We don’t want any of your medieval abstrusiosities. – Stephen Dedalus
This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a passage of Ulysses and break it down line by line.
The passage below comes from “Proteus,” the third episode of Ulysses. It appears on page 45 in my copy (1990 Vintage International). We’ll be looking at the passage that begins “Galleys of the Lochlanns…” and ends “…none to me.”
I’m really excited for this edition of our ‘Decoding Dedalus’ series because it combines my love of history and apocalyptic horror. I have some theories about why Stephen stopped to ponder waves of ravening Norse invaders raging ashore along Sandymount Strand, but, after reading about the endless procession of invaders, famine and pestilence that marched through Dublin in the Middle Ages, the one question I can’t shake is, “How are there any people left?” I can’t help but wonder if Stephen is just in awe that he exists at all.
Galleys of the Lochlanns ran here to beach, in quest of prey, their bloodbeaked prows riding low on a molten pewter surf.
In case you didn’t know, the Hibernian metropolis of Dublin was originally a Viking settlement. There were people living in the area prior to the Vikings, but the Norse set down deep roots and, as a result, are inseparable from Dublin’s history. In fact, they have continued to invade Dublin every summer up until the present day.
The Vikings got around in flat, oar-powered vessels called longships. A galley is a long, flat ship powered by oars and is typically associated with the Meditterannean, particularly the Greeks and Romans. Odysseus was getting around in a galley. Greeks used galleys called triremes that had three banks of oars on each side. The Vikings’ longships only had one oar bank on each side, but this helped them navigate the open ocean while Odysseus’ trireme would have helped him negotiate the fickle winds of the Mediterraean Sea when he wasn’t chilling with Circe.
The Lochlanns are, of course, the Vikings, “lochlann” purportedly being the Irish language word for “Vikings.” Since the art of “Proteus” is philology and I love Irish, I decided to check this out. A current dictionary of Irish will show “no terms found” when you search “lochlann,” though it will return “Críoch Lochlannach” as the term for Scandinavia and “lochlannach” as the term for Viking or Scandinavian, so at least we seem to be in the right longship.
The venerable grandfather of all Irish dictionaries is Father Patrick Dinneen’s 1904 dictionary of Irish Gaelic. Fr. Dinneen was a Jesuit priest with a grá for the language. He taught at Clongowes Wood College during an era when a young, bespectacled Artist was also passing through those hallowed corridors, though it’s unclear whether Fr. Dinneen and a very young Joyce ever crossed paths. In any case, not only is Dinneen’s dictionary the place to go for old-timey Irish, it’s also mentioned by name in “Scylla and Charybdis.” It returns the following entry:
Once again, lochlannach. Dinneen distinguishes between “dubh-lochlannach” (black Viking) as a Dane and “fionn-lochlannach” (blond Viking) for the Norwegian. In case you had any lingering doubts about the richness of the Irish language, the entry below “lochlannach” is “loch léin,” or a “corrupt gathering in the arm-pits.” The next time you visit Loch Lein near Killarney, take a moment to consider that. At any rate, Stephen’s use of “lochlann” seems to be a bit off, but we can assume he was put off his Irish studies by his disdain for Haines.
Dane vikings, so we can assume they had dark hair?
…torcs of tomahawks aglitter on their breasts…
This phrase is particularly perplexing to me. A torc is a twisted metal collar worn by Iron Age Celts in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere long before the Vikings came of the scene. They’re a distinctive piece of jewelry – a nearly complete circle with a gap toward the front. Though there are plenty of people on Etsy eager to sell you a handmade “Viking torc,” they don’t seem to have been a popular fashion item amongst the lochlannachs. A tomahawk is a style of axe used by indigenous people in North America (the name derives from an Algonquian word. Philology!), so also not likely popular with the Vikings.
A “torc of tomahawks” would be a decorative metal collar made of axes. Beautiful but deadly. And impractical. It sounds cool if you don’t think about the meaning of any of the words. Don Gifford speculated that it may refer to Viking mail emblazoned with axes, but I had trouble finding an example of that as well. Dermot, my podcast co-host, hypothesized that Joyce could be referring to the curve of a double-bladed axe, which looks a bit like the curve of a torc. My personal feeling is that Joyce went for style over clarity on this particular turn of phrase. Or it’s a reference to some incredibly obscure Renaissance mystic that no one has picked up on yet.
..when Malachi wore the collar of gold.
This line is quoted directly from the 19th century song “Let Erin Remember the Days of Old”:
Let Erin remember the days of old,
Ere her faithless sons betrayed her;
When Malachi wore the collar of gold,
Which he won from her proud invader;
“Malachi” is Buck Mulligan’s given name, and he has already been associated with the color gold. Malachi is also the anglicized name of the Irish High King Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill. If you’d like to know the details of his story and hear his name pronounced, I highly recommend the Irish History podcast. Malachi’s many claims to fame include defeating the Vikings at the Battle of Tara in 980 A.D., reclaiming Dublin and freeing the Vikings’ slaves there. He was later driven from power by the Dalcassians that featured in Kevin Egan’s boozy tales of the days of yore. Malachi pulled a Grover Cleveland and retook the high kingship when much of the Dalcassian leadership was killed at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
A school of turlehide whales stranded in hot noon, spouting, hobbling in the shallows. Then from the starving cagework city a horde of jerkined dwarfs, my people, with flayers’ knives, running, scaling, hacking in green blubbery whalemeat.
This brief paragraph rockets through centuries of Dublin history. Stephen leaps from thoughts of Viking raiders and High Kings to medieval Dublin, 1331 to be exact, when the city was in the grips of a terrible famine. Medieval Dublin was no stranger to famines, with similarly catastrophic famines occurring in 1295 and the 1310’s. In one adult lifespan, a Dubliner in this time period potentially could have experienced two to three famines harsh enough to result in cannibalism. Let that sink in for a moment.
1331 stands out in the record because Mother Nature cut the Dubliners a little slack. Friar John Clyn of Kilkenny wrote that more than 200 turlehide whales miraculously beached themselves outside the walls of the city, relieving the famine for a short while like blubbery manna from heaven. I suppose it was all a little less magical if you were a turlehide whale.
Joyce really paints an unsexy picture here of his medieval forebears: violent, misshapen and desperate. A ravening horde of a different sort. Someone as refined and cerebral as Stephen Dedalus must have a hard time connecting to such a visceral experience and realizing that had he been born several centuries earlier, he would have been one of them. He calls them “my people,” but also refers to them as “jerkined dwarfs,” a dehumanizing term. He holds these distant ancestors at an arm’s length before reminding him that perhaps the heart of a jerkined dwarf beats within the chest of Dedalus.
Famine, plague and slaughters.
Seriously, guys, the 14th century was the WORST.
We aren’t done with famines just yet. The multiyear Great European Famine began in 1315, when much of the continent starved after a particularly cold winter. Did I mention there was also a mini Ice Age during this era? 1315 was also the year that Edward Bruce of Scotland invaded Ireland on top of everything else. Not only was there a war, the soldiers were starving as they fought. Dublin was hit especially hard as the surrounding areas burned their own crops and dwellings to ward off a siege from the approaching Scots. The worst. It’s estimated something like 70-80% of Dublin was destroyed by its own citizens in defense against the Bruce army.
So there are your famines and slaughters.
Let’s talk plague.
The big plague in the 14th century was of course the Black Death, which in Ireland took the form of both the bubonic plague and pneumonic plague. The plague descended on Dublin in 1348 and, like in most of Europe, mercilessly laid waste to the population, leading to the breakdown of normal society. To give you a sense of how disruptive the plague was, there is a complete gap in the parliamentary record and court records in Ireland between May 1348 and June 1350.
Friar Clyn of Kilkenny was the sole person to record the horror of the plague in Ireland during those years, writing about how the dead went unburied, religious rites were abandoned and the strong stole the homes and possessions of the weak. He estimated around 14,000 people died in Dublin during a five month period, averaging out to around 100 a day. His record ends abruptly in 1349 when it is assumed that he too succumbed to the plague.
The Black Death is particularly awful because it was a recurrent plague, meaning it came back again, and again, and again. Dublin experienced additional outbreaks in 1370, 1383, 1390-3 and 1398, and those are just the big ones. And that’s just the 14th century. The historical record at the back of Thom’s Directory from 1904 also records these from the 15th century:
I honestly don’t know how there were any people left in Dublin by 1477.
Their blood is in me, their lusts my waves. I moved among them on the frozen Liffey, that I, a changeling, among the spluttering resin fires. I spoke to no-one: none to me.
Let’s talk “frozen Liffey” and then the rest of this. In 1338, Dublin experienced a particularly frigid winter, so much so that the River Liffey froze solid. So solid in fact that people were able to play football and cook herrings over open fires on the surface of the river. Medieval life wasn’t all plagues, war and famine, just mostly. From Thom’s Directory:
Stephen acknowledges in this passage that he is indeed the descendent of the hardscrabble medieval people in all these stories. He remains ambivalent where he fits in, describing himself as a “changeling.” In Irish folklore, human babies were susceptible to kidnapping by fairies, who would leave their own baby behind in the human baby’s place, leaving unsuspecting parents to raise a fairy baby, known as a changeling. Stephen moves amongst the Dubliners, but he remains, essentially, an outsider unmoored from the community that reared him.
Amidst these shifting, Protean visions of a Dublin-that-was, Stephen is constructing in his mind an Irish identity. He has encountered several visions of Irish identity this morning that rendered Ireland a victim of historical circumstance and a perpetual victim of Britain’s moral turpitude, as willowy as young Cyril Sargent, a snail without a shell. Stephen crafts an active identity for the Dubliners – repelling invaders of yore, surviving and even revelling on the frozen river in the midst of unfathomable horrors, prevailing despite facing constant annihilation. Stephen observes these hardy folk, still not sure where he fits in, always the outsider in the city of his birth. He knows he is the heir of these hard men, though he doesn’t really feel it.
Because “Proteus” is Ulysses’ most esoteric episode, we need to consider the weird interpretations. Joyce was intrigued by the occult notion of an invisible and undetectable “matter” that contained a record of all events, no matter how mundane, past, present and future. He referred to it as Akasa (a term borrowed from the theosophists), the great memory or the universal mind. By tapping into this universal mind, either through intense magical practice or an innate ability, one can not just remember or imagine events from other times, but experience them directly. It’s similar in concept to a timeslip, in which one gets a sudden, vivid glimpse into the past.
If tapping into the Akasic record, as Joyce also called it, was an innate ability in some individuals, Stephen Dedalus certainly seems to be such an individual. In both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, Stephen has multiple experiences that could be interrupted thus. He is apparently aware of this concept as well, as later in “Aeolus” he contemplates a speech of Daniel O’Connell’s trapped in Akasic amber. He thinks, “Akasic records of all that ever anywhere wherever was.” Stephen is experiencing these visions of Dublin’s history before his own eyes, tapping into the Great Memory. He is truly walking amongst them on the surface of the frozen Liffey, a visitor from fairyland.
We also know Joyce was interested in reincarnation, metempsychosis if you will, a concept represented by the Protean motion of the tides and surf along Sandymount Strand. Perhaps Stephen’s past lives are washing over his subconscious as he gazes into the water, stones and seaweed. Stephen rolls through the horrors of his previous incarnations, in sharp contrast to his personal struggles and angst. He recognizes the humble state in which those previous Stephens would have made their way, rejecting the idealized vision one may desire from one’s own past lives. That’s the tricky part of past life regression – we’d all like to imagine ourselves as adventurous Vikings or heroic High Kings, but really most of our past lives (and those of our ancestors) were lived as peasants. We all want to be Malachi; no one romanticizes life as a starving, jerkined dwarf. Joyce wrote about 1904 Dublin as it was. I’d like to think he wrote Stephen’s past lives with the same candor.
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