I am planning a research trip to Ireland, and this beautiful land is haunting me. Last week, I spent hours creating a photo book of Irish trips gone by. Then came hours of perusing maps, choice places to stay, tidy villages, sacred sites, and flights for the Ireland to come. At last, I booked my ticket!
I am spending my first seven nights at Trinity College in downtown Dublin. This university was created in the Priority of All Hallows in 1592. The original brick buildings still stand in the front square. And, despite political upheavals (such as Cromwell) and a tempestuous religious and political history, the 16th Century college continues to flourish. Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift, and Oscar Wilde all are graduates.
James Joyce is not. He completed his BA at University College Dublin, focussing on modern languages. He spoke seventeen. After graduation, he fled to Paris, and eventually settled in Italy, with his Galway bride, Nora Barnacle. Dubliners was published in 1914. Herein, Joyce tells tales of the city in which he was born and raised, yet could not manage to live. Were he as immortal as his words, February 2nd would be Joyce’s 135th birthday.
The poem below weeps with a “terrible beauty” as Yeats would say. It is an old Irish verse translated by Lady Gregory, one of the key players in the Irish Literary Revival at the turn of the century:
It was late last night the dog was speaking of you
The snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh
You promised me and you said a lie to me.
You promised me a thing that is not possible
That you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish
That you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird
And a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland
You have taken the east from me
You have taken the west from me
You have taken what is before me and what is behind me
You have taken the moon from me
You have taken the sun from me
And my fear is great that you have taken god from me
Recited in The Dead, a John Huston film (1987) based on a short story by James Joyce (Dubliners 1914), the characters who hear this poem sit mystified, enthralled by its haunting beauty, yet unable to understand. They are “The Dead”: citizens of a turbulent Ireland turned in on itself.
Faintly falling spectral beings like those who followed Lucifer from heaven, yet never found their way to hell; Joyce’s Dubliners, like the Fey, are caught in the nether-rocks; drinking, dancing, eating nether-food, stealing and sporting, but Dead.
Joyce was no Romantic. He did his Dubliners no favours. Without spirit, without direction, they wander the streets from pub to pub. It is my favourite work by Joyce; simple, clear, eloquent, and…understandable.
The Dead. Some days are like this for me. Pavement and plastic. A grey haze of technology and garish supermarkets, fantastic politicians, fierce traffic, tragedy and turmoil.
Others are not.
Others are moments of perfection, when I feel passion
In the preening heron, the sandpainting by the sea,
In the green oak leaf, and the flicker of the honeyed candle flame.
Or the phrase on the page that stirs my soul.
And I know that, I am very much not one of “The Dead”.