Turning a new leaf – An Irishman’s Diary on James Joyce’s Dublin and the language of trees

The Irish National Foresters on parade

The Irish National Foresters on parade


‘I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree”, wrote Joyce Kilmer. And he was probably right, since he died only a few years later, in the first World War. But those of us still alive may yet witness something more poetic than his single tree, if an artist called Katie Holten has her way.

Holten is planning a “tree alphabet” for the city of Dublin, in which the letter A might be represented by an ash or apple tree, B by a beech, and so on.  

Among the results would be a pictorial type-font, downloadable free, in which eco-romantics could write things.  

But longer-term, people could use actual trees to make statements. With sufficient space, it would be possible to write a poem – maybe even Kilmer’s – in forestry. Dublin being Dublin, however, it’s another Joyce who is central to Katie’s plans. She hopes eventually to “translate Ulysses” into trees; although in that case, I think it’s only the font she has in mind.

Dramatic as it sounds, the idea of communicating in this way is not entirely new. It has deep roots – pun fully intended – in Irish culture, going back to the ogham alphabet in which many letters were named after trees (and birds).

C, for example, was linked to coll (“hazel”), D to dair (“oak”), and so on. Indeed, while we’re on the subject, the Irish for “forest”, coill, provides another illustration of how deeply embedded in our language trees are.  

The many Irish place-names now starting with “Kil” usually have origins in a church (cill).  

But in some cases the prefix is from coill, since oak and hazel groves had ancient religious significance and early Christian establishments sometimes co-located there. In some old settlements, including Kildare (“Church of the Oak”), it can be hard to tell the would-be Christians from the trees.

Ireland was once so densely forested, it’s said, you could have travelled branch-to-branch from Cork to Antrim. And although the process must have been well under way before then, deforestation became a political lament under English rule, when many’s an Irish tree was press-ganged for the Royal Navy.

So naturally, in Ulysses, when the “Citizen” and his fellow patriots are discussing Ireland’s cause in Barney Kiernan’s pub, the subject arises. As treeless as Portugal we’ll soon be, says John Wyse: to which the Citizen proposes a scheme to save the “giant ash of Galway and the chieftain elm of Kldare”.  

With that, Joyce is off on one of his riffs, imagining a society wedding between the head of the Irish National Foresters (a once non-political organisation that had became strongly nationalist by 1904) and a “Miss Fir Conifer of Pine Valley”, with vivid descriptions of the arboreal guests.

That passage is a launch-pad for Holten’s plans, which are in turn part of a larger enterprise called the Treeline Project, designed by Dublin’s Oonagh Young Gallery with Arts Council support, a preliminary instalment of which is unveiled this coming weekend.  

In the longer term, the project envisages a “green corridor” of trees in the north inner city, mostly along what is now James Joyce Street. In the meantime, Saturday will see the opening of the multi-purpose “Circe Pavilion” in adjacent Liberty Park. 

And among the things people will be able to do there in future is read Ulysses, because as of this weekend the park will also be overlooked by an electronic display, like the ticker-tape of Times Square, reading Joyce’s epic on a loop.

There will a nightly curfew. But if you spend all your daylight hours in the park, you’ll the have the book read in a week.

Speaking of the night, James Joyce Street is so-named because it used to be the main drag of Monto, the red light district where he set his Night Town episode.

And although nobody laments the passing of Montgomery Street’s slums, it is regrettable that in their place today stand a mass of charmless urban architecture suggestive of Anywheresville, Europe. The green corridor would be a welcome start in humanising the place again.  

First, however, there are planning issues to be negotiated.  

So for now, the type and number of trees to be planted remains moot, as does the question of whether they will make a literary statement.  

You would in any case struggle to fit a poem on the street, never mind Ulysses.  

Still, even 20 trees could say a lot. With a mix of yew, ivy, eucalyptus, and others, properly arranged, you could write: “yes I said yes I will yes”.