Do you want ice with that? An Irishman’s Diary about wintry literature and drink

One of the many events that succumbed to the weather this week was the launch in Dublin of a "James Joyce Gin". It was supposed to happen in The Bailey, a pub immortalised in Ulysses. But why gin?

Although Joyce was a prodigious drinker, as were many of his characters, gin does not feature prominently on the Joycean bar menu.

So I looked up the product’s website where, among many other things, it says this: “Inspired by the bustling streets of Dublin City and it’s (sic) vibrant Irish literary history, James Joyce Gin honours the life and works of one of the world’s greatest writers.”

And yes, reader, I too was immediately distracted by that redundant apostrophe in the possessive “its”. Like yours, my first thought was that, never mind the association with gin, poor Joyce would be spinning in his grave at being forced to keep company with such careless punctuation.


Then I remembered that he himself deliberately omitted the apostrophe from Finnegans Wake, so as to hint at other meanings (and other Finnegans), even at the cost of condemning generations of literary editors to eternal vigilance.

Also: Ulysses, where in the Molly Bloom soliloquy alone, Joyce was responsible for the mass lay-off of more punctuation marks than any other writer in history. If some of those redundancies were now turning up in advertising blurbs for Joycean spin-off products, he could hardly complain.

Anyway, the gin launch was postponed, which was wise.

The product itself would have been immune to the weather, of course. In common with other hard liquors, gin doesn’t freeze in mere Beast-from-the-East temperatures.

I have a Russophile friend who has been known to pour vodka from a frozen bottle, through the ice-obstructed neck of which the alcohol trickles out like a mountain spring. But mere humans are not so resistant to the cold, and even less so when they have drink taken. The launch will be next week instead.


Drinking aside, in these days when we’re urged to avoid unnecessary travel, James Joyce is a bad influence. There he is, for example, at the start of the most famous description of snow in world literature, writing this: “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward...”

I can't read that passage now without hearing Teresa Mannion, RTÉ's western reporter, urging him to turn back. All right, Gabriel Conroy doesn't actually set out for Galway that night. In fact, his only journey in The Dead is a short eastward one: from Usher's Island to the Gresham Hotel, where Joyce's classic ending unfurls.

Not the least remarkable thing about the story’s fame is that emanates from a country where snow, and extreme weather generally, is so rare.

But maybe that’s the point. If it were common, it would be harder to be get poetic about it.

As the Beast gripped Ireland this week, I searched my memory (and Google) for a similarly classic, one-paragraph description of snow from Russian literature, where they have so much more raw material. I couldn't find one.

When I think of Siberian weather, in fact, it’s the description by a journalist – albeit from the lyrical end of the spectrum – that sticks in memory.

In his great book Imperium, Ryszard Kapuscinski visited many outposts of the former Soviet Union, including Yakutsk, in Siberia. There, he interviewed a schoolgirl named Tanya, not yet 10, but unable to disguise her feeling of superiority to a man who, although relatively ancient, "seems to have no idea what great cold is".

Great cold in Yakutsk, Tanya explained, involved a “bright, shining mist” hanging in the air in such a way that when people moved through it, they left the shape of their silhouettes.

The humans passed, but their corridors through the mist remained: large ones for men, small for schoolchildren.

In the morning, a "wide, low corridor" with a very straight line meant that Claudia Matveyevna, the school principal, had left for work. No small corridors meant conditions were so extreme school was closed.

The nearest Kapusinski gets to Joyce’s ending here is the bit involving alcohol. “Sometimes one sees a corridor that is very crooked and then abruptly stops,” he wrote. “It means – Tanya lowers her voice – that some drunk was walking, tripped, and fell. In a great cold, drunks frequently freeze to death. Then such a corridor looks like a dead-end street.”