Saturday, 18 June 2011

Belated Bloomsday / Drinking in Dingle

Unusually for me, I’m starting this without any idea of what I’m going to write about. There are around half a dozen themes for posts rattling around in my head – all I have to do is just write them but, for some reason or another (perhaps just sheer intellectual laziness), I don’t seem to want to work on any of them right now. So I’m following the idea that, if you don’t know what you want to write about, just start writing and the theme will come.

Stream of consciousness? I’m not sure. I have the suspicion that much of what passes for stream of consciousness in literature is in fact carefully crafted artefact, particularly if it’s any good. And following that line of thinking I arrive, perhaps inevitably, at the master of stream of consciousness, James Joyce.

Not surprising really, for last Thursday, June 16, was Bloomsday, the day Joyce made immortal in his masterpiece, Ulysses. On June 16, 1904, he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. In the book, the doings, thoughts and interactions of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedelus, Bloom’s wife, Molly, and various others on that same day in Dublin are described and the result is what is possibly the greatest book to be published in English in the 20th Century.

Shall I write of Joyce? I hesitate to; so much has been written about him by so many learned people, so many analyses, theories, controversies, paeans of richly deserved praise. Someone who could write so well that it leaves me literally speechless and at the same time makes me want to throw away my netbook in frustration.

Looking out the window I see that there’s a rain shower with a strong wind obscuring the view from my kitchen over Wuppertal to the north … there’s a memory tilt and …

Christ there’s nothing as miserable as a storm coming in from the Atlantic when you’re on the West Cork coast the wind trashing the waves of a sea not snotgreen but certainly scrotumtightening up on the hard fangy rocks and unforgiving cliffs this is the middle of June and there’s supposed to be sunshine and the desirable sights of bottoms bounding and breasts bobbing in bikinis and instead the wind whipping the cold cutting rain as stinging as the crack of a Christian Brother’s leather so that you run through a thousand shades of grey towards the redeeming promise of a pub door …

Finnegan’s Wake, to be frank, defeats me. It’s Joyce gone uberJoyce, hyperJoyce, possibly even completely fallen into the schizophrenic psychotic state Jung strongly suspected he was prone to; though Beckett and others believed in the project and hundreds of literary academics still earn their money by analysing and writing about it. Sometimes I think Joyce is sitting on a celestial cloud, getting royally pissed on some heavenly liquor and laughing his head off at all of them.

But Ulysses is a different matter; a declaration of frustrated, furious love for his native dear, dirty Dublin, a picture of Ireland and his own youthful life there over a hundred years ago which, in a marvellous, epic portrayal of all sorts of particular things, on all sorts of levels, knitted together with such profligate genius, becomes an incomparable hymn to the magnificence of the human condition in all its mundane weakness and soaring beauty. Leafing through Ulysses makes me drunk on language, intoxicated by words and the power they have.

… the fuggy muggy malty woolly welcoming smell of spilt beer and drying overcoats and whiskey and tobacco smoke encloses you like a warm blanket or a woman’s embrace as the door whacks shut behind you your gaze moving searching over the patrons clumping around the tables standing at the bar the buzz of conversations combining with the carrier-wave of traditional music tumbling from the sound-system and you see a face you recognise at a table under a window where the rain is pouring pearly down the panes and a hand rises inviting waving beckoning to you …

And there is a personal theme which I share with the master; for I too, through personal history and complex circumstance, am an Irishman living abroad, in Europe. Joyce worked out his Irishness, his love of and frustration with that particular essential element of his identity, in his writing – perhaps never reaching any resolving catharsis but enriching the world of literature with his search for it. I have been more fortunate. I grew up in an Ireland (for all its limitations) more open, less asphyxiating than that which Joyce experienced, his feelings perhaps best described in the despairing, “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” I have found more personally satisfying exorcisms for my own particular demons and my Irishness sits lightly and, in the main, happily on me, both when I visit my native land and in my adopted German home.

I look at the pint of Guinness on the table in front of me. It stands there; patient, promising, prim as a pious priest in a freshly ironed soutane, his Roman collar gleaming white above his rounded black shoulders. When I touch it the glass is slightly slippery, my fingers leaving blacker ovals in the faint condensation mist the warmer moist air has frosted on the glass of cooler liquid. Grasping it again, I raise the glass to my companions, who have also raised theirs.
The word is murmured by all participating in the holy ritual; worshippers in the Church of Saint Arthur.
Introibo ad altare Dei.
The sweet sour hoppy taste of the cool liquid spreads through my mouth flowing down my gullet cascading splashing into my stomach where it pools in that dark almost silent cave the juices mingling the alcohol moving into my bloodstream racing through my whole body heart feet balls brain joining the music and hum of conversation and conviviality and synaptic snapping at the release of necromantic neurotransmitters to make the magic of this epiphanous sacrament extend a golden glow over the afternoon …

“I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint. Declare to God I could hear it hit the pit of my stomach with a click.”

“When money's tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran.
When all you have is a heap of debt
A pint of plain is your only man.
When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan.
When hunger grows as your meals are rare
A pint of plain is your only man.”

The author of the poem, the writer Brian O’Nolan (Flann O’Brien) – whose genius I have already celebrated here – was one of the initiators in 1954 (along with, among others, the poet, Patrick Kavanagh) of the practice of celebrating Bloomsday by repeating the “odyssey” of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedelus through Dublin. In true Joycean fashion and worthy of the best episodes of the novel, the pilgrimage ended well short of its planned conclusion in the Bailey pub in central Dublin, dissolving in drink and dispute. Nowadays Dublin is full of guided tours of inebriated Americans, guide-book-toting Germans and picture-snapping Japanese all following sanitised versions of the route and events in the book. Inevitable, I suppose, in our culture.

…I can feel her knee and thigh against mine as we are pushed together by the crowd on the bank beneath the pub window where the drops are now sparkling in the light of the low evening sun come out finally from the retreating clouds glinting diamond in my fleeting eyes as I turn my head towards her again and again and our glances catch and there is a sense of promise in her eyes and her slightly open inviting lips and I know that she is feeling my body just as I am feeling hers and I hopefully imagine the spirit of Molly Bloom descending on her in tongues of flaming desire …

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. Oh that was such a treat to read. You've captured some of my favorite parts and left me here all smiling and warm just like the hit from a fine bottle of Guinness sipped in good company.

    It seems we live in a world of the virtual nowadays where everywhere we go they play pretend about a time long gone.

  2. This is a fine post and I would like to say more but am confused about the quotes, or some of them. Snotgreen and Scrotumtightening as I understand it occur in close proximity within Ulysses. But bikini could not have been in the book at all for it was published in 1920 and bikini entered the language in the late nineteen-forties. I should of course be more erudite and know exactly which phrases you are quoting within a passage of your own text designed to be a Joycean pastiche.

    You've acknowledged the verse from At Swim-two-Birds by Flann o'Brien, but there is still uncertainty in my mind about the other italicised passages.

    Sorry if this sounds picky, but when I know who wrote which parts it will be easier to appreciate the whole!

  3. The sanitized tour with the tourists' clicking cameras would suck all the soul out of Ulysses. I'll stick with the cheese sandwich, a glass of Burgundy and the re-reading of passages from the book. Although next year, I'll have to pick up some Gorgonzola! ;-)

    I felt so alone on Thursday when at school no one knew what Bloomsday was about. Thanks for this.

  4. Sorry about my first comment, Francis. In the different light of morning I see that apart from the attributed snippet of verse the rest of the italicised bits are yours, embellished with the two Joycean coinages aforementioned.

    Yes, they came out as stream-of-consciousness, but not even attempted pastiche of Joyce because all the references and ways of seeing are modern. Were they spontaneously written, or painstakingly edited? How much of the ink used in the writing process was strengthened with Guinness?

    You have made me keen now to read Ulysses. I never finished it. But when I was working in Dublin, the Blarney Stone seemed to rise to my lips and kiss them, with no background of Gaelic on my part to encourage it, just maybe some Murphy's stout and sometimes a little Jameson's whiskey.

    I also seem to recall that the Irish author Brendan Behan depended on something stronger than ink running in his veins, to say nothing of Dylan Thomas. Could they write sober? It’s actually a silly question, because intoxication is a state of mind, which need not depend on alcohol. Omar Khayam and Pantagruel are witness to the metaphoric as well as literal significance of wine. François Rabelais, now there’s a role-model for you, Francis! Namesakes who both became learned within religious orders.

  5. Susan and Pagan Sphinx: Glad you enjoyed it.

    Vincent: I read your first comment just before going to bed last night. Much too late, I may add, as I am working a 12-hour shift today and writing this during a period when all is quiet!

    Stream of consciousness is, in my view, a complete artifice; though, like any good artifice, when properly done seems completely natural and spontaneous. I suspect that if we were to genuinely write down our "stream of consciousness" as it occours it would, in written form, be incomprehensible - to others certainly and perhaps even to ourselves. Though language is essential for our thinking we do not think in complete sentences, our thoughts are constantly jumping from subject to subject and I believe we are often following multiple threads simultaneously.

    The "Dingle" piece is, as you have recognised in your second post, my own; though, of course, strongly influenced by Joyce - his style, use of language, etc. Some of his words have crept in, as you have recognised, though I have marked all direct quotations with quotation marks (""). One exception: Introibo ad altare Dei is a quotation from the beginning of the Tridentine Latin mass, used facetiously by "stately plump Buck Mulligan" to begin his morning ablutions.

    The writing did take some time, of course, and quite a lot of rewriting, and pauses - but this is my usual style anyway. Alas, there was no Guinness involved; I succeeded in consuming my life-ration of alcohol by the age of 40 (at considerable cost to myself and others - I have written a little about it here) and haven't had a drink for over a decade now.

  6. Brilliant Francis! I never got on well with some of James Joyce's works but I may have the answer: I've just purchased an abridged audiobook version of Finnegan's Wake read by Bishoppp Brennan himself!

    I love your description of a miserable day in Dingle. It reminds me of quite a few holidays in the south west of Ireland

  7. Cool that when you don't know what to write about, you come up with such an amazingly rich post! I join other coments saying this made them want to read Joyce at last; it's true for me and I'll add it at once on my Amazon Wish List (btw, what a great thing! I list all the books I want to read or re-read, and whenever I go to Vienna, where books tend to be cheaper, I print the list beforehand... anyway). We are influenced by where we grew up, aren't we? I feel just as strongly Austrian, especially since I've moved to Paris, as you seem to feel Irish. It's just such an important part of me, that coffeehouse-Strudel-Mozart-waltzy thingy I couldn't explain, only share... That's why I'm such a fan of Zweig biographies, I suppose, and Mahler symponies.

  8. I'd have more to say, yet struggle hard as may, there's a Guinness in the fridge.
    There is actually, but I don't do the bottled stuff. The words descriptive of the nostrils' take on an early doors pub stir echos of innocent days and smoking. The staleness since the ban and scent of disinfectant further to the fore. The pint of plain tempts as ever, yet I'm a man who drinks to drink too much. The beer remains but company is long gone as am I from what's on offer. Tizer Zero now conjures drinking reality flying upside down in kamikaze form on the guns below. This is my red eye now. Finegan writes the last ode on the death of the pub. He must be drinking at home these days.

  9. These stream of consciousness things reveal a lot about the person's thought process. Personally I don't analyze, I just visualize.

  10. Oh Guiness... I shall drink one or two again. Has been quite some time since the last one...

  11. I'm visiting your blog for the first time. This post was so interesting to read. I think that it's really fascinating to know a person's point of view on any subject, even the one that is always discussed.

  12. "Mr. Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread. . . pungeant mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate." Thus restored, Bloom decides, "After all there's a lot in that vegetarian fine flavour of things from the earth."

    I am watching the film version Bloom (again)tonight. It's not a half-bad film.

    Happy Bloomsday, Francis!

  13. Splendid post, Francis. It puts me right in the mood to celebrate Bloomsday. I can get quite lyrical about Ulysses. Without drinking a pint! The book (which I read quite late in my life) rewarded all the efforts I had made, since my 20s, to learn the English language. I had reached the culminant point in my reading experience. I'm not saying that it's all clear to me. On the contrary, it's gloriously confusing. I love the lostness I feel when I plunge into it.

    I never even tried to understand Finnegans Wake? Why should I? How could I? Who does understand it? But it never stops me from opening the book now and again, reading paragraphs here and there, writing down some of the words, trying to pronounce them with my funny accent. Maybe it's just a bunch of lines meaning nothing...Maybe Joyce is laughing at me in the sky...But I'm laughing with him, down on earth, with a pure personal delight! What a man he was to have trusted me with the splendour of his language. As Beethoven did with his music. A gift to the world. And to my world...A sober sláinte to you, Francis!!


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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