Tag Archives: James Joyce

On returning to visit Ireland

On Dollymount Strand, September 2017.

On Dollymount Strand, September 2017.

Every emigrant believes that their story is new.

It’s a conviction woven through the fabric of the emigration itself; a new start, new beginnings, a renewal of outlook and perspective – all these are critical to the experience, and my experience was no different.

As an Irishman, I’m aware that millions of people departed my home country for the United States over the past 200 years, under many circumstances (and a great many of those unhappy). And yet, because I’m me and this is my life, I can’t help but put myself front and center in my own story.

So, when I returned to Ireland for a visit last week – my first since leaving the country more than a year earlier – I expected (naively, of course) the insights to fall like rain from an Irish summer sky. I would see myself, and the country, cast in a new, deeper light; I would achieve understandings that were impossible in the 38 years I’d lived there.

I may not have forged the uncreated conscience of my race since I’d left, but I would have strongly held beliefs on what makes a good taco, for example, among other things.

Dublin, 2017.

Dublin, 2017.

What I found was what I already knew, but perhaps didn’t appreciate enough before. It’s obvious to some I’m sure, but it wasn’t to me.

For all the tourist ads and Instagram pics, the Ireland I returned to wasn’t a place. The place was there (I was standing in it, after all), but what made it ‘home’ was the people.

And my wife and I tried to meet as many people as possible. Over a short number of days we spent time with family, met old friends and former work colleagues, and even shot the breeze with the owner of our favorite coffee shop.

We didn’t do, or speak about, anything different or groundbreaking or radical to what we had before. The ‘T word‘ may have been raised once or twice, but we got over that quickly enough.

Instead we just hung out, eating and drinking, walking and talking, covering a great number of topics. Not least the greatest Irish conversation starter: the weather. (For the record it rained most days – which added to the sense of homecoming.)

There was no pretense or argument or oneupmanship – just connection.

When I walked into departures at Dublin Airport a few days later, I hadn’t come into possession of any great emigrant insights. I wasn’t taking off with a razor-sharp concept of the 21st-century Irish psyche in my pocket.

My insight was simple enough – that Ireland contains some of the greatest people, who I love and I miss and who I look forward to returning to. Sin é .

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Coffins, rats, corpses, and life – Bloom in hell

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce

Hades is where it’s at.

The sixth chapter of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is not only one of the most accessible in the book, it’s also a forensic depiction of an Irishman’s mind, as he considers life, the universe, and everything else.

The action plays out (or in, given that so much of it is internal monologue) against the backdrop of that greatest of Irish social occasions – a funeral.

The book’s hero, its Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, attends a service and burial for an acquaintance, Paddy Dignam. Bloom doesn’t know Dignam all that well but nonetheless, in the Irish tradition, feels duty bound to be present at the obsequies.

He travels there in a carriage with three other acquaintances, crossing Dublin from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery, encountering on the way a child’s funeral, a herd of cattle, and the Royal Canal, while also spotting various places and people.

Glasnevin Cemetery

Glasnevin Cemetery

But the real activity is in Bloom’s mind, as his thoughts race from the undiscriminating nature of death (spurred on by the sight of the child’s coffin) to the mundane (as he reminds himself to switch a bar of soap between his pockets without being seen) to the fantastical (could a gramophone be put at a grave so the dead could ‘speak’ to the living?)

But for all the preoccupation with death, from the size of the child’s cortege (“paltry funeral: coach and three carriages”), to a fat rat running alongside a crypt (“one of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean”), to the “saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults…old Ireland’s hearts and hands”, ‘Hades’ ends with a note of affirmation, a commitment to life.

As he walks away from Dignam’s grave, passing the cemetery’s hundreds of headstones, Bloom’s mood lifts. It moves from Dignam’s grave to his wife’s bed, from death to life, as Bloom exits Hades, stepping back into the living world of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

“The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time…”

“There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote. No more do I. Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you.

“Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life.”

And so Bloom’s day continues.

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A nightmare from which I’m trying to awake

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

Mr. Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.

“- I just wanted to say,” he said. “Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?”

He frowned sternly on the bright air.

“- Why sir?” Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

“- Because she never let them in,” Mr. Deasy said solemnly.

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By a curious twist I read these words this morning, on a day of protests and court applications and outrage in the United States.

They are from the ‘Nestor’ episode of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”, spoken to Stephen Dedalus by the small-minded headmaster Deasy. And spoken with great animation – Deasy has just chased a departing Dedalus to the school-gate to stress his anti-Semitic argument.

The words sum up a petty bigotry that, Joyce suggests, was to be found among sections of Dublin’s middle class a century ago. The sentiments can of course be found against another religion, in another country, 100 years later.

And so Joyce’s novel, published in 1922, is – among many other things – a fitting read for the times we’re in.

The book is a work of immigration. The author wrote it in self-imposed exile; having departed Dublin in 1904, his peripatetic lifestyle led him to Trieste, Zurich and Paris. One of the main reasons for this exile was the burgeoning Irish nationalist movement, nationalism being, as Dedalus famously points out to Deasy, one of “those big words…that make us so unhappy”.

Drawing of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce

Drawing of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce

Immigration, religion (another of Dedalus’ big words), and their effects down the generations are central to the novel, principally by way of Leopold Bloom. The book’s central character,  Bloom is the son of a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to Ireland and converted to Protestantism.

Despite Bloom’s own conversion to Catholicism, he encounters an ingrained, nod-and-wink anti-Semitism as he navigates his way around Dublin on June 16, 1904. At one point The Citizen – a nationalist and xenophobe – talks, in Bloom’s company, of Jews “swindling peasants… and the poor of Ireland. We want no more strangers in our house”.

Bloom retains his composure in the face of such bigotry. His thinking, his behaviour, and his dignity represent Joyce’s riposte to the forces of religion, colonialism (by way of England) and nationalism.

Bloom is a true citizen, a pacifist, a Dubliner with a Jewish background, an individual who is a man first, an Irishman second. He may feel conflicted at times, but this is the price of his virtue of moderation.

Bloom doesn’t make an appearance in the ‘Nestor’ episode, and so does not hear his young friend Dedalus utter one of the most resonant lines in “Ulysses”:

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

As many might suggest, this can apply to the present too.
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Snowmaggedon falling faintly and faintly falling

Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy in "The Dead" (1987)

Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead” (1987)

Snow was general all over Portland this week. It was falling softly upon the Japanese Gardens and, further westwards, softly falling on the dark Willamette waves.

Snowstorms don’t happen very often in this part of the world. Mercifully so, as the city slides to a halt when they sweep in. Pavements are ice rinks, roads lie untreated, movement is all but impossible. It’s almost as bad as the notorious Irish ‘Big Freeze‘.

That country came to mind this morning as I lay in bed, shivering and reading “The Dead”, the short story which ends James Joyce’s’ “Dubliners”.

Its famous closing lines depict snow falling on Dublin and, as Gabriel Conroy experiences his epiphany, across the midlands to the western seaboard. The precipitation was, Richard Ellmann believed, a metaphor for human mutuality, the experience of life and of death that we all share.

Joyce’s words, like the quiet, empty streets of Portland’s ‘snowmageddon‘, are a calming break from the general run of things. And worth reading, before the Christmas rush descends.

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Snow in North Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Snow in North Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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James Joyce and his decent silk hat

I’m currently deep into Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, an 800-page opus which is, in parts, almost as detailed as “Ulysses” itself.

As such, I’m well into the world of Joyce-words: ‘europicola’, ‘allalluvial’, ‘douncestears’, to pick three among thousands. At times it’s not easy going, and it got me thinking. Did the man himself ever read his work into a microphone? What did the colossus of Modernism actually sound like?

The answers are: yes, and like a slightly stiff Irish lawyer.

In November 1924 Joyce made a recording of a section of “Ulysses”. The audio, set down at the HMV studio in Paris, would be one of only two such artifacts he made (five years later he would make an eight-minute recording of an extract from Finnegans Wake).

The excerpt Joyce picked is from the ‘Aoelus’ episode of ‘Ulysses’, a section known as ‘The John F Taylor speech’. The passage is a metaphorical take on the relationship of Ireland and England. Joyce picked it, his friend and publisher Sylvia Beach later said, because he reckoned that it was the only part of his book fit to lifted out and ‘declaimed’.

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

Listened to the audio down the passage of 90 years it sounds strange – ethereal and formal in equal parts. It didn’t inject much color into my impression of Joyce – but it did lead me onward, to the footage above.

It is one of only two pieces of film I can find of the Irish writer, both shot in Paris in the 1920s (the other features the writer and his wife strolling down the street – here at 3:00 minutes). In the clip Joyce stands on the street, holding a conversation with someone off camera and looking like a skinny Irish version of Vito Corleone as he stares dismissively into the camera.

It’s spliced with a brief clip of the writer stepping out of a house, a child running before him. Again the vibe is one of a literary made man.

The footage casts little, if any light on the writer himself. That’s no unfortunate thing, given that Joyce’s life is woven so extensively into his work already. If anything the film represents a brief respite from the latter, writing that’s at times entertaining, eye-opening, and hugely frustrating (usually in the same paragraph).

At the risk of sounding simplistic this brief clip also shows that, despite the poverty, drinking and illness, the writer could certainly pull off some nice threads.

Or, as he wrote in the short story ‘Grace’: “He had never been seen in the city without a silk hat of some decency and a pair of gaiters. By grace of these two articles of clothing, he said, a man could always pass muster…”

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‘Beguiled and voracious ‘ – a literary meal

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

My reading habits are a lot like my eating ones. I go too long between chapters or meals and wind up short-tempered and salivating.

This often leads to an undignified gorge-fest, leaving me sweating, shirt-stained and ashamed.

And that was just the first chapter of Eat, Pray, Love.

On other occasions my hunger for a book and dinner collide and I find myself, stuck between pages and meals, craving Ishmael’s clam chowder or Holden Caulfield’s Swiss cheese sandwich.

On one of these peckish occasions it occurred to me – what would be my perfect literary meal?

Appetite:
Half the pleasure lies in anticipation, I’m told (by masochists). Ask Leopold Bloom. Standing at the counter of Davy Byrne’s Dublin pub, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the ravenous, rambling ad-man scans the offerings.

“Sardines on the shelves. Almost taste them by looking. Sandwich? Ham and his descendants mustered and bred there. Potted meats…Cauls mouldy tripes windpipes faked and minced up. Puzzle find the meat. Kosher. No meat and milk together. Hygiene that was what they call now. Yom Kippur fast spring cleaning of inside. Peace and war depend on some fellow’s digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat drink and be merry. Then casual wards full after. Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mighty cheese.

—Have you a cheese sandwich?

—Yes, sir.”

EH 7239G 1924 Ernest Hemingway outside of his residence at 13 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris, ca. 1924. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Ernest Hemingway in Paris, 1924

Starter:

A young Ernest Hemingway sits in a cafe at the Place St Michel on Paris’ Left Bank. After dutifully eyeing up a beautiful young woman and finishing “a very good story” he orders a dozen portugaises and a half carafe of dry white wine.

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”


Main:

A grown-up son returns to the bosom of his mother’s Italian-American table in John Fante’s The Brotherhood Of The Grape.

“The kitchen. La cucina, the true mother country, this warm cave of the good witch deep in the desolate land of loneliness, with pots of sweet potions bubbling over the fire, a cavern of magic herbs, rosemary and thyme and sage and oregano, balm of lotus that brought sanity to lunatics, peace to troubled, joy to the joyless . . . the altar a kitchen range . . . the old children, lured back to their beginnings . . .beguiled and voracious Virgil filled his cheeks with gnocchi and eggplant and veal, and flooded them down his gullet with the fabulous grape of Joe Musso, spellbound, captivated, mooning over his great mother.”

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Apple pic. Pic: Dwight Burdette

Dessert:

Dean Moriarty is barreling his way across the United States, fuelled by liquor, pills and the internal combustion engine. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road anti-hero doesn’t spend all this time speeding through the American night, though – sometimes he stops for pie. Like this time, outside Joliet, Illinois.

“I went to sit in the bus station and think this over. I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s practically all I ate all the way across the country, I knew it was nutritious and it was delicious, of course…[later, in Des Moines] I ate apple pie and ice cream –  it was getting bigger as I got deeper into Iowa, the pie bigger, the ice cream richer.”

Coffee:

And finally, after all else, coffee. Followed by contemplation, and gratefulness – the ‘Nirvana’ of Charles Bukowski’s poem.

“the meal was
particularly
good
and the
coffee.
the waitress was
unlike the women
he had
known.
she was unaffected,
there was a natural
humor which came
from her.
the fry cook said
crazy things.

Coffee, Dublin

Coffee, Dublin

the dishwasher,
in back,
laughed, a good
clean
pleasant
laugh.
the young man watched
the snow through the
windows.
he wanted to stay
in that cafe
forever.”

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James Joyce: drinking wine, talking weather

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

If any one of the hundreds of Joyce fans who’ll flock to the Dublin’s streets for Bloomsday next week could have met the man himself what would they have encountered?

The dandyish, cane-leaning street-stroller immortalised in a statue on Talbot Street?

The aloof, slightly imperious scholar who wed Greek myth to modernism?

Or the earnest, lovestruck young man who was stood up on a Dublin street corner on his first date with his future wife?

Perhaps none of the above, if they were to meet the man Djuna Barnes did. The French-based American writer, no small modernist talent herself, profiled the Irish writer for the March 1922 issue of Vanity Fair.

The Joyce of Paris 1922 bore “an orderly distemper of red and black hair”, wore a blue coat “too young it seemed”, a waistcoat made by his grandmother and sat with his head “turned farther away than disgust and not so far as death”.

Djuna Barnes, 1905

Djuna Barnes, 1905

He drank a “thin, cool wine with lips almost hidden”, and smoked an “eternal cigar”.

What did the Joyce the exile, the master storyteller of Dubliners, the writer of the novel of his century – published only two months earlier – chat about?

“We have talked of rivers and religion,” Barnes writes. “The instinctive genius of the church…of women…we have talked of death, of rats, of horses, the sea; languages, climates and offerings,” Barnes writes.

No mention of boater hats, gorgonzola sandwiches or bicycles with baskets, mind you.

Most surprisingly of all, for a man who propelled the novel into the twentieth century, the Dubliner wished to talk of “anything that is not “artistic” or “flashy” or “new””.

Were today’s Joyceans to meet the man himself then, they would likely encounter a “heavy man yet thin”, reading a book of saints (“he is never without it”) and “muttering to himself that this particular day’s saint was “a devil of a fellow for bringing on the rain, and we wanting to go for stroll””.

Let’s hope the weather holds for on Tuesday then.

Poets Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin on Bloomsday, June 16, 1954 Pic: National Library of Ireland

Poets Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin on Bloomsday, June 16, 1954
Pic: National Library of Ireland

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Three cities in three paragraphs

The Phoenix Park, Dublin. Pic: CGP Grey

The Phoenix Park, Dublin.
Pic: CGP Grey

The One City, One Book event run annually in Dublin always strikes me as a tease.

Whenever I read of this year’s nominated book I usually think: what of X, or Y – when will Z get the credit it deserves?

Some years ago a visiting friend asked me what books she should read ahead of a visit to the city. I was stumped. Who would to attempt Ulysses as a primer for a city break? Kavanagh’s Baggotonia represents Dublin but just one part of it.

I’ve found myself similarly stumped when travelling abroad. For years I’ve sought out The Great London Novel – to no avail. Dickens, Greene or Ackroyd each wrote part of what that city is, but as the deeper I read the more I’m left with a sense of the enormity of the task, the impossibility of knowing the place through literature.

Perhaps it’s a side-effect of Twitter, or a symptom of distraction, but lately I’ve turned to extracts, simple paragraphs, as triggers to evoke a memory or mood of certain places.

In the past year I’ve spent time in three world cities – all of which are of course impossible to depict in a single paragraph. But if I had to pick…

Jones Street, NYC

Jones Street, NYC

…my first choice would be Pete Hamill’s Whitman-esque evocation of his home city in Downtown: My Manhattan, an account written by a man – as I always envisage him – standing alone on that island’s west side piers on a late Autumn afternoon, just before sundown.

Go down to the North River and the benches that run along the west side of Battery Park City. Watch the tides or the blocks of ice in winter; they have existed since the time when the island was empty of man. Gaze at the boats. Look across the water at the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island, the place to which so many of the New York tribe came in order to truly live…Gaze at its ruins and monuments. Walk its sidewalks and run fingers upon the stone and bricks and steel of our right-angled streets. Breathe the air of the river breeze.

My wife is from Los Angeles and I’ve spent time there, but not enough to fully appreciate the astonishing capacity it offers for reinvention, the cost of which is grinding failure, the reward searing success. Joan Didion understood the distance between the two, writing in Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

Venice Beach, California

Venice Beach, California

The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.  Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who  come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways.  Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look:  the movies and the newspapers.

Finally, to Joyce – and Dublin. Not Leopold Bloom’s city wanderings, but rather those of Mr Duffy in the Dubliners‘ story ‘A Painful Case’, who pauses on a hilltop in the Phoenix Park and looks over the city stretching eastward along the Liffey, thinking of his deceased lover.

When he gained the crest of the Magazine Hill he halted and looked along the river towards Dublin, the lights of which burned redly and hospitably in the cold night. He looked down the slope and, at the base, in the shadow of the wall of the Park, he saw some human figures lying… He turned his eyes to the grey gleaming river, winding along towards Dublin. Beyond the river he saw a goods train winding out of Kingsbridge Station, like a worm with a fiery head winding through the darkness, obstinately and laboriously. It passed slowly out of sight; but still he heard in his ears the laborious drone of the engine reiterating the syllables of her name.

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Place me up in Monto

Luke Kelly.

Luke Kelly.

I’M not sure if there’s a statue of Pete Seeger in his hometown.

But I know there isn’t one of Luke Kelly in his.

The Dubliners’ singer, long regarded as one of the important performers in Irish music, died 30 years ago today.

Kelly did more than most to burnish an idea of Dublin and Irishness in the public consciousness.

And yet you’ll search in vain for any likeness, sculpture or bust of the musician in his hometown.

Contrast this to the bronze figure of Phil Lynott on Harry Street, seen by thousand of passing pedestrians, Dubliners and visitors every day.

Or the litany of other statues that dot the city, from dawdling literary heavyweights (Wilde and Joyce) to mythical cattle rustlers (Cú Chulainn) to alleged prostitutes (Molly Malone, and I admit that’s up for debate).

If Official Ireland can see fit to maintain a (pretty regal) statue of Prince Albert (look him up, or up to him) surely they can do something for Luke Kelly?

Pretty regal. Statute of Prince Albert, Leinster House, Dublin.

Pretty regal.
Statute of Prince Albert, Leinster House, Dublin.

There’s no bust of Gabriel Byrne in his hometown either, although the Irish government did see fit to honour the actor with a cultural ambassador role a few years back.

The Dubliner emerged last weekend to criticise the government for “paying lip service to the arts”. “I don’t think they really care about it,” he stated, bluntly.

And correctly too, if the foot-dragging on a proper commemoration for Luke Kelly is any indication.

We’ve been here before of course. A decade ago Dublin’s city councillors voted to erect a statue…but nothing happened.

In the interim the boom, which saw just about everything and anything built in the capital, came and went. And still no movement on the statue.

It popped up on the agenda again last year, but there’s still no word on funding, or an actual site (surely somewhere close to Kelly’s home in the north inner city, or the nearby, fabled Monto area there he sang of?)

And all the while the culture of music and song that Luke Kelly lived, sang and even brought to the Ed Sullivan Show is flogged mercilessly, more often than not to sell booze. (To be fair The Dubliners weren’t averse to pushing the beer connection themselves.)

Across the Atlantic this week tributes have poured in for Pete Seeger, a performer who, over a 70 year career, came to epitomise that country’s folk music. There’s no Irish equivalent of Seeger but, in terms of influence and talent, a claim could certainly be made for Kelly.

Ireland is a country where, it was claimed this week, €2bn can be spent on a sweetheart deal for municipal workers.

A tiny fraction of that would erect a statue to Luke Kelly and put him – as he sang himself – “home for while in me own country”.

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