When I was young, my father’s oft repeated favorite riddle was: What is the richest country in the world? The first time he quizzed me, I wracked my brain and offered a few feeble guesses. When he could contain his mirth no longer, with a grin, a twinkle, and a nudge to my ribs he chuckled: “Ireland, of course! Because its capital is always doublin’!!”
As one of Europe’s oldest cities, Dublin witnessed centuries of Irish hard times, most notably and tragically during the Great Famines of the 19th century. By the end of the 20th century, however, the country’s prosperity was so strong it was being referred to as ‘The Irish Tiger.’ Had Ireland’s contribution to literature been weighed instead of its coffers, the sobriquet would likely have been coined much earlier.
In that Ireland is just a tiny island positioned on a globe dominated by massive continents with equally massive populations, its contribution to the world’s literature – in all forms – is disproportionately huge. Perhaps the climate has something to do with it. Personally, I am more inclined to sit and write when the sky is murky with rain than when sunshine lures me outdoors. Whatever the reason, the Irish tradition of storytelling long predates the written word.
With the exception of ogham lines (see Sláinte April/May 2011) that were mainly used for inscriptions, the Irish did not become a ‘literate’ people until the advent of Christianity in the 5th century. Prior to that time, all folklore and family histories were handed down from generation to generation via an oral tradition requiring extraordinary memorization skills, with some sagas consisting of up to 8,000 lines. Even the Brehon Laws, which minutely defined every right and obligation of the complex social strata, were committed to memory.
All that changed once Church scholars adapted the Irish language to the Latin alphabet and recorded the major stories from the Old Irish period in four ‘cycles.’ The Mythological Cycle tells of the ancient gods and goddesses and the magical Tuatha De Danann. The Ulster Cycle, heroic tales that take place in Ulster and Connacht, centers on the epic Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). Similarly, the Fenian Cycle is a collection of stories about heroes the most famous being Fionn mac Cumhail. The Historical Cycle is a quasi-mythological poetic genealogy of the High Kings until the reign of Brian Boru who united the island in the 10th century.
Through the Medieval Period, storytelling was largely the province of bards who found patronage with the local aristocracy. As England’s control over the island increased, bringing with it social and political upheaval, there was little interest in the older culture. By the 19th century, the English-speaking middle class was the dominant cultural force.
It was then that the first great modern Irish writers emerged, many of whom left indelible marks on the world’s literature. Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of a Tub), a biting satirist, was Ireland’s first famous writer of modern times. Oliver Goldsmith (The Vicar of Wakefield, She Stoops To Conquer) became a member of London’s literary establishment. Bram Stoker (Dracula) singlehandedly invented the ‘horror genre.’ The works of Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest) enthrall audiences today as much if not more than they did when originally written. The same can be said of George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion, Major Barbara, Caesar and Cleopatra), Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Brendan Behan (An Giall: The Hostage), W.B. Yeats (The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems), John Millington Synge (The Playboy of the Western World), and Sean O’Casey (Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars).
The list of illustrious Irish writers is much longer than the few luminaries mentioned here, but none has perhaps had as great an impact on the very form of world literature as Dublin’s own James Joyce in his masterwork Ulysses.
Set on June 16, 1904, Ulysses records the events of an average day in the lives of three Dubliners: Leopold Bloom, a frustrated advertisement canvasser; his wife Molly, a lusty amateur opera singer; and Stephen Daedalus, a moody poet and part-time teacher at a boys school. The story structure parallels Homer’s Odyssey with Bloom’s one-day trek around Dublin allegorically likened to the Greek hero Ulysses’ nineteen-year struggle to find his way home. It is the saga of a man exiled by loneliness whose search for social, political and ethical fulfillment is thwarted by the situations of his environment.
Joyce, himself a voluntary exile, left Ireland at the age of twenty-four and spent the rest of his life in Europe. Except for two brief visits years later, he never again spent time in the city he so loved. But every cobblestone of Dublin’s twisting, winding streets was etched in his memory. Joyce once remarked that if the city were ever destroyed, it could be reconstructed from the pages of his works: Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, Dubliners, Finnegans Wake, and Ulysses.
Denounced as vulgar on publication for its sexual content and profanity, Ulysses was banned from distribution for decades. The literary world now acknowledges that the characters’ extensive mental musings set the standard for all future interior monologues. Today, Joyce’s masterwork is hailed as the seminal modernist novel and one of the greatest contributions to world literature
Bloom’s peregrinations have familiarized readers everywhere with the streets, pubs and monuments (which Bloom calls ‘street furnishings’) of everyday Dublin. Millions visit the city annually to walk in their flawed hero’s footsteps, and each year on June 16th, known far and wide as Bloomsday, Dublin honors one of its most famous, albeit fictional, sons.
In 2010, UNESCO declared Dublin to be a ‘City of Literature’ as part of its Creative Cities Network, which was launched in 2004. No disrespect intended, but I cannot help but wonder why it took the venerable organization six years to place Dublin, a city where literary capital is always increasing exponentially, on the world’s literature map.
When I told a professorial pal of mine that I was attempting to encapsulate two thousand years of Irish literature in one thousand words, he responded, “In university circles, it is commonly quipped that, with the exception of Shakespeare, there is no such thing – really – as English literature. It’s all Irish.”
Throughout Ulysses, Joyce shows how food is part of one’s daily life, future plans and fantasies. It reflects social class and individual temperament, and offers opportunities for interaction. It symbolizes sex, and its rituals are interwoven with culture, customs and values. During lunch, Bloom muses on the food choices of the “Crème de la crème,” contrasting them to the “hermit with a platter of pulse,” and concludes that food, like dress, defines personality: “Know me come eat with me.” (Chapter Eight: Lestrygonians).
If your own peregrinations will not carry you to a site where Bloomsday is being celebrated, consider replicating Bloom’s lunch. With a Gorgonzola cheese and mustard sandwich and a glass of Burgundy in hand, open a copy of Ulysses to the final chapter, Penelope, which Joyce devotes to the feminine regenerative principle of the universe. In the final pages, Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy, one long uninterrupted sentence describing her first amorous encounter with Bloom, ends with the word “Yes” – Joyce’s conclusive affirmation of life and the power of love.
Liver Slices Fried with Crust Crumbs & Bacon
(The Joyce of Cooking, Alison Armstrong)
“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He
liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all, he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
(Ulysses, Chapter Four: Calypso)
4 thin slices of calf liver
1 cup dry breadcrumbs seasoned with back pepper and paprika
4 slices smoked Irish bacon
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup beef broth
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Dredge liver in seasoned breadcrumbs and set aside. In a heavy skillet, brown bacon until limp but not crisp, then set aside on a warm plate. Gently cook the onion in the bacon fat until soft and set aside with the bacon. Add butter to the skillet, increase heat slightly and saute liver on both sides. Reduce heat, add beef broth and bay leaf. Cook slowly for 15 minutes. When the liver is tender, set aside with bacon and onions. Raise heat to medium, sprinkle cornstarch into the pan juices and stir until it has the consistency of gravy. Pour “bogswamp brown trickles of gravy” over the liver slices, bacon and onions. Makes two servings.
Davy Byrnes Pub’s Gorgonzola Sandwich
Davy Byrnes Pub has been a Dublin landmark since opening in 1889 and a world literature landmark since Leopold Bloom stopped in for lunch on June 16, 1904. The Gorgonzola Sandwich is still on the menu.
“Mr. Bloom ate his stripes of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate. ….. After all there’s a lot in that vegetarian fine flavour of things from the earth.”
(Ulysses, Chapter 8: Lestrygonians)
Sliced soda bread
Thick slab of Gorgonzola cheese
Butter lettuce leaves
Fresh ground pepper
Butter the bread, slather with mustard, layer with lettuce, tomato, add a thick slab of Gorgonzola cheese and sprinkle with pepper. Don’t skimp on the mustard. Bloom didn’t. “Mr. Bloom cut his sandwich into slender strips…He studded under each lifted strip yellow blobs.”