Holy Orders – Frank McNally on biblical Joe Biden, James Joyce’s Dublin, and pubs with no beer
Joe Biden on the campaign trail in Los Angeles this week. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
When a mock row broke out this week between Joe Biden and other US Democrats about which of them was most Irish, and one – Maryland congressman John Delaney – suggested they settle it over a “pint of Guinness in Rehoboth”, that strange place-name rang a bell for some reason.
Not that I knew the Rehoboth in question, a beach resort in Delaware where Biden has a home. Nor was I thinking of the various biblical Rehoboths, including the one so named by Isaac in the Book of Genesis, when he digs a well there.
But being a resident of Dublin 8, I half-remembered it from somewhere here too. Sure enough, it’s the name of several minor streets in Dolphin’s Barn. And the other reason it was familiar is that one of those streets, Rehoboth Terrace, plays a small but important part in Ulysses, as the place where Leopold Bloom and Molly first meet.
According to Joycean scholars, this may have been designed to hint at a Jewish background for Molly, which would have added to her initial attractions for Bloom, who makes a similar assumption based on her part-Spanish looks.
Perhaps the subject might be raised by whoever moderates that discussion over pints in the Delaware Rehoboth. After all, at least two of the Irish American now vying for a presidential nomination, Biden and Beto O’Rourke, are professed Joyce fans. That said, they might have to defer on this to Pete Buttigieg, whose ancestry is Maltese, but who has named Ulysses as the book that most influenced him.
The Rehoboth from Genesis was near Beersheba, in the Negev desert, and so may be a forerunner of the famous Wells of Beersheba, romanticised by a first World War novel. It was probably located in one of the region’s wadis, the Arabic name for dried riverbeds that fill with water only after heavy rains.
On first reading that exotic word as a child, I used to think it had something to do with the drink MiWadi. And this association with a temporary oasis in the desert probably added to the appeal of that fiercely concentrated orange concoction, merely thinking about which now makes me want to brush my teeth.
The name was ahead of its time in one respect, as foreseen in the slogan: “It’s not your Wadi, it’s MiWadi.” We live in an era now when marketeers love putting the prefix “my” in the names of products, services, and websites, to emphasise personal choice.
So I was disappointed to learn a while back that “MiWadi” derives not from any Middle Eastern geographic feature, but from the opening letters in each word of “Mineral Water Distributors”, the company that first made it. Alas for romance.
Speaking of soft drinks, if a future President Biden or Buttigieg visits Ireland and wants to pose for the traditional photograph with a pint of Guinness, it will not be in Dublin’s newest bar, the Virgin Mary.
As reported this week, that establishment is going where few have gone before by serving only non-alcoholic products. Previously, in Irish culture, such a concept has existed only in the context of disrupted supplies, as in the old ad about the island pub, reduced to wadi status until relief kegs arrive by currach.
A similar crisis inspired the first certified “gold” record in Australian music history. “There’s nothing so lonesome, so morbid or drear/Than to stand in a bar of a pub with no beer”, laments the 1957 hit song, adapted from a poem written by a Limerick emigrant Dan Sheahan in 1943, after US servicemen had drunk his Queensland local dry.
In both name and mission statement, the Virgin Mary is building on the foundations of the famous “Holy Hour”, which used to close Irish pubs in the afternoon.
That wasn’t always as successful as temperance campaigners wished, often locking customers in rather than out. But maybe the non-alcoholic bar is an idea whose time has come, and will now take off here, to everyone’s amazement, the way bottled water did.
As for Joycean pubs serving Guinness, a future US president will also not be able to visit the most famous one in Ulysses, Barney Kiernan’s, which used to be just around the corner from where the Virgin Mary is now.
On the other hand, at the rate Dublin 8 is gentrifying, the Rehoboth area will probably have a trendy bar by then. It will sell not just the “wine of the country”, as Joyce’s clientele called it, but the now-usual range of imported craft ales too. If anyone’s looking for a suitable name, I suggest “Beersheba”.