Cow dung and Bloomsday

Jun 15th, 2010 | By | Category: Ireland

Walking across a field to check that there was water in a trough for the cattle in the field, the thought occurred that it is Bloomsday tomorrow.  Not that Dublin’s annual commemoration of James Joyce would find much resonance on a farm on the slopes of the Slieve Bloom mountains.  Wiping cow dung off the side of one shoe (black Doc Marten’s are particularly practical for rural ministry), there was a feeling that perhaps Irish literature should not be classified as such, rather there should be Dublin literature and (occasionally) Irish rural literature.

Joyce’s Ulysses which will be celebrated in Dublin tomorrow is a day in Dublin in 1904, and much other Irish writing is essentially Dublin writing.  O’Casey evokes urban Dublin, and the north side of urban Dublin at that; Behan is an urban writer.  Shaw moves in a cosmopolitan literary circle much removed from checking cattle troughs, as does Wilde.  Beckett’s characters move beyond the city, but there is barely an engagement with agricultural life.  Yeats’ Irish airman foreseeing his death may declare

My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor

but the writer’s life amongst the big houses, and those who shared his interests in esoteric religion, would hardly strike a chord with rural Ireland.  For Yeats, country life is an idyll expressed in poems such as The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Notwithstanding Yeats’ Sligo accent in the recordings made of him in his latter years, he does not represent rural Ireland.

Amongst the Irish Nobel laureates, only Seamus Heaney writes with an understanding of farm life.  Heaney could have expressed with beauty a walk across a field, through rushy grass and over muddy ground broken by the hooves of cattle, to look into a bath filled with green-tinged water.  In Heaney’s words every step of that walk would be felt, but Heaney is an Ulsterman and would be looked upon with cautiousness by some of those who farm in these townlands.  Not with suspicion, but with caution, for one never knew what might come from the North where the Protestants were a strange and different people (attempts to persuade people otherwise have mostly met with little success).

Reviewing Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light in the Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole writes of JM Synge, the inspiration for the novel,

A letter writer to The Irish Times suggested that in order to “honour Dublin’s literary greats”, “once the Dart Underground and Metro North projects are complete, the three rapid transit lines that Dublin will then enjoy should be named after Wilde, Joyce and Shaw”. . . What struck me, though, is the one figure who never gets mentioned in this regard: John Millington Synge. One of the many delights of Joseph O’Connor’s new novel, Ghost Light , indeed, is the way it brings Synge the man in from a curious cold.

It is not obvious why Synge should be so apparently unloved.

O’Toole suggest that Synge did not engage in the self-promotion in the way Shaw, Yeats and Wilde did, and also that his writing may have been too close to the truth for the liking of some.  But Beckett was hardly a self-publiciser – he sent his agent to collect his Nobel prize – and his realities are very grim, yet the newest bridge over the Liffey bears his name.

Perhaps Synge’s evangelical Protestant background did not endear him to a wider constituency – some of his family would not attend a theatre to see his work performed.  But perhaps Synge’s rural focus also puts him outside ‘Dublin’s literary greats’, the world of cutting turf is a world far from Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus.

Bloomsday will come and go and few here will notice.  Perhaps we should have Christy Mahon Day.

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  1. Shame really since Ireland is / was largely rural that it’s poets aren’t recognised. Apologies Ian for being absent for so long. I will try to catch up. I miss your posts.

  2. Well there are always…
    County Kerry’s John B Keane (The Field, Sive, etc, etc). Did you ever drop into his pub in Listowel? It was a calm place for a quiet pint when I was there.
    And I enjoy the poetry of County Monaghan man Patrick Kavanagh – and his autobiography the Green Fool.
    He’s an example. It’s called Art McCooey.

    I recover now the time I drove
    Cart-loads of dung to an outlying farm –
    My foreign possessions in Shancoduff –
    With the enthusiasm of a man who sees life simply.

    The steam rising from the load is still
    Warm enough to thaw my frosty fingers.
    In Donnybrook in Dublin ten years later
    I see that empire now and the empire builder.

    Sometimes meeting a neighbour
    In country love-enchantment,
    The old mare pulls over to the bank and leaves us
    To fiddle folly where November dances.

    We wove our disappointments and successes
    To patterns of a town-bred logic:
    ‘She might have been sick… No, never before,
    A mystery, Pat, and they all appear so modest.’

    We exchanged our fool advices back and forth:
    ‘It easily could be their cow was calving,
    And sure the rain was desperate that night…’
    Somewhere in the mists a light was laughing.

    We played with the frilly edges of reality
    While we puffed our cigarettes;
    And sometimes Owney Martin’s splitting yell
    Would knife the dreamer that the land begets.

    ‘I’ll see you after Second Mass on Sunday.’
    ‘Right-o, right-o.’ The mare moves on again.
    A wheel rides over a heap of gravel
    And the mare goes skew-ways like a blinded hen.

    Down the lane-way of the popular banshees
    By Paddy Bradley’s: mud to the ankles;
    A hare is grazing in Mat Rooney’s meadow:
    Maggie Byrne is prowling for dead branches.

    Ten loads before tea-time. Was that the laughter
    Of the evening bursting school?
    The sun sinks low and large behind the hills of Cavan,
    A stormy-looking sunset. ‘Brave and cool’.

    Wash out the cart with a bucket of water and a wangel
    Of wheaten straw. Jupiter looks down.
    Unlearnedly and unreasonably poetry is shaped
    Awkwardly but alive in the unmeasured womb.

  3. And of course Patrick Kavanagh in Monaghan and of course plenty of Irish language literature that has nothing to do with Dublin

  4. I thought of that poem too by Kavanagh. Don’t get me started on Yeats……..
    I am tryng to think of a Laois literary connection but the nearest I can get is Manley Hopkins………but he didn’t exactly write nursery rhymes!!!!!!

  5. Kavanagh manages the transition from rural to urban. I know it’s cliched, but I love ‘On Raglan Road’.

    Neither Kavanagh nor Keane, though, would command the status of those in O’Toole’s list

  6. Having strayed into this site on Bloomsnight one must add….’beef to the heels a Mullingar heifer..’ a Joycean quote that comes to mind apropos of the Cow Dung and Bloomsday. I think it referred to a lady.
    The Slieve Bloom Joycean connections could well be researched…..Joyceans have found or even maybe, created, connections ranging from Rostrevor to Avondale. Any excuse at all for a picnic.
    It was Junior Cert. Physics and RE revision in this Killiney home tonight with the resident student. Surfing the Net to wind down….and just time to say, Hope it was a Happy Bloomsday.
    Roslyn N,

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