous stories to cemetery visitors simply “to cheer a fellow up . . . [out of] pure goodheartedness.” The story O’Connell tells in Ulysses—a story of two drunks visiting the cemetery—was based on a real story O’Connell told regularly; according to his granddaughter, Patricia O’Connell, he was a “great local wit and his stories of happenings at the burial ground were legion and well-known to a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.” O’Connell was widely respected and enjoyed in Dublin: he took part in many concerts to raise funds for Dublin charities, particularly orphanages, and his funeral was quite large.

O’Connell was a well-dressed man, and Joyce uses his watch and chain, which can be seen in family photographs, as one of the few visual details of O’Connell’s character:

The caretaker hung his thumbs in the loops of his gold watchchain and spoke in a discreet tone to their vacant smiles.

However nice he was, it might be worth noting that O’Connell seems to embody Hades in Ulysses. Leopold Bloom imagines O’Connell’s marriage as like that of Hades and Persephone: “Fancy being his wife. Wonder he had the gumption to propose to any girl. Come out and live in the graveyard. Dangle that before her. It might thrill her at first. Courting death.” (Another big tip-off: the chapter in which O’Connell appears is named “Hades.”)

So, who will say Yes I will Yes to this expensive pocket watch? A fan of Ulysses? A fan of Dublin history? Someone who needs a holiday gift for their husband? It’s unclear as of yet, but James Stratton, the sale’s curator, thinks the watch will sell well: he told The Times that the watch “has the most fascinating and unusual provenance of any I have ever encountered.” Said Stratton, “To offer a tangible item from one of the most famous and influential novels of modern times is a rare privilege and something I never expect to be able to do again.”

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