Mind the Gap – Frank McNally on a great Irish institution, the month’s mind, from Shakespeare to Joyce

An Irishman’s Diary

For the third year running, members of the extended Joycean family are taking the liberty of giving Paddy Dignam a month’s mind

For the third year running, members of the extended Joycean family are taking the liberty of giving Paddy Dignam a month’s mind

 

We think of the “month’s mind” Mass, typically followed by a family meal, as a thing unique to Ireland. And apart from pockets of Catholicism abroad, it largely is now. I can also say with confidence that this is the only country in the world that holds a month’s mind for a fictional character, as will happen again in Dublin this weekend, of which more later.

But you’ll also find the phrase, and an echo of the concept, in Shakespeare.It’s there in Act I Scene 2 of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where Julia and her lady-in-waiting Lucetta discuss a love letter Lucetta has received some days earlier and – even more scandalously – read. When the prim Julia tears it up but Lucetta retrieves the fragments, Julia remarks: “I see you have a month’s mind to them.”

By the time this was included in an 18th-century collection of the Bard’s work, the editor needed to explain the phrase to English readers. “A month’s mind was an anniversary in times of popery,” he wrote: “There was also a year’s mind, and a week’s mind.”

Two centuries after Shakespeare, the phrase had evolved to mean something more general. Today, Brewer’s Dictionary says it was also used once “to denote an eager desire” and quotes a Walter Scott from 1824 having a “month’s mind” to do something.

But the Shakespearian editor of 1765, preserving Lucetta’s modesty, suggested the expression meant “not desire or inclination, but remembrance” and presumed the old Catholic ritual was its “true original”.

The month’s mind Mass itself was killed off in England by the Reformation, although not before a cameo appearance in the “Marprelate Controversy”, a satirical “war of pamphlets” in 1588/9, fought between Puritans and the Anglican Church. “Martin Marprelate” was a fictionalised protagonist, “Martin’s Months Mind” one of the publications.

The concept lived on in Ireland, however, and still does, even among lapsed Catholics. Along with the definition, “Mass said for a deceased person one month or thereabouts after the death…), Terry Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English gives a typical usage of the phrase, from Kerry: “His daughter’s coming back from the States for the month’s mind. She can’t settle at all, poor thing. First the mother, and now the father gone.”

Dolan also found the expression in James Joyce’s book of the dead, Finnegans Wake. And yet, despite being a staple of Irish life for centuries, the month’s mind has not featured much in literature.

Compared with funerals, where so many Irish family crises surface, the commemorations of a month afterwards do not seem to inspire drama. But then, maybe that’s the whole point of the event. It’s a moment of calm after the funeral storm, a time to reflect and move on. The lack of literature about it may be a measure of the institution’s healing power.

If the month’s mind has not inspired literature, however, literature has now inspired a month’s mind. The person being commemorated in Dublin this Friday is doubly (or perhaps Dublinly) odd in that (a) he’s fictional and (b) despite featuring in Joyce’s book of the living, Ulysses, he was never alive even there.

Paddy Dignam had died of a Monday – a common cause of mortality in Ireland – in June 1904, in time for his funeral to feature among the events of Thursday 16th, the original Bloomsday. The nearest he gets to breathing is in a comic misunderstanding, worthy of Shakespeare, in which a character thinks he has seen him minutes earlier.

– Dead! says Alf. He’s no more dead than you are.

– Maybe so, says Joe. They took the liberty of burying him those morning anyhow.

Now, for the third year running, members of the extended Joycean family are also taking the liberty of giving Paddy a month’s mind, albeit without the Mass. In fact, Mass apart, the event marks a dramatic escalation of the ritual, because like Bloomsday itself, it will be an all-day affair.

Starting outside Broadstone terminus at 10am, it will revisit key scenes of Paddy’s alleged life, including of course Glasnevin Cemetery, before ending the day at a beer garden in Phibsboro. A full itinerary is at jamesjoyce.ie, although Senan Molony warns that the times may become “increasingly approximate”.

When a new edition of his dictionary appeared in 2004, Terry Dolan suggested that old phrases such as “month’s mind” might be obsolete within 20 years, thanks to “Dortspeak”.

His fears have been premature, so far. The Dart line will host at least two of Friday’s waystations, including a commemorative swim at Sandycove’s Forty Foot. Meanwhile, the Paddy Dignam Month’s Mind movement is now also planning Foreign Missions. They foresee the event going international, as Bloomsday has. Boston and Toronto are already on board for 2022.

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