"He ought to go away for a change of ideas and he'd have a world of things to look back on."
- Finnegans Wake p. 160
This past summer, in the midst of a breakup from a long-term relationship and needing to go far away, I embarked on my first ever trip to Ireland. I ended up spending much of the past few months in and around Dublin. For somebody like me who has been interested in the writings of James Joyce for almost 15 years now, with the last 10 years spent hosting a Finnegans Wake reading group that deciphers each page down to its tiniest details, and maintaining this blog devoted to the Wake, the experience of spending so much time exploring Dublin and environs for the first time was transformative. Suffice to say I have an entirely new perspective on Joyce's work now. My head is filled with thoughts and reflections, so much that I don't know where to start. But since I have so much to say about it, I'm going to start posting a series of reflections about the experience on this blog.
My first few days in Dublin I recall being in awe at everything around me since I'd been reading about the details of the place for so many years. Landmarks felt oddly familiar and deeply significant even though I was seeing them for the first time. Howth Head, so prominent on the horizon when looking north or northeast, it wasn't just a piece of rocky terrain, it was the head of the sleeping giant Finn MacCool. The Wicklow Mountains weren't just some green rolling hills, they were the place where the sea-formed clouds rain down and become the source of the River Liffey, an ongoing natural cycle. Even the ubiquitous flocks of seagulls sprung to mind the squawking sea-birds in Book II.4 of Finnegans Wake, "Three quarks for muster Mark!" (FW p. 383.01)
I grew up in New York City where famous sights like the Manhattan skyline, Verrazano Bridge, and Statue of Liberty were familiar aspects of home. An out-of-towner visiting a place like New York City for the first time would instantly recognize many of the landmarks and sights from the background or setting of the worlds of NYC-based films and tv shows. With Joyce's Dublin though, the city is not merely the setting for Finnegans Wake---so much of the book is about the landscape itself, the ecology, the littoral life of the coastal zone, the street grid and its voices, the layers of historical events that shaped the place. Dublin in the Wake becomes the universal city, a city rendered into text with so much mythical depth and detailed density it makes you contemplate all cities.
So far I haven't yet mentioned Ulysses in connection with my experience of Dublin. I certainly was interested in the Ulysses stuff during my time there. I swam in the Forty Foot in Sandycove, saw the magnificent Martello Tower (in fact, I stayed for a week in a different Martello Tower a stone's throw away, a story for another day), on an almost daily basis I walked along Westland Row just like Bloom and went to Sweny's Pharmacy to participate in readings a few times, I even made my way over to Eccles Street. There is no lack of Ulysses stuff in Dublin, the city seems to fully embrace the importance of Ulysses which was really cool to witness. A constant habit of mine while staying in Dublin and exploring Ireland was to always search inside the texts of both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake each time I experienced anything new. And the impression I got was that Finnegans Wake, even more than Ulysses, contains seemingly every single tiny detail of Dublin. Every street I spent time on, I looked for it in Finnegans Wake, and nine times out of ten I found it in there. Every district, every sight I saw, it all seemed to be there in the Wake. It became clear that Joyce redoubled his efforts to place every possible detail of the city of his birth into ink while writing the Wake over the last 17 years of his life.
There were a few instances I noticed where Joyce had included some Dublin detail within Ulysses as part of a listicle, only to expand on it and scatter more references to it in Finnegans Wake. A couple quick examples---I spent a few days staying in a nice little district called Ranelagh in south Dublin, so I started looking for the place in Joyce's books. It pops up one time in Ulysses in a list delineating the route taken by one of the Invincibles prior to the Phoenix Park Murders, whereas in Finnegans Wake the neighborhood Ranelagh appears at least four times. Later on, when I went to Howth Head the little islet known as Ireland's Eye really stood out to me. It's a small island just off of Howth, a mysterious and striking sight visible from along the northern coast of Howth, the island has its own Martello Tower and the ruins of an early-medieval church. Ireland's Eye pops up once in Ulysses as part of a list of sites in the Cyclops episode, where in the Wake I have found at least a dozen appearances of Ireland's Eye. That could very well be because Howth and environs are so prominent in the Wake---a fact which really made a lot of sense to me once I saw Dublin and noticed Howth Head is an unmistakable feature on the horizon from almost anywhere.
A thought I kept returning to over and over was: how did Joyce, while in exile away from Ireland for the last few decades of his life, manage to render all of this in such precise detail? And why? Why would this genius author spend day after day writing only about this place (where he no longer lived) in such painstaking detail? As for the why, Joyce told Arthur Power, "For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal." On days when I wandered around in what seemed like a James Joyce theme park (a phrase I'm borrowing from former Dublin resident Robert Anton Wilson), casually walking down Westland Row, past Finn's Hotel, down to St. Stephen's Green, past the Shelbourne Hotel, over to King Street past the Gaiety Theater, back towards Grafton Street, up past Trinity College (all places that appear throughout Finnegans Wake) and then along the River Liffey, the river of life, the universal river Joyce anthropomorphized as Anna Livia Plurabelle in the Wake, I'd stop to stare at the varying ripples along the surface of the waters, and I was struck by a feeling I could only really convey in the following meme. I was this dude looking around at everyone else in the bustling city wondering how they didn't share my wonder for the Wake-ness of it all.
For more than a dozen years I had been a passionate reader of the Wake, so much that I was even writing this blog solely devoted to talking about this one book, and throughout that whole time I had never experienced Dublin and had only a minuscule appreciation for the actual Irish elements of the text. It was always just that I loved the literary pyrotechnics and have always been fascinated by the Wake as the darker and more under-appreciated twin of Ulysses, this mysterious text which Joyce labored on for so many years, through so many hardships and then died right after it was finally published. Once I finally made it to Dublin, the incomprehensible Wake I'd been puzzling through for so long began to make sense on a level I'd never experienced before. I can say without a doubt, you cannot truly comprehend the phrase "from swerve of shore to bend of bay" until you've seen Dublin. The swerving shore and bending bay is such a distinctive quality of that coastline and that coastline is such a fundamental part of that city.
Speaking of the coastline and the opening sentence of the Wake... my favorite spot in Dublin, the place that struck me the most and which remains tattooed on my heart, is Vico Road. The view from Vico Road is one of the most breathtaking sights I've ever witnessed.
|View from Vico Road.|
|...more Vico Road views.|
riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.