The Crock of Gold (1912) by James Stephens: More than stage Irishry

Comic novel that debates profound philosophical questions

Vincent Higgins (left), Karen Scully and Carrie Crowley and in a  stage adaption by Fiona Buffini of the Crock of Gold by James Stephens. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Vincent Higgins (left), Karen Scully and Carrie Crowley and in a stage adaption by Fiona Buffini of the Crock of Gold by James Stephens. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

James Stephens (1880-1950) was a novelist, poet and broadcaster whose two most famous novels were published in 1912. The Charwoman’s Daughter is a lovely story about a young girl growing up in the Dublin slums, and The Crock of Gold an intriguing fantasy involving fairies, policemen, philosophers and pagan gods. It was through the first, which I taught Leaving Cert students many years ago, that I came to the second.

Character have names such as the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath, Meehawl MacMurrachu, Seumas Beg and Angus Óg, and the dialogue is similar to that in Boucicault and Synge. So it might appear that there’s a lot of stage Irishry in the book, and there probably is, but it’s a comic novel that debates profound philosophical questions: What is wisdom? Should the head or the heart rule? What is virtue and what vice? 

The Philosopher, who sets out at the request of a neighbour to rescue the latter’s daughter from the nature god Pan, has a catharsis along the way and learns that goodness and kindness are more important than wisdom.

The battle of the sexes and the differences between men and women are central themes, and some of Stephens’s observations certainly give pause for thought, such as: “Men are not fathers by instinct but by chance, but women are mothers beyond thought, beyond instinct, which is the father of thought.” Indeed, striking aphorisms abound. “What the heart knows today the head will understand tomorrow” is one such. 

Familiarity with Irish mythology and some of Stephens’s contemporary writers is an advantage as he pokes fun at both, but its absence won’t detract from enjoyment of the novel. The Crock of Gold can be read as a justification of spirituality (more pagan than Christian, pantheistic really) and a plea for a greater connection to nature. The final chapter, when the whole ancient Celtic pagan world rallies to right wrongs and challenge those who have lost their way in modern society, has been well described as a song of hope.

Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds was strongly influenced by – and parodies – elements of Stephens’s quirky, idiosyncratic and unforgettable tale.

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