Re: Joyce

06 16 ulyssesToday, along with many other people around the world, I am celebrating Bloomsday. Bloomsday is named after one of the central characters, Leopold Bloom, in James Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’.

The events of the novel are firmly placed between 8am on June 16th 1904 and 2am the following morning. Which was, for Joyce, a commemoration of the day that he and his future wife Nora Barnacle first ‘stepped out’ together. The structure of the novel closely follows the events in Homer’s Odyssey, which describes the journey of Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses), as he travels home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. But Joyce’s characters are ordinary citizens of Dublin having an ordinary day. Each of the eighteen episodes is written in a different style. It is a large and complex novel. Joyce wrote a couple of schemata for friends to help them understand his work. He ascribed each episode a meaning, a colour, a bodily organ. If you were thinking of reading it and want to get a handle on it first, you can find one of his schema here. Or if that puts you off, you could listen to Stephen Fry enthuse about the beauty of its language here.

Joyce wrote his novel between 1914 and 1921 and, between 1918 and 1920, an American magazine called the Little Review began to publish it in serial form. But publication was halted in 1920 when it became the subject of an obscenity trial. It was first published in its entirety in Paris in 1922. This first edition is said to have contained over two thousand errors. Other editions have tried to make corrections but just wound up making more, so the first edition may still be the most accurate.

Bloomsday was first commemorated in a small way in 1924, twenty years after the events in the book. Joyce was in hospital following an eye operation. His friends sent him a bunch of blue and white flowers, which were the colours of the cover of his novel. Thirteen years after Joyce’s death, on June 16th 1954, three Irish novelists; Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin met with artist and critic John Ryan and Tom Joyce, a dentist who was Joyce’s cousin. They began at the Martello Tower at Sandy Cove which features in the opening scene. After hiring two old fashioned horse drawn cabs they intended to visit all the sites mentioned in the novel ending in what used to be the brothel quarter of the city. It didn’t start well. O’Nolan turned up drunk and there was a bit of an altercation when he and Kavanagh decided that they had to climb the tower. O’Nolan was eventually bundled into one of the cabs and they drank and sang their way around the city until they arrived at the Bailey pub in Duke Street, which belonged to Ryan. They never completed their odyssey, once there, they drank so much that they could go no further.

Bloomsday is now a massive event in Dublin. Many of the celebrations are organised by the James Joyce Museum which can be found at the Martello Tower mentioned above. People follow the route taken by Leopold Bloom in the novel. They often dress up as the characters from the novel, in Edwardian costume. There are readings and dramatisations of scenes from Ulysses. Pubs are crawled and special meals are served. The Bloomsday breakfast is popular. People like to eat the same meal enjoyed by Bloom, which is surprising as this is how Joyce describes it:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Personally, I would prefer the Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and glass of burgundy he has for lunch. For hardcore fans, there are complete readings of the novel which can last for up to thirty-six hours. In 1982, Irish radio station RTÉ broadcast a complete reading and in 06 16 james joyce2004. To mark 100th anniversary of the events in the novel 10,000 people were served a special Irish Breakfast. In 2011, a global attempt was made to tweet the novel. Its organisers were not sure if it would produce something beatific or be a complete train wreck. I’m not sure how it went but it was certainly a magnificent idea.

Joyce was, at first, unsure whether June 16th would, in the future, be of any significance to anyone at all. He was rather bemused when he met people who loved it. One fan begged to kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses. He laughed and said: “no, that hand has done a lot of other things as well.”

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Fantastic Voyage

05 16 saint brendanToday is the feast day of Saint Brendon, patron saint of sailors, divers and also whales. He’s a pretty popular saint in his native Ireland, probably second only to Saint Patrick. Though frankly, why people go for Patrick in such a big way when they have a saint like Brendon, I find hard to understand.

Early Irish monks were adventurous souls who loved to set off across the sea in tiny boats, believing that God would take them where they needed to go. Brendan had already travelled quite widely when he met an Abbot named Barrid told him an intriguing tale of how he had ventured west across the sea and visited Paradise.

Brendan built a boat with a hull made from leather stretched over a wooden frame. He gathered together a company of either 14, 16 or 17 other monks and, somewhere between 512 and 530 AD, set off on a voyage of his own. The story of his seven year adventure is pretty amazing. They encountered an island inhabited only by a dog and an Ethiopian devil, an island populated with giant sheep and an island of birds who sang psalms in praise of God. On Easter Day they landed on the back of a whale which they mistook for an island. When they lit a fire it sank beneath the waves. The whale, who was named Jasconius, didn’t bare them any ill will though. The monks celebrated Easter on his back every year for seven years. They met with many fish, birds and sea monsters including one with the head of a cat and horns in it’s mouth. They sailed past a crystal pillar and an island of blacksmiths, who threw fiery rocks at them. They came upon a coagulated sea and fertile islands with giant fruit. On a bare rock in the middle of the ocean, they saw Judas. We are told that this was where he went when he was allowed out of Hell on Sundays. They seem to have revisited some of the islands regularly, so they must have been sailing around in circles. But they did reach the land that the Abbot had spoken of, which became known as Saint Brendan’s Island, and eventually returned home.

The Voyage of Saint Brendon was such a popular tale, not just in Ireland but throughout Europe, that Saint Brendon’s Island appeared on many maps. Its location tended to change a fair bit though. When Columbus first set sail for America, he fully expected to find the island on his way. Its existence wasn’t fully discounted until the nineteenth century. More recently, people have started to believe that it could be a partially true account of an early voyage to America. There are certainly some quite big sheep on the Faroe Islands. The crystal pillar could be an iceberg. The blacksmiths throwing fiery stones could be an interpretation of an active volcano. The sea monster with horns in its mouth could easily be a walrus.

It is widely accepted now that the Vikings sailed to North America. The Vikings have tales of a settlement they call Vinland, which could be in America and they refer to the land to the south of it as ‘Irland it Mikla’ – ‘Greater Ireland’.

In 1976 a man named Tim Severin built a replica of Saint Brendan’s boat. He managed to sail it, with a small crew, from Ireland, via the Faroes, Iceland and past Greenland all the way to America. So such a journey would have been possible. When the leather hull was torn by a lump of ice they managed to stitch on a patch. Such a repair would have been impossible with a wooden or metal ship. They were particularly surprised to find that they were visited on their journey by many whales. It’s quite likely that they thought the big leather boat was some new, odd sort of whale that needed investigating.

Shipping News

01 18 boston harbour mapToday I want to tell you about UFO sightings, and also USO’s (which are unidentified submerged objects) because on this day in 1644 in Boston Massachusetts, a USO was seen by several people to rise out of the harbour and fly away. It was one of a string of similar sightings and the circumstances are somewhat tragic. In early January, a ship had been blown up in the harbour and five men were killed. All the bodies were recovered, save one.

Sixteen days later, three men, who were approaching Boston harbour in their boat, saw two lights rise out of the water on the exact spot where the explosion happened. They said that the lights then assumed the shape of a man and sailed off across the water, close to the shore, for about fifteen minutes, then they disappeared. A week later, the lights were seen again, this time by several people. They were a little further off, but this time they floated for about twelve minutes before disappearing into the sea at the point where the ship had been. The sightings continued. One evening, at about eight o’clock, people in the north of the city saw the two lights again emerge from the site of the wreck. They floated off towards the, then uninhabited, Nottle’s Island where they merged and parted several times, sometimes shooting out flames or sparks. They finally disappeared behind the island. Meanwhile, further south in the city, people were having a different experience. They heard a voice on the water. It seemed to shift it’s location and called out, perhaps twenty times: “Boy! Boy! Come away! Come away!” Reports continued for about three weeks. All these events were recorded by John Winthrop, who was several times governor of Massachusetts and had been instrumental in founding the colony. He was a serious fellow, and I have no reason to doubt that he believed the stories.

There was a lot of debate in Boston over what might have been the cause of the phenomena. It was generally believed that the man whose body had been lost was, in life, a necromancer. They thought it must be his unquiet spirit that was responsible for the lights and voices. They also decided that it was probably him that blew up the ship.

The 1644 sighting though was not the first, not even the first in Boston. In 1639, three men in a boat (I have no idea whether it was the same three men), saw a ‘great light’ at Muddy River. It grew to be about three yards across, then contracted into the shape of a pig. It ran up and down in the sky for two or three hours. When it had gone, they found that their boat had drifted a mile, against the tide, and they were back where they had started from. We have no way of knowing exactly what everyone saw in Boston. The way people interpret what they see, depends very much on their world view. The Bostonians were seventeenth century Puritans who probably tended to interpret anything they didn’t understand as demons and witchcraft. You only need to take a look at the Salem Witch Trials to see that. But there are other, older, and even stranger sightings of objects in the sky.

01 18 nürnberg 1561On April 14th, 1561, around dawn, in the town of Nuremberg, Germany, citizens saw the sky filled with many oddly shaped objects that moved about erratically. They saw two crescents come out of the sun. They saw spheres, rods, cylinders and blood red crosses which all seemed to fight with each other in the sky for about an hour. They then seemed to grow tired and fell to the ground where they: “wasted away on the earth with immense smoke” Then there was a black spear in the sky, pointing to the west. A week later a broadsheet was published describing the event along with a woodcut illustration by Hans Galser. It is a very confusing account. “Whatever such signs may mean,” it says “God alone knows.” It is impossible to imagine what it might have been that they were looking at, but there are several reports from around that time of strange things in the sky. Sometimes battling spheres, sometimes fighting knights. There was, at that time, a massive war going on between the Catholics and Protestants, so it is likely that conflict was uppermost in their minds when they were trying to interpret what they saw.

Here is an even older report from Cloera in Ireland from the year 956:

“There happened in the borough of Cloera, one Sunday, while the people were at Mass, a marvel. In this town is a church dedicated to St. Kinarus. It befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky, with a rope attached to it, and one of the flukes caught in the arch above the church door. The people rushed out of the church and saw in the sky a ship with men on board, floating before the anchor cable, and they saw a man leap overboard and jump down to the anchor, as if to release it. He looked as if he were swimming in water. The folk rushed up and tried to seize him; but the Bishop forbade the people to hold the man, for it might kill him, he said. The man was freed, and hurried up to the ship, where the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed out of sight. But the anchor is in the church, and has been there ever since, as a testimony.”

There do seem to be numerous reports of sky ships whose anchors become caught in part of a church, sometimes it is the altar rail. An almost identical account was reported by Gervase of Tilbury at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Only in his story, the man who swims down through the sky to release the anchor, drowns in our atmosphere as we would drown in water. His shipmates cut the anchor rope and sail away. The idea of sky ships, which are sailed by storm wizards, dates back even further, to at least the eighth century. They were supposed to sail about gathering up booty after a storm and take it back to their home in the sky. Maybe they are some remnant of the story of Odin’s Wild Hunt, that rode across the stormy sky. Maybe it is a story about the new religion foiling and suffocating the old. But that’s just a guess.

01 18 bosch temptaion of saint anthony detail

Please To See The King

12 26 good king wenceslasToday is Saint Stephen’s Day. The day on which Good King Wenceslas looked out. It is also called Boxing Day and is traditionally the day on which servants received gifts from their employers and were allowed to go home to their families after spending all of Christmas Day being servants. Their gift, their Christmas box, might contain money and left over food from the feast. The ‘box’ part of Boxing Day may also refer to a metal box placed outside churches for people to put in gifts to be given to the needy. It is a day for helping the less fortunate, which is why we find Wenceslas and his page trudging out into the snow with gifts of meat, wine and pine logs.

12 26 tempus adest floridumThe tune of Good King Wenceslas is actually belongs to a spring carol called ‘Tempus adest floridum’ (It is time for flowering) which dates from the thirteenth century. The words were written by John Mason Neale in 1853. Academics seemed generally not to like it very much and rather hoped it would just go away. It has been called “poor and commonplace to the last degree” and the “product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and the thirteenth-century dance carol”. Which just goes to show that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. As an aside (it is really easy to get distracted writing this blog) a version of tempus adest floridum appears in the original Carmina Burana, not the Carl Orff version, the huge collection of bawdy, irreverent and satirical poems which date from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries on which it is based. It contains the lines: “Virgines cum clericis simul procedamus, Per amorem Veneris ludum faciamus” (Virgins and clerics, let us go out together, let us play for the love of Venus)

12 26 wrenIn parts of the British Isles there is another tradition of December 26th known as ‘The Feast of the Wren’. In folklore and legend, the wren is a tricky bird with a mixed reputation. Perhaps he gave away the hiding place of Saint Stephen and was ultimately responsible for his martyrdom. Perhaps he foretold the murder of Julius Caesar. Perhaps he ruined a secret, night time attack by the Irish on their Viking invaders by picking some crumbs off a drum and waking everyone up. In a fable attributed to Aesop, a wren wins a contest to find out which bird can fly the highest by hiding among the feathers of an eagle and then flying out when the eagle was too tired to go any higher. The wren is clever and, for this reason, he is the King of the Birds. The wren’s association with midwinter pre-date Christianity. The bird has a habit of singing even in the depths of winter. In the Netherlands it is known as ‘winterkoninkje’, little winter king. Celtic mythology considered the wren to be a symbol of the old year.

12 26 wren boysOriginally, the Feast of the Wren involved hunting down a wren and tying it to a pole that was decorated with ribbons and flowers. It was then paraded around the village. The ceremony was carried out by a rather raucous bunch known as ‘the wren boys’. They wore masks and ragged suits of motley or of straw. They probably had a noisy band with them too. They would go to each house asking for money for their wren king. Sometimes a feather from the bird would be exchanged for a donation. A wren feather would bring good luck. Sailors and fishermen believed that a wren feather would protect them from shipwreck. If anyone failed to give money, the wren might be buried outside their door which, as you might guess, was very bad luck indeed. The money collected was used to fund a huge party for the community. The wren king tradition still survives in Ireland and has been resurrected in other parts of the British Isles. We don’t use a live wren any more. A fake wren is made and hidden so the wren boys still have to hunt for it. Also it is more likely that the money raised will be given to charity.

12 26 wren boxI first learned about this tradition from a song I learned called ‘Please To See The King’ at a choir I used to sing with. There are quite a lot of traditional folk songs connected with the hunting of the wren, If you care to, you can hear the Steeleye Span version of the one I know here. A few years ago the song inspired me to make my own wren king. That’s him in the little box. He’s been out carolling a few times, but he lives on my living room wall now.12 26 wren box outside