Old flames – An Irishman’s Diary about Groundhog Day, Candlemas, and James Joyce

Before the film Groundhog Day immortalised the role of that – exclusively North American – animal as a harbinger of spring, the job used to belong to the more common badger. Or at least it did in Germany, where an old proverb declared that on Candlemas Day (February 2nd), the badger peeped from its sett and, if it saw snow, emerged from hibernation, but if the sun was casting shadows, went back to bed for six weeks.

There have been many European versions of this prognostication, with or without animals. The only thing they all had in common was a belief that good weather on this date is bad news.

In France it used to be said that shepherds would rather see a wolf today than the sun.

The Scots thought a bright February 2nd meant “twa winters”. But the most grim of all the sayings was one that went as follows: “A hind had as lief see his wife on the bier/As that Candlemas Day should be pleasant and clear”.


A “hind” was a married farm worker, hired by land-owners and usually given a cottage and other privileges. It was a senior, responsible position: hence, presumably, the suggestion that a man so employed would sooner sacrifice his wife than risk the agricultural complications of a bad spring. Maybe for more sensitive modern readers, the phrase could be amended to having a wife “on the beer”.

But as the name Candlemas implies, it’s not just sunlight or its absence that has played a key role on this date. Perhaps to harness the power of old pagan lore associated with February 2nd, the Christian church made the 40th day after Christmas an occasion when all candles for the coming year were blessed: hence the Candle Mass.

The significance of this was not lost on James Joyce. Never mind badgers or groundhogs, Joyce himself first saw sunlight on this date, although it was probably still dark when he was born, at 6am on February 2nd, 1882.

In any case, he was never a man to fear his own shadow.

So he always placed great importance on his birthday, arranging many important events to coincide with it, most notably the publication of Ulysses, which he timed for the doubly auspicious date of his 40th anniversary: 2-2-'22.

That the 2nd of February should have such religious significance was a bonus, even for someone as irreligious as Joyce. Thus, speaking of biers, the role of candles – especially as used in Irish wakes – became a running theme in his work.

The opening of his Dubliners story, The Sisters, for example, mentions the custom of placing two candles at the head of the corpse.

More figuratively, it has been argued that the male protagonists of Ulysses, Bloom and Dedalus, play the part of human candles, placed at the head of a "dying Dublin".

Joyce's fetish for birthdays and candles extended even to his romantic intrigues. On this date in 1919, when living in Zurich and infatuated with a woman called Marthe Fleischmann, he invited her to a Candlemas celebration.

To this end, he borrowed a menorah – the nine-armed Jewish candelabrum used for Hanukkah – and the studio of a reluctant friend, the artist Frank Budgen.

Then – I’m quoting from the “On This Day” section of the James Joyce Centre’s website – the following happened:  “Budgen drew a charcoal nude with ample buttocks, after Joyce’s instructions, and when Marthe arrived the candles were lit to illuminate the nude. After Joyce had taken her home, he met with Budgen and told him: ‘I have explored the coldest and hottest parts of a woman’s body’.”

No doubt that cryptic reference has been fleshed (or even Fleisched) out in more detail by scholars. If it has, answers not on a postcard, please.

Speaking of answers, I hear that some of Ireland's most committed Joyceans will be pitting their knowledge against each other tonight at a specialist table quiz In Dublin. The quiz is for members of the Society of Friends of Joyce Tower – the Martello Tower in Sandycove – which was set up a few years ago amid local outrage at the building's closure due to cutbacks in funding.

The group has since expanded to 240, of which 100 are now part-time volunteer staff at the venue (joycetower.ie) where Joyce stayed briefly in 1904 and where he set the start of Ulysses.

As a result, it is now open every day, including Christmas, attracting 40,000 visitors. So happy Candlemas to the Friends. And congratulations, in that apt Irish expression, for keeping her lit.