In a Word: Rejoice

On James Joyce’s birthday we can rejoice in the power of language to gladden our hearts

 

Were James Joyce alive tomorrow he would be 138, and a medical phenomenon! Instead he died in 1941 at a mere 58. Regardless, happy birthday Jimmy Joyce! The cadences of which remind me. . .

Many years ago there was a cinema in Ballaghaderreen, or “picture house” as it was called, and cowboy movies were a staple.

At one such showing, as the Indians bore down on unsuspecting cowboys, a deeply engrossed audience member shouted at the screen: “Look a-hind ya, Johnny Wayne. ” And he did. It saved his life.

But to James Joyce. I’ve always been a fan, possibly surprising for a culchie. Then his partner, the indomitable Nora Barnacle, later his wife, was also one of us. In her case, from wonderful Galway, 2020 European Capital of Culture, where relevant events begin this month.

And the dying lines of his great short story The Dead have to be among the more evocative descriptions of Culchie-land in literature.

“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Joyce’s Ulysses, voted the greatest novel of the 20th century, is probably the most well-known unread book in literature. It can be difficult but with some persistence it delivers. It helps if you know Dublin and Dublin humour.

Back in 1988, as the Dublin millennium was being marked, I travelled across the city in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom, star of Ulysses, with writer JP Donleavy, author of The Ginger Man.

We did it for a newspaper article. It was a beautiful June 14th, 1988, when we set off and the article appeared in the Irish Press on Bloomsday, June 16th. The only disappointment was Donleavy, who knew little about Ulysses, had never been on Sandymount strand before and charged a hefty fee.

Sometimes you do learn.

Rejoice, from Old French rejoiss, to gladden.

inaword@irishtimes.com

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