LOOKING BACK: A Joycean Odyssey through the flatlands of Kildare

Liam Kenny explores the relationship between Kildare and James Joyce

Liam Kenny

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Liam Kenny

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LOOKING BACK: A Joycean Odyssey through the flatlands of Kildare

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Joyce, Synge, Beckett and Yeats...four of the titans of Irish writing who have drawn international critical acclaim for pushing the boundaries of language and for crafting novels, plays and poems that are ranked among the greatest in world literature.

The first of these, James Joyce (1882-1941), is at once among the most celebrated but also the among the most enigmatic. The free flowing nature of his texts which bend and warp the rules of grammar do not make for light reading. That perhaps explains why so many know his name and his repute but few have ever got beyond the first few pages of his works such as “Finnegan’s Wake” (1939) and the incomparable “Ulysses” (1922).

For those who do penetrate the textured foliage of his written language there are, no doubt, many rewards. Perhaps less well known in these parts are references in Joyce’s work to his life experiences in Co. Kildare.

Joyce’s most formative years were spent not within the red-bricked terraces of late Victorian Dublin but in the plains of north Kildare where in 1888 at the tender age of 6 he attended Clongowes Wood College, the Jesuit secondary college near Clane. In his semi-autobiographical “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1916) his experiences as told through the recollections of one Stephen Dedalus (a cipher for Joyce himself) are painted through vivid descriptions of Clongowes and its environs.

He recalls the atmosphere of college meals in the refectory, of study periods and of Father Arnall’s mathematics classes. He also mentions his interactions with life outside of the college halls when he makes reference to attending mass in the Peoples’ Chapel at Clongowes.

Perhaps this was to inspire him in later years when he wrote of Leopold Bloom, the main character in “Ulysses”, serving mass as he “carried the boat of incense then at Clongowes”.

Notable are his references to the environs of north Kildare as seen on his journeys between Clongowes and Sallins to catch the train at the end of school term.

In “Portrait of the Artist” one of those end-of-term journeys is evoked. He tells of how the horse-drawn coaches, laden with cheering boys, crunch along the gravel avenue of Clongowes and then on the road to Clane past the house of “the Jolly Farmer”. The carriage drivers are pointing “with their whips to Bodenstown” as they trot along the road towards Sallins.

Joyce’s description brings home in colourful detail the busy nature of Sallins as a hub of rail travel: “Going home for the holidays! .. the train was full of fellows: a long chocolate train with cream facings …”.

On another rail journey through the “flat lands” of Kildare, Joyce makes reference to Stephen Dedalus seeing the Hill of Allen as he scans the landscape out of the train window. Joyce’s gift of making the words on paper sing with music is apparent when he describes how Stephen began a prayer “which he made to fit the instant rhythm of the train; and silently, at intervals of four seconds, the telegraph-poles, held the galloping notes of music between punctual bars.”

A few more notes of Joyce trivia. The rector of Rathcoffey gets a mention in “Ulysses” when we read of Leopold Bloom receiving a card from “the reverend Hugh C. Love, Rathcoffey. Present address: Saint Michael’s, Sallins” – a reference to the Church of St. Michael and All Angels at Millicent.

And Joyce’s much celebrated wit took its cue from the idiosyncrasies of local place-names. In “Portrait of the Artist …” he pictures two Clongowes pupils sharing a school-boy riddle: Question – “Why is the county of Kildare like the leg of a fellow’s breeches?”

Answer – “Because there is a-thigh in it …”