Oppressed nations are sometimes very good at the arts. They can fiddle away or poetize or drink to salve the pain. Ireland is a standout in the modernist period because of its literary scene, as it had lots to be miserable about. James Joyce is the leader of the bunch, rated as the best author in the English language by critics. His greatest work is “Ulysses,” a take on the classic Greek tale, which mostly centers on a walk through Dublin by Leopold Bloom, a cuckholded Jewish fellow on a day of small-time errands. Joyce left Ireland when he was 22 years old because he was fed up with its religion, politics and small-mindedness, but its history and life still fed his creativity.
But then we have Sean O’Casey, the socialist dramatist, whose plays ‘Shadow of a Gunman,” ‘Juno & the Paycock” and “The Plough and the Stars’ depicted working class life in Dublin for the first time. Samuel Beckett, the not really ‘absurdist’ author of “Waiting for Godot’ and many other great plays, and a close compatriot of Joyce’s. He even did research for Joyce for “Finnegan’s Wake.” Brendan Behan, whose ‘Borstal Boy” told you all you needed to know about a youth prison. Prison stories being a particular favorite of mine, I don’t know why. Liam O’Flaherty, a founder of the Irish Communist Party, who wrote the famous book ‘The Informer” and later, “Famine,” “Land” and “Insurrection.” At the end, he converted to Catholicism.
Or earlier authors: Oscar Wilde, son of a female Irish revolutionary involved in the 1848 Young Irelanders movement, who paid for his gayness with 2 years in a British jail and a life-time of acerbic quips, among other things. Bram Stoker, whose seminal ‘Dracula” still lives, kill him as you might. Jonathan Swift, author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” whose ‘modest proposal’ is also relevant, being an attack on English capitalist mores. It might as well have been written now, not in 1729. George Bernard Shaw, a mild Fabian socialist whose musty plays are still performed, though perhaps not much loved anymore. William Butler Yeats, an English literature class 1001 poet and minder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin. Oliver Goldsmith, the author of the ancient classic “The Vicar of Wakefield.” And the hopelessly Catholic C.S. Lewis and his simple fantasies of good and evil in Narnia.
Pretty good crowd for such a small island, aye?
The first realist novel written about Ireland was by a woman, Maria Edgeworth, who wrote “Castle Rackrent” about tenant / landlord relations in rural Ireland. Oh, such a dull topic! Even if it is absolutely central…
So you can take the “Ulysses” walking tour if you print out the map on the internet, as they no longer print it at the Joyce Centre or the Irish Writer’s Museum. Hard times, perhaps... There is also a Joyce museum at the Martello Tower in Sandycove south of Dublin, where ‘Ulysses’ starts with the waking of young Stephen Dedalus. Bloom’s Day is celebrated every year on June16. It takes you through Leopold Bloom’s and Stephen Dedalus’ day in Ulysses – mostly Bloom’s wander down O’Connell Street into the city, internally musing over Dublin’s people, buildings and events of Irish history. He visits Westland Row railway station, Davey Byrnes pub and Sweny’s pharmacy; window-shops after crossing the O’Connell Bridge to Grafton Street; takes in a famous cemetery, the National Library, other bars – in total 18 stations of Ulysses’ cross - based on the chapters of the original story. Many with plaques now. This book is the original source of clever book structures I think.
7 Eccles Street, Leopold’s home with Molly, was not far north from the center of town. It starts and ends the book. It was merely an empty lot with only a door that had “Molly Was Here” scrawled across it in spray paint when I last visited in the early 1970s. Now the actual 7 Eccles Street is a prosperous brick medical facility, while the door was rescued and placed in the Joyce Centre’s backyard. They removed the scrawl. Good of them. At Swenys they still have readings by bystanders every day, and on the day we were there, a chapter from ‘The Dubliners.’
Joyce picked that day, June 16, because it was on that day he went on a walking date with, yes, yes, one Nora Barnacle. According to the movie, she graced him with a hand-job around Merrion Square somewhere. And this of course cemented the following tempestuous relationship for this sexually frustrated boy. “Ulysses’ was banned from the U.S. because it revealed that Bloom masturbated on Sandymount Strand, a bus ride away from downtown Dublin, while looking at a female beach goer. Is there another sub-text here? Yes, jest? Joyce buried it in a mountain of wordplay, humour and myth.
Molly Malone was a Dublin fishmonger and perhaps prostitute who is connected to the song and lyrics "Cockles & Mussels, Alive Alive Oh." She somehow also lent her name to a radical Irish miners group in the U.S. that was not shy about violence. Her statue now stands on Suffolk Street. Trinity College named its theater after Beckett, which Beckett probably would laugh at, given he never studied theater at Trinity. The Irish Writers’ Museum is worth a visit, located on Parnell Square across from the Garden of Remembrance (named for the famine.) The Joyce Centre on Great George’s Street is also worth a visit, if you are too far into his writing. It is not far from the writer’s museum.
Write on, crazy feeling!
June 9, 2018 (nearly Bloomsday…)