How Derry, Donegal, Tyrone and St. Columba figured in the imagination of James Joyce

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This weekend Derry plays host to the finale of a European-wide odyssey in celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The YES Derry festival will culminate with the first ever ‘Molly Bloomsday’ on Sunday, the anniversary of the fictional day on which the novel was set, June 16, 1904.

The celebrations are concentrated on the final ‘Penelope’ chapter of the book and the musings of Molly Bloom, the wife of the main protagonist Leopold, as she lies in bed.

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Ulysses was published in 1922 and is considered a modernist masterpiece, albeit with a reputation as a difficult read.

James Joyce, Paris, 1934James Joyce, Paris, 1934
James Joyce, Paris, 1934

After completing it, Joyce, spent nearly two decades writing the experimental Finnegan’s Wake, which is set in a dream-like Dublin and describes the travails of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (or ‘Here Comes Everybody’) and his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle, a metaphor for the River Liffey.

If Ulysses is difficult, Finnegan’s Wake makes it look like the adventures of Dick and Dora.

Derry Joyce scholar Seamus Deane, in his introduction to Penguin’s 1992 edition, described Finnegan’s Wake as ‘unreadable’ in any conventional sense.

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"The language of the Wake is a composite of words and syllables combined with such a degree of fertile inventiveness that new sounds and new meanings are constantly ingeminated,” wrote the late Bogside writer.

The Molly Bed, a large-scale interactive installation by artist Tracey Lindsay, conveying messages from women around the world.The Molly Bed, a large-scale interactive installation by artist Tracey Lindsay, conveying messages from women around the world.
The Molly Bed, a large-scale interactive installation by artist Tracey Lindsay, conveying messages from women around the world.

Derry and Donegal, believe it or not, are referenced again and again in the word soup and ‘pun-orama’ that is Finnegan’s Wake.

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St. Columba even makes a subtle appearance here and there.

It appears the North West figured to some extent in Joyce’s cosmopolitan imagination while he was drafting the work in Paris, Zürich and Trieste.

Following the unveiling of the giant Molly bed public artwork in Ebrington Square earlier this week an installation showcasing Vilnius’ take on the ‘Proteus’ chapter which follows Stephen Dedalus, one of Ulysses principal characters, as he wanders along Sandymount Stand, was placed underneath the Peace Bridge by the River Foyle.Following the unveiling of the giant Molly bed public artwork in Ebrington Square earlier this week an installation showcasing Vilnius’ take on the ‘Proteus’ chapter which follows Stephen Dedalus, one of Ulysses principal characters, as he wanders along Sandymount Stand, was placed underneath the Peace Bridge by the River Foyle.
Following the unveiling of the giant Molly bed public artwork in Ebrington Square earlier this week an installation showcasing Vilnius’ take on the ‘Proteus’ chapter which follows Stephen Dedalus, one of Ulysses principal characters, as he wanders along Sandymount Stand, was placed underneath the Peace Bridge by the River Foyle.

The writer was familiar with the miracles of Colmcille. In Part I, Chapter I he refers to Tory’s legendary immunity from rats which was bestowed on the island through the saint’s consecration of its soil:

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“Under your sycamore by the keld water where the Tory’s clay will scare the varmints.”

The Donegal island appears again in Part I, Chapter V, amid Anna Livia Plurabelle’s ‘mamafesta’ with her reference to ‘The Tortor of Tory Island’ and in Part I, Chapter IV with, ‘Till the four Shores of deff Tory Island let the douze dumm Eire-whiggs raille’.

And is this, from Part III, Chapter II, an acknowledgment of St. Columba’s prophesy of a great whale, Iona and the biblical tale of Jonah all wrapped in one?

The Swilly is mentioned in Finnegan's Wake.The Swilly is mentioned in Finnegan's Wake.
The Swilly is mentioned in Finnegan's Wake.

“He’d be as snug as Columbsisle Jonas wrocked in the belly of the whaves...”

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To say Joyce liked a pun would be an understatement. Finnegan’s Wake may hold the world record. Many of the North West’s mentions are geographical homophones such as this one of Bundoran in Part I, Chapter III:

"One voiced an opinion in which on either wide (pardonnez!), nodding, all the Finner Camps concurred (je vous en prie, eh?).”

St. Columba’s great-great-grandfather Niall of the Nine Hostages, the 5th century High King, from whom most people in Ireland are reputedly descended, makes an appearance. Niall’s son Eoghan is supposed to be buried at Iskaheen.

This is from Part I, Chapter IV: “And contradrinking themselves about Lillytrilly law pon hilly and Mrs Niall of the Nine Corsages and the old markiss their besterfar.”

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The Molly Bed at EbringtonThe Molly Bed at Ebrington
The Molly Bed at Ebrington

Part I, Chapter V again refers to St. Columba and the Book of Kells: “It need not be lost sight of that there are exactly three squads of candidates for the crucian rose awaiting their turn in the marginal panels of Columkiller.”

Part I, Chapter VIII, focuses on Anna Livia Plurabelle, the embodiment of the Liffey, and Joyce has a field day punning on the rivers and waterways of Ireland, including those of Derry, Donegal and Tyrone.

The Foyle (‘Josephine Foyle’ and the Swilly (‘whatever you like to swilly to swash’) are mentioned.

Joyce refers to Strabane, Lifford and the source of the Foyle with the lines, “Not where the Finn fits into the Mourne, not where the Nore takes lieve of Blœm, not where the Braye divarts the Farer, not where the Moy changez her minds twixt Cullin and Conn tween Cunn and Collin?”

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The most explicit reference to Derry city is in the same chapter: “And his derry’s own drawl and his corksown blather and his doubling stutter and his gullaway swank.”

There is also the following from Part II, Chapter II: “Like when I dromed I was in Dairy and was wuckened up with thump in thudderdown.”

If The Simpson’s can pun ‘Dairy’ for ‘Derry’, as they did in their 'Dairy Girls Ice Cream' tribute to ‘Derry Girls a few years ago so can James Joyce.’

The word ‘Derry’ appears in Part I, Chapter I (‘the derryjellybies snooping around Tell-No-Tailors’ Corner’), seemingly a pun on dirigible or zeppelin and in Part I, Chapter VIII, with the phrase ‘dribblederry daughters’. Joyce may or may not have had the city in mind but given his love of puns and place-names you couldn’t rule it out.

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Part II, Chapter III, refers to Partholón, one of the mythical first settlers of Ireland, who according to legend landed at Inis Saimer in Ballyshannon and divided the country between his four sons using Grianán as a marker:

“...the unimportant Parthalonians with the mouldy Firbolgs and the Tuatha de Danaan googs and the ramblers from Clane...”

The Glenfin-born Home Ruler Isaac Butt gets a shout out in Part III, Chapter I. And Inishowen figures in Part III, Chapter IV: “Eryan’s isles from Malin to Clear and Carnsore Point to Slynagollow.”

We would like to think ‘Bogside Beauty’ (Part I, Chapter III) and ‘Lettermuck’ (Part III, Chapter II) are allusions to the Bogside and the townland near Claudy but we think it unlikely. Then it depends how you see it.

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As Mr. Deane suggested: “The sixty-five languages used in the Wake blend and blur into one another, generating so many possible meanings that is is safe to assume that not even Joyce could have been aware of all (or even of many) that his readers have found.”

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