Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.


Cock-a-doodle Dandy, by Sean O'Casey
Wednesday, 28 September 2022 08:11

Cock-a-doodle Dandy, by Sean O'Casey

Published in Theatre

Seán O’Casey’s best known and arguably most controversial plays are his early Dublin plays about Ireland’s revolutionary years between 1916 and 1923. Less known and performed are his superb later plays. One of these, the dark comedy Cock-a-doodle Dandy, written in 1949, was O’Casey’s own favourite play. It is set in Ireland around 1940 and was long considered anti-Catholic, and so not performed in Britain, Ireland or the USA.

Witchcraft seems to be haunting the fictional village of Nyadnanave, ever since Marthraun’s daughter by his first wife, Loreleen, arrived from London. A rooster causes untold commotion and embodies indomitable joie de vivre, and an accompanying rebelliousness against the diktat of church and state. The setting of the dramatic action in the backwoods suggests a provincial and stagnant Irish state. A theocracy overlays and dominates all action, preventing possible change.
The play takes place outside Michael Marthraun’s house – eerie whispers are abroad, holy pictures are inverted. This is what Marthraun, small farmer, local politician, and owner of a lucrative bog, tells Mahan, the owner of a fleet of lorries carrying turf from bog to town:

there’s always a stern commotion among th’ holy objects of th’ house, when that one, Loreleen, goes sailin’ by; an invisible wind blows th’ pictures out, an’ turns their frenzied faces to th’ wall; once I seen the statue of St. Crankarius standin’ on his head to circumvent th’ lurin’ quality of her presence; an’ another time, I seen th’ image of our own St. Pathrick makin’ a skelp at her with his crozier; fallin’ flat on his face, stunned, when he missed!

Loreleen is a well-read young woman who, it later transpires, has brought with her books that have been banned by the state. She, like other life-affirming characters in this play, is colourfully dressed like a rooster. Loreleen has a disquieting effect on the other women in the house; Marthraun’s young wife begins to adorn herself and look in the mirror. Slowly but surely, they begin to reject their assigned place in the home and the church.

An’ me own wife, Lorna Marthraun, is mixin’ herself with th’ disordher, fondlin’ herself with all sorts o’ dismayin’ decorations. Th’ other day, I caught her gapin’ into a lookin’-glass, an’ when I looked meself, I seen gay-coloured horns branchin’ from her head!

A love of life and an advocacy of a better life go together. Two young workers, appearing together (almost as a class) and wearing colourful scarves, demand more pay and threaten to strike. At the same time, they also show themselves open to Loreleen’s charms. Here, as in the women’s behaviour, again the link between joie de vivre and revolutionary power becomes apparent.

1ST ROUGH FELLOW [laying a hand sternly on the shoulder of MAHAN]. Looka, you; you give us th’ exthra shillin’, or we leave your lorries standin’, helpless an’ naked on th’ roads!
2ND ROUGH FELLOW [laying a hand sternly on MICHAEL’s shoulder]. Looka, you; looka that! D’ye think a good week’s wages is in a cheque for tuppence?

Mahan and Marthraun are, on the other hand, closely connected to the state and the church. Both belong to the (Catholic Masonic) Knights of the Order of Columbanus, are friends with the old arch-Catholic Shanaar (Irish: ‘old man’), Father Domineer and the Sergeant, all of whom still believe in witches in a very medieval way. In the constellation of characters, Catholicism, the state and business all belong together.
When a rooster gets lost in the house, great chaos ensues, birdcalls are heard, dishes fly around, Marthraun’s (stately) top hat is damaged, which he hoped to wear when he meets the president. The men hide, terrified by their own superstitions, and send the household help Marion for Father Domineer to exorcise the evil.

The rooster after which the play is titled is highly symbolic and combines two things. First, something menacingly supernatural. Much like Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth, only the superstitious backwoodsmen ‘see’ the cockerel and the other ‘sinister’ omens as threatening witchcraft.

Loreleen and Robin are the only two who from the start don’t believe in this hocus-pocus. Gradually, the other women join these life-loving characters and also begin to see only a common fowl, later an ordinary top hat, unremarkable whiskey. But like Shakespeare, O’Casey brings the superstition on to the stage.

Secondly, however, the rooster also symbolises positive vitality and sensuality, courage and rebelliousness. Some of the characters are adorned in his colours, some more, some less. Loreleen most resembles the colourful rooster. It is even conceivable that Loreleen and the rooster transform into one another – they never appear together on stage. In this symbolic function, the rooster is most important.

The messenger Robin Adair, also colourfully dressed like a rooster, fearlessly enters the house and laughingly brings out the rooster. Robin (in reference to the legendary Robin Hood and his girlfriend Maid Marion), along with Loreleen, are the antagonists. Just as laid back as she, he is completely realistic and immune to superstition. Marion also loses her fear through Robin’s common sense. Slowly, the characters group around the poles of the humane and life-affirming and the inhumane and life-denying. But things are not black and white.

Through O’Casey’s portrayal of contradictory characters, this drama is not simply a satire, but brings to the stage a dramatic conflict between love of life and hostility to life, which is also played out in individual characters themselves. For example, Mahan and Marthraun talk about Marion’s charms, acting contrary to their own indoctrination. Women are both attractive and a source of ‘evil’ to them.

MICHAEL [doubtfully]. Maybe he’s too down on th’ women, though you have to allow women is temptin’.
MAHAN. They wouldn’t tempt man if they didn’t damn well know he wanted to be tempted!

As a commentary on fatal superstition, Lorna’s sick sister Julia is sent to Lourdes for a miracle cure.

Act 2 opens with a conversation between Marion and Lorna, laughing at Mahan and Marthraun, and becoming increasingly realistic, less superstitious. When Robin reappears and wants to kiss Marion, the audience learns that he has already been in prison once for publicly kissing Marion, while Marion was fined. In 1935 Éamon de Valera had passed a ‘Vice Act’, which criminalised kissing in public. Robin says he would be happy to go to jail for a kiss.

O’Casey lampoons the ignorance and complacency of the two older men, as well as their ‘allies’. These backwoodsmen contrast to varying degrees with the far cleverer women and working men around them. Mahan and Marthraun do not, however, completely double each other – the haulier (and former sailor) Mahan is just a little more mobile and receptive to women and sensuality.

A delivery man appears with a new top hat for Marthraun to replace the one damaged in the cock hunt, but it has already been shot through in transit by the sergeant – the sergeant, like the local politician, is part of the establishment. This is not only indicated by his bizarre behaviour – he also speaks as pompously and wrongly as Mahan and Marthraun. They all use words that sound ‘educated’ to them, but they use them incorrectly due to their lack of book reading.

MICHAEL. Yes, yes; but we must suffer th’ temptation accordin’ to the cognisances of th’ canon law. But let’s have a dhrink, for I’m near dead with th’ drouth, an’ we can sensify our discussion about th’ increased price you’re demandin’ for carryin’ th’ turf;

Old Shanaar speaks of “th’ circumnambulatory nature of woman’s form,” etc., etc. The sergeant tells us that when he shot at the cock, it turned into a top hat. Mahan and Marthraun, as well as the sergeant, are beside themselves with fear and blame the unmanageable women. The sergeant declares that women must be chained to the house and that books are forbidden, which is precisely the policy of the state and the church in Ireland and is repeatedly stated emphatically by various representatives of this unholy alliance.

The whiskey Mahan and Marthraun brought to seal their business negotiations turns into a fiery monster whenever they approach. When other male, church-going visitors show interest in the liquor, this eerie metamorphosis also frightens them off.

Soon the bellman appears and warns of a rooster, which now supposedly even transforms into a woman. The allusion to witches is abundantly clear again and again. Fearfully, Mahan, Marthraun and the sergeant wait outside the house and to combat their fear, they begin to sing. Loreleen appears announcing a carnival that evening. She calls Marion and Lorna out of the house, and encourages them to sing along. Marion and Lorna appear in colourful costumes, dressed as gypsies, completely undermining the Catholic notion of proper women’s dress, and being ‘rebellious’. At this moment a golden light appears which has a strange effect, dazing the men. Marion removes the sergeant’s rifle and rebukes him for his superstition:

MARION. Aw, let’s be sensible. What’s th’ gundoin’? Who owns th’ gun?
SERGEANT. It’s mine. I’m on pathrollookin’ to shoot down th’ demon bird loose among innocent people.
MARION. Demon bird loose among innocent people! Yous must be mad.

Lorna is also dismayed. As a retarding moment, Marthraun verbally attacks his wife for daring to defy Christian men, orders her to change her clothes and reprimands his daughter Loreleen for bringing this calamity upon her from the city of sin, London. Again he is ridiculed as he shrinks fearfully from the new top hat. The women have changed so much by now that they can see nothing unusual in either feathered fowl, top hat or whiskey.

Lorna pours herself, Marion and Loreleen a glass of whiskey. The women ask the men to dance and also offer whiskey to the men, who can now finally take the coveted water of life unharmed under the protection of the beautiful women. Robin appears and plays music on the accordion.

At this wonderful moment, the men forget their haggling and their fear of witchcraft. Women are understood by them as the most important thing in life. Mahan and Marthraun are able to reach a business agreement and even the top hat loses its menace. Only the demands of the workers are not considered in all this brotherhood. Still, it is a moment that illustrates the power of sensuality, a new lust for life that has the potential to include the workers.

MICHAEL [to MARION]. In our heart of hearts, maid Marion, – we care nothin’ about th’ world of men. Do we now, Sailor Mahan?
MAHAN [cautiously – though a reckless gleam is appearing in his eyes too]. We all have to think about th’ world o’ men at times.
MICHAEL. Not with our hearts, Sailor Mahan; oh, not with our hearts. You’re thinkin’ now of th’ exthra money you want off me, Sailor Mahan. Take it, man, an’ welcome! [Enthusiastically] An’ more! You can have double what you’re askin’, without a whimper, without a grudge!
MAHAN [enthusiastically]. No, damnit, Michael, not a penny from you! We’re as good as bein’ brothers! Looka th’ lilies of th’ field, an’ ask yourself what th’ hell’s money!
MICHAEL [excitedly]. Dhross, be God! Dhross, an’ nothin’ else! [To MARION] Gimme that hat there!

The men and women dance – horns appear on the women’s heads. The dance becomes more ecstatic until suddenly, with a clap of thunder, Father Domineer appears and all but Loreleen and Robin fall to their knees.

Robin continues to play music, unfazed. Domineer threatens the group gathered before him for dancing and rages that pagan poison is coming into the country through films, books and plays that weaken the priests’ power over souls.

Stop that devil’s dance! How often have yous been warned that th’ avowed enemies of Christianity are on th’ march everywhere! An’ I find yous dancin’! How often have yous been told that pagan poison is floodin’ th’ world, an’ that Ireland is dhrinkin’ in generous doses through films, plays, an’ books! An’ yet I come here to find yous dancin’! Dancin’, an’ with th’ Kyleloch, Le Coq, Gallus, th’ Cock rampant in th’ disthrict, desthroyin’ desire for prayer, desire for work, an’ weakenin’ th’ authority of th’ pastors an’ masters of your souls! Th’ empire of Satan’s pushin’ out its foundations everywhere, an’ I find yous dancin’, ubique ululanti cockalorum ochone, ululo!

Again, O’Casey refers to existing laws. In 1935, the draconian Public Dance Halls Act was passed, making it virtually impossible to hold dances without the approval of the trinity of clergy, police and judiciary. Also in place since 1929 was the law banning books, films and plays deemed unsuitable by the clergy and establishment. This did not apply to O’Casey and O’Flaherty alone, but to a long list of national and international literature from past centuries as well.

Robin and Loreleen, on the other hand, rebel against the priestly diktat and refuse obedience. Domineer rebukes the women for their misbehaviour and the men submit to him. Mahan, however, is not quite so submissive and refuses to obey Domineer’s order to dismiss his best driver Jack because he living with a woman outside of marriage. Domineer kills Jack. The sergeant immediately exonerates the killer. No one stands up for Jack; he is isolated in the community. Robin ‘comments’ on the murder like a chorus:

FATHER DOMINEER [to the others]. Yous all saw what happened. I just touched him, an’ he fell. I’d no intention of hurting him – only to administer a rebuke.
SERGEANT [consolingly]. Sure, we know that, Father – t was a pure accident.
FATHER DOMINEER. I murmured an act of contrition into th’ poor man’s ear.
MESSENGER [playing very softly]. It would have been far fitter, Father, if you’d murmured one into your own.

In the last act, Marion and Lorna first talk about the hunt for the rooster. Since the rooster is on the loose, the workers refuse to work, and the women think only of dancing and beauty, according to Mahan:

MAHAN [hardly noticing]. Is it? I didn’t notice. I’m busy. Everything thrust through everything else, since that damned Cock got loose. Th’ drouth now dhryin’ everything to dust; the turf-workers refusin’ to work, th’ women thinkin’ only of dancin’ an’ dhress. But we’ll lay him low, an’ bury him deep enough to forget he ever came here!

Lorna’s emancipation allows her to support the workers’ demands.

Domineer, Marthraun as well as one-eyed Larry appear and enter the house to drive away the cock and its evil magic. Loreleen comes running out of the village – men and women have been chasing her, throwing things at her. The pursuit of Loreleen and the rooster, as well as the attempted intimidation of all the women here, allows for parallels not only to the Middle Ages, but also to McCarthyism, which was emerging in the late 1940s. Lorna and Marion defend Loreleen.

LORELEEN [out of breath]. God damn th’ dastards of this vile disthrict! They pelted me with whatever they could lay hands on – th’ women because they couldn’t stand beside me; th’ men because there was ne’er a hope of usin’ me as they’d like to! Is it any wondher that th’ girls are fleein’ in their tens of thousands from this bewildhered land? Blast them! I’ll still be gay an’ good-lookin’. Let them draw me as I am not, an’ sketch in a devil where a maiden stands!
LORNA [soothingly]. Be calm, child! We can’t go in, for Father Domineer’s inside puttin’ things in ordher. [Releasing LORELEEN] I’ll run along th’ road to them disturbers, an’ give them a bit o’ me mind! [She catches hold of MARION’s arm] Come on, MARION!

All the establishment characters want rid of Loreleen, but her father won’t return her money to allow her to leave. Mahan hopes to seduce Loreleen. The house is shaken by thunder and lightning and all but Loreleen run for safety. Domineer emerges. He orders the women into the house and to serve their master. Domineer demands Loreleen’s books and he removes them to destroy them. In O’Casey’s later play The Bonfire for the Bishop (1955) book burning was to become a central theme.

MICHAEL. That one’s mind is always mustherin’ dangerous thoughts plundered outa evil books!
FATHER DOMINEER [startled]. Books? What kinda books? Where are they?
MICHAEL. She has some o’ them in th’ house this minute.
FATHER DOMINEER [roaring]. Bring them out, bring them out! How often have I to warn you against books! Hell’s bells tolling people away from th’ thruth!
FATHER DOMINEER [explosively]. A book about Voltaire! [To LORELEEN]. This book has been banned, woman.
LORELEEN [innocently]. Has it now? If so, I must read it over again. FATHER DOMINEER [to ONE-EYED LARRY]. What’s th’ name ofthat one? ONE-EYED LARRY [squinting at the title]. Ullisississies, – or something. FATHER DOMINEER. Worse than th’ other one. [He hands his to
ONE-EYED LARRY] Bring th’ two o’ them down to th’ Presbytery, an’ we’ll desthroy them.

The cock dances during this confrontation between all the protagonists, and accordion music is heard. Mahan and Marthraun resume their endless haggling, Marthraun’s attitude towards his wife reverts to what it was. Lorna, however, is no longer the same. Common sense and a new self-confidence have taken hold of her. Superstition among the church-going men continues, this time triggered by a goose.

Shanaar and the two workers bring Loreleen, who was attacked by an incited mob when she went with Mahan, believing he would give her the money for a ticket. Her clothes are torn. There is nothing to indicate that these workers defended Loreleen, to whose sensuality and beauty they had earlier been attracted. They have regressed, failed to realise their potential; they even robbed her of her money.

Very different behaviour might have been expected from Jack, the driver who was killed, the more conscious proletarian over whom Domineer had no control. Robin now carries the accordion on his back and no longer plays. All hope seems lost at this moment. Superstition and misanthropy have prevailed for the time being. But the rooster, despite every effort, is neither caught nor killed. Although the forces of humanity leave the stage, he remains, part of eternally renewing nature, expecting to cause turmoil again in future. Robin alone defends Loreleen and takes control of the moment.

MESSENGER [coming over to the ROUGH FELLOW on LORELEEN’s right – calmly]. Let that fair arm go, me man, for, if you don’t, there’s a live arm here’ll twist your neck instead. [With a shout] Let it go! [After a nod from the priest, the 1ST ROUGH FELLOW lets LORELEEN’s arm go. The MESSENGER goes quietly round to the 2ND ROUGH FELLOW.) Let that fair arm go, me man, or another arm may twist your own neck! Let it go! [The 2ND ROUGH FELLOW sullenly does so.] Now stand a little away, an’ give th’ girl room to breathe. [The TWO ROUGH FELLOWS move a little away from LORELEEN.] Thank you. [To the priest] Now, Father, so full of pity an’ loving-kindness, jet out your bitther blessin’, an’ let th’ girl go. An’ thry to mingle undherstandin’ with your pride, so as to ease th’ tangle God has suffered to be flung around us all.

Much like the youth of Ireland, young people now flee the village that embodies Ireland. Loreleen leaves and Lorna goes with her. Marion also departs. Robin plays another tune. Julia is brought back and only Robin speaks to her kindly, giving her encouragement. Then Robin also leaves “To a place where life resembles life more than it does here.” However, he and the women, like Loreleen, may return and cause upheaval once more.

The working class liberates itself: Review of 'Joe Stafford: A Tale of Revolution', by Charles Andrews.
Wednesday, 29 June 2022 16:24

The working class liberates itself: Review of 'Joe Stafford: A Tale of Revolution', by Charles Andrews.

Published in Fiction

When is the last time you read an exciting story about the working class engaged in determined and successful struggle? This is just what Charles Andrews sets out to do in his newly published novelette Joe Stafford: A Tale of Revolution.

Not only is the working class largely excluded from mainstream cultural consumption for financial reasons, but it is also even more radically excluded from producing its own cultural expressions by the establishment cultural industry. Working-class writers are told that no-one wants to read about their lives, that their stories wouldn’t sell for that reason.

The reason many working-class authors take up the pen is because in the books they read they cannot find characters who share their life experience. Middle-class life dominates all the arts – people in well-paid jobs, who live in beautiful houses, are well-educated and whose children’s future is set to emulate their lifestyle. Where working-class people appear, they are drawn from a perspective that reveals prejudice and unfamiliarity with the strengths of the working class, at times with sugary sentimentality and a vague suggestion that they might escape from the working-class condition by becoming middle-class.

Working-class lives are shown as deprived, lacking refinement, with alcoholism, crime and drug abuse featuring largely. Working-class characters are hardly ever depicted in the context of their work on the shopfloor, or in situations where their strengths, creativity, skills, and intelligence might be highlighted, never in ways where it may become clear that without them, everything could come to a standstill, or that they are the preservers of humanity in a barbaric world, that they will change society for a better future. Working-class heroes are very rare indeed.

Along with the historical emergence of the working class, however, there evolved a working-class culture and artistic tradition that gave expression to the lives of the dispossessed and that has become part of the struggle for a just world. This second culture exists alongside the mainstream, yet it is rarely commented on, let alone supported or promoted. Only with the rise of the socialist countries did working-class literature, the portrayal of this class as dignified, capable of and destined to take power, become fully developed and mainstream.

Gorky was among the first who highlighted the role of growing working-class awareness and potential for revolutionary change. Many outstanding writers around the world followed in his footsteps. In the arts of the socialist world, the working class become the engineers of their present and future, they are shown in the workplace and as the shapers of their own society. These writers remain largely unknown among mainstream western readers.

Against this background, Charles Andrews’ novelette Joe Stafford: A Tale of Revolution must be welcomed. Andrews’ deep interest in social justice and the need for social change are at the heart of his two previous non-fiction works, No Rich, No Poor (2009) and The Hollow Colossus (2015). Joe Stafford: A Tale of Revolution transports the author’s insights and convictions into a fictional world, which is informed by Andrews’ own experience of trade union work. He sets his story firmly in the working-class environment – on the shopfloor, at meetings, during industrial action, at demonstrations.

Andrews commands a range of characters who reflect the diversity of the class and include communist leaders – indeed, communists are at the heart of the action, but other characters are drawn into the struggle through personal crisis. Readers witness Marxist education classes and hear about Richard Sorge and Kim Philby. Lenin is quoted for moral support, and an east German grandfather, “when there was an east Germany, you know, the socialist country”, helps out.

Perhaps at times these characters are larger than life. But why not imagine a world like this, where the working class is ready to take power? This is unheard of, indeed taboo, in mainstream literature. With a good sense for the dramatic and well-written dialogue, the working class is drawn as a dignified class, made up of class-conscious, intelligent people who are acutely aware of injustice and confront racism and exploitation. Above all, and arising from this, they are capable of liberating themselves:

But it looks like your party is getting ready to run society. You are the only ones who say workers can do it, all workers, not only the best educated.

That this doesn’t happen without resistance from and deceit by the enemy class goes without saying and is in keeping with the real world. But with undaunted optimism, Andrews’ heroes conquer their enemy. We need such optimism in these bleak times.

Shelley's poetry: an integral part of the culture of the labour movement
Sunday, 26 June 2022 08:53

Shelley's poetry: an integral part of the culture of the labour movement

Published in Poetry

Shelley was born shortly after the French Revolution, heir to a substantial estate and also to a seat in Parliament, on 4 August 1792 in Sussex, England. As a son of the upper classes, he attended Eton College and was subsequently enrolled at Oxford University. Britain was in political turmoil in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with food riots, Luddite rebellion, unrest in Ireland, the threat of Napoleon’s armies and a growing bourgeois reform movement.

The ruling class feared the example set by the French might infect their own working class and reacted with repression. The young Shelley took part in campaigns for the release of imprisoned democrats and worked to create an association of radical democratic people. At Eton he began to write and also to express atheist views. Atheism was deemed infinitely more dangerous in repressive Britain than the suspect Dissenters and Catholics. In 1811 Shelley was expelled from Oxford University and disowned by his family for publishing The Necessity of Atheism.

The Necessity of Atheism is one of the earliest treatises in England on atheism and argues that since faith is not governed by reason, there is no evidence for the existence of a God. The universe could always have existed and if there had been an initial impetus, it need not have been a God.

This text led to his exclusion from the circles of power to which he was entitled by birth. In the same year, Shelley also eloped at the age of 19 with Harriet Westbrook, three years his junior, and married her in Scotland. This led to further estrangement from his family, as well as from the Westbrook family.

Shelley and women's issues

Shelley was a follower of the radical publicist William Godwin, author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), who argued among other things, for gender equality and against the marital morality of the time. Both Godwin and Shelley respected the views of the women around them, which included unmarried couples, as well as independent women who worked and raised their ‘illegitimate’ children. Shelley rejected marriage as deeply misogynistic and was one of the early advocates of women’s emancipation.

In February 1812, Shelley and Harriet sailed to Dublin. Here they campaigned vigorously for the emancipation of Catholics and the abolition of the Union. As early as 1811 Shelley had written a “poetical essay” in support of the imprisoned Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, a former editor of the United Irishmen’s journal, The Press. In preparation for his campaign in Ireland, Shelley had penned An Address to the Irish People. His second pamphlet, Proposals for an Association, even appealed to the remaining United Irishmen to give Irish politics a more radical direction by peaceful means. Shelley was a great admirer of Robert Emmet and the United Irishmen and wanted to form an association that openly worked towards an egalitarian republic, supported legal equality and freedom of the press.

He also had a Declaration of Rights printed in Dublin in the tradition of the American Revolution, distributed it and appeared at various events. Together with John Lawless, an associate of Daniel O’Connell, he planned to found a radical newspaper and publish a new history of Ireland. Shelley advocated peaceful means throughout his life, despite Godwin’s disapproval that he was planning “bloody scenes”. Nevertheless, he realised that he had to go beyond Godwin and Paine.

The Shelleys moved to Wales to agitate for better conditions among the agricultural workers. This even led to an assassination attempt on Shelley in early 1813, probably instigated by the landowner Robert Leeson, son of one of the wealthiest Ascendancy families in Ireland, whereupon Shelley fled from Wales back to Ireland.

There, in the seclusion of Ross Island in Killarney, he completed his first major verse narrative, Queen Mab, and returned to London shortly afterwards. Here he met with Godwin, whose An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice alongside Rights of Man, by Godwin’s friend Thomas Paine, had become one of the best-known political pamphlets in England. Godwin’s wife Mary Wollstonecraft, who died in childbirth, had written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a foundational document of the early women’s movement, following Paine’s Rights of Man.

Shelley’s relationship with Harriet had become difficult. In 1814 he fell in love with Godwin’s daughter Mary and fled with her to war-torn France and Switzerland at the end of July; they returned in mid-September. In November 1814 Harriet gave birth to a son, and in February 1815 Mary Godwin delivered a premature daughter who died days later; the following January Mary had a son. Byron left England at the end of April 1816. Shelley and Mary followed him to Switzerland in May.

In December 1816, Harriet Shelley committed suicide by drowning, pregnant again by another brief relationship. Shelley, who had continued to care for Harriet, then married Mary Godwin. He lost custody of his two children when Harriet’s family cited Queen Mab as evidence of his atheism and rejection of marriage. The children were placed in the care of a clergyman. The deaths of two more children left deep scars and as late as June 1822, a few weeks before Shelley’s death, Mary miscarried and nearly died herself.

In March 1818, the Shelleys emigrated to Italy. In the remaining four years of his life in exile, Shelley wrote his major works. Two hundred years ago, on 8 July 1822, Shelley drowned in a sailing accident. Condemned by conservative critics as an immoral outsider, he did not live to see the bourgeois-democratic and burgeoning proletarian movements take possession of his work.

Shelley's socialism

Eleanor Marx continued Marx and Engels’ Shelley enthusiasm. In her Shelley lecture, she answered the question of Shelley’s socialism as follows:

Shelley was on the side of the bourgeoisie when struggling for freedom, but ranged against them when in their turn they became the oppressors of the working-class. He saw more clearly than Byron, who seems scarcely to have seen it at all, that the epic of the nineteenth century was to be the contest between the possessing and the producing classes. 

Moreover, Eleanor Marx underlines the influence on him of Mary Shelley and her mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft:

All through his work this oneness with his wife shines out (...) The woman is to the man as the producing class is to the possessing. Her “inferiority,” in its actuality and in its assumed existence, is the outcome of the holding of economic power by man to her exclusion. And this Shelley understood not only in its application to the most unfortunate of women, but in its application to every woman.

Love was a central category in Shelley’s thinking. In open rebellion to the norms of bourgeois aristocratic society and the Church of his time, love is the capacity for true humanity and the purpose of human life. With this core category, his poetry expresses a concrete utopia: what is conceivable becomes a possibility and inspires action to bring about this vision. Love requires solidarity and action against the enemies of humanity. In this sense, Shelley’s utopia was perceived as anti-religious and subversive.

Completed in 1813, Queen Mab, a blank verse narrative, has the character of a poetic credo and a political poem. In a cosmic dream journey, the fairy queen reveals to young Ianthe the misery of humanity in history and the present. Shelley emphatically rejects religious arguments of something intrinsically ‘sinful’ in humankind and cites the real culprits:

Man’s evil nature, that apology
Which kings who rule, and cowards who crouch, set up
For their unnumbered crimes, sheds not the blood
Which desolates the discord-wasted land.
From kings, and priests, and statesmen, war arose,
Whose safety is man’s deep unbettered woe,
Whose grandeur his debasement. Let the axe
Strike at the root, the poison-tree will fall;
And where its venomed exhalations spread
Ruin, and death, and woe, where millions lay
Quenching the serpent’s famine, and their bones
Bleaching unburied in the putrid blast,
A garden shall arise, in loveliness
Surpassing fabled Eden.

Shelley becomes even more specific, naming “the poor man” as his own liberator: “And unrestrained but by the arm of power,/ That knows and dreads his enmity.” Only people committed to reason and to love are able to realise a humane future, which includes the free association of women and men. In his notes on Queen Mab, he further underlines the insights quoted here:

Kings, and ministers of state, the real authors of the calamity, sit unmolested in their cabinet, while those against whom the fury of the storm is directed are, for the most part, persons who have been trepanned into the service, or who are dragged unwillingly from their peaceful homes into the field of battle. A soldier is a man whose business it is to kill those who never offended him (…)

The poor are set to labour, – for what? Not the food for which they famish: not the blankets for want of which their babes are frozen by the cold of their miserable hovels (...) “no; for the (…) false pleasures of the hundredth part of society.

This poem was so enthusiastically circulated among radicals and the rising working class that it became known as the “Bible of the Chartists”.

After the war with Napoleon ended, Britain was hit by a new wave of mass unemployment, food riots and new state reprisals. The Holy Alliance’s struggle against all emancipation efforts on the continent led to a desperate search among radicals for new means of resistance. When Mary and Shelley met Byron in Switzerland in the summer of 1816, a new phase in Shelley’s work began.

In Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, beauty has left this “dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate” and “No voice from some sublimer world hath ever/ To sage or poet these responses given”. Only when “musing deeply on the lot/ Of life (...)/ Sudden, thy shadow fell on me”. No religion can bind beauty as a vision of a humane society to the ‘vale of tears’; only one’s own thinking can evoke it. Beauty is as anti-religious and deeply connected to a humane society for Shelley as it was for his contemporary and friend John Keats, also one of the revolutionary Romantics.

Revolution and counter-revolution

The theme of Shelley’s longest verse narrative, Laon and Cyntha (The Revolt of Islam), is the French Revolution. Building on visions from Queen Mab, it develops its great historical subject through the plot. Two lovers inspire a revolution against the Turkish Sultan. The course of the French Revolution is symbolically represented in the action of the lovers: Laon and Cythna are revolutionaries. Laon inspires resistance against the soldiers who capture Cythna. Sailors rescue her and she persuades the sailors to release their cargo of female slaves, which becomes an act of self-liberation. Cythna is celebrated as a folk heroine.

Together with Laon, she plays a leading role in the revolution that overthrows Othman. The revolutionaries spare Othman, who then instigates a counter-revolution and massacres the people; famine and epidemics follow. The Christian priest, in league with Othman, persuades the people to sacrifice Laon and Cythna. Laon asks for Cythna to be spared, Othman breaks his word and Cythna is burnt at the stake along with Laon. Although Laon tells the story, Cythna makes the most impassioned speeches, arguing that the revolution will one day succeed.

Shelley portrays the revolution as little bloody, but the counter-revolution as brutal.  In the preface, Shelley refers to the emancipatory aim of poetry. In his effort to combat the disappointment following the hopes of the French Revolution, and through his explanation of the historical as well as social causes of its bloody character, he reaffirms its ideals.

Thus he also justifies the bloodshed of the insurgents as forced by their oppressors. Despite intensified repression, Shelley not only defends the French Revolution, but also addresses issues regarding the role of the artist in struggle. He highlights the sensual, concrete equality of women and men by emphasising their common struggle, which is part of their love. In his preface, Shelley writes: “There is no quarter given to revenge, or envy, or prejudice. Love is celebrated everywhere as the sole law which should govern the moral world.”

In the poetry and prose written in Italy from 1819 onwards, Shelley reached the peak of his achievement. He produced his best-known poem, Ode to the West Wind, the lyric drama Prometheus Unbound, Song to the Men of England, and The Mask of Anarchy, one of the greatest political protest poems in the English language.

The Peterloo Massacre (August 1819) aroused in Shelley the hope of resistance and he wrote with renewed vigour. With the Prometheus drama he hoped to kindle revolutionary fire and continued to insist on his revolutionary core, the need for a humane society. In this drama, he shapes a complex reality, a condensation of everything written so far, and it takes familiarity with Shelley’s world and language to fully unlock the meaning of this work.

Shelley expanded the immediate classical-mythological reference from Greek mythology and its later interpretations through to Milton, as well as elements of his own. Added to this is the Christian world of ideas, whereby Shelley, through his radical humanisation, undertakes an inversion of the biblical story. Thus there is a consistent reference to the present. Prometheus, representative and protector of humanity, is directly connected to nature as a child of Mother Earth; he is her consciousness taken shape. As the epitome of humanity, he has foresight.

Prometheus is bound, powerless and suffering because he is separated from Asia, who represents Love; he needs her as she needs him. His revolutionary revolt against violent oppression is doomed to fail without love. Jupiter, through Mercury, tool of the rulers, can expose Prometheus to the Furies. Prometheus knows when Jupiter’s hour has come; he can endure his sufferings until then. But Prometheus must become active himself, which only becomes possible after the union with Asia, which in turn releases a force immanent in nature and society in the figure of Demogorgon. This triggers Jupiter’s fall from hell and, in a reversal of the Christian legends, Prometheus, bound to the rock, is redeemed by Herculean power. Paradisiacal beauty can now blossom on earth. Prometheus and Asia wed and unite.

Nevertheless, the force of nature, Demorgogon, warns at the end of humanity’s capacity for despotism: “Man, who wert once a despot and a slave,/ A dupe and a deceiver!” He then names love as the healing force:

This is the day which down the void abysm
At the Earth-born’s spell yawns for Heaven’s despotism,
And Conquest is dragged captive through the deep;
Love, from its awful throne of patient power
In the wise heart, from the last giddy hour
Of dread endurance, from the slippery, steep,
And narrow verge of crag-like agony, springs  
And folds over the world its healing wings.

In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley writes about the power of poetry, its social role and the responsibility of poets. This power of poetry is expressed in the great Ode to the West Wind, Shelley’s metaphor for the advance of historical movement:

... Be thou, Spirit fierce, 
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one! 

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe 
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth! 
And, by the incantation of this verse, 

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth 
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! 
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth 

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, 
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Poems such as The Mask of Anarchy and Song to the Men of England speak directly to the struggling workers and became an integral part of the culture of the labour movement. Although Shelley did not advocate armed struggle, he also knew that at times it was unavoidable:


The seed ye sow, another reaps; 
The wealth ye find, another keeps; 
The robes ye weave, another wears; 
The arms ye forge, another bears. 

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap: 
Find wealth—let no imposter heap: 
Weave robes—let not the idle wear: 
Forge arms—in your defence to bear. 

Next to Burns, Shelley had the greatest influence on 19th century working-class literature in England. His vision applies undiminished today.

Marlene Dietrich: anti-fascist and a role model for women's emancipation
Sunday, 01 May 2022 09:28

Marlene Dietrich: anti-fascist and a role model for women's emancipation

Published in Films

Marlene Dietrich, who died 30 years ago, on 6 May 1992, should be remembered not only for her importance as role model for emancipation, but also for her outspoken and active stand against her Nazi homeland.

Born in Berlin on 27 December 1901, she became one of the most famous actors of all time. Her breakthrough came with the 1929 film The Blue Angel. She left Germany for

Hollywood in 1930. When the Nazis were stripping other artists’ German citizenship, she renounced hers. Throughout the second world war, Dietrich actively engaged in the anti-fascist struggle. When she visited Germany after the war, she was deemed a traitor in West Germany, with relatively small numbers attending her funeral as late as 1992.

Dietrich’s father, Louis Otto Dietrich, an officer, died when Dietrich and her sister were very young. A few years later, Dietrich’s mother married Eduard von Losch, who was killed in World War I. As a child, Marlene loved music and intended to become a concert violinist, but a wrist injury in her teens made this impossible. After that, she turned her interest to the stage. She auditioned unsuccessfully at Berlin’s famous Max Reinhardt Drama School, but  pursued acting and obtained a number of minor parts. All this changed when she was discovered by Josef von Sternberg for his new film project.

The Blue Angel

This film, directed by Sternberg and co-starring the famous Emil Jannings, was shot largely in 1929 and premiered in 1930. Germany, like the US and other countries, was badly affected by the Wall Street crash that year. To make matters worse, if not catastrophic, the loans Germany had been given to help boost its economy and it pay its war reparations over time – the US Dawes and Young Plans – suddenly dried up. Germany crashed badly – it had been in a ruinous state after WWI and had experienced a boom from the mid-1920s thanks to these loans and a false sense of security. It is important to bear this background in mind when thinking about The Blue Angel. As we now know, the severe economic crisis that ensued was a fertile ground for the rise of German fascism, which until then had not attracted much interest or support. This is an important backdrop to understanding the film.

The Blue Angel is a tragedy, with the pompous, but by no means malevolent teacher Emmanuel Rath as its tragic hero. Professor Rath corresponds entirely to Aristotle’s definition of tragic hero: “an intermediate kind of personage, not pre-eminently virtuous and just” whose destruction is attributed, not to vice or depravity, but an error of judgment. The hero is a basically decent and inoffensive person. He must induce a sense of pity and fear within the audience, with pity arising when the character is utterly destroyed, while fear is aroused when the audience realise that such fate could befall them too. Shakespeare adds to this definition with his tragedies, that the character’s “frailty” is one provoked by the times s/he lives in, by an inability to cope with these times. In this sense, it is the new times that are instrumental in bringing down the tragic hero.

This is what happens in the case of professor Rath. He represents the older generation and is made a fool of by the younger generation, his students, whom he cannot control, only make empty threats to. Instead, the boys control him. Rath is, however, coldly destroyed by the young cabaret dancer Lola.

Cabaret had become very popular in the Weimar Republic and represented something very new, modern – and decadent. Film buffs might like to watch Act V of Symphony of a Great City, where a (falsely) prosperous Berlin is shown at its most modern in 1927, with electricity, cinemas, and cabarets. Cabaret is very much associated with the Golden Twenties of the Weimar Republic. The Blue Angel reveals this world to be a struggle for survival, where money, the show, takes precedence over human decency and dignity. A sad, silent clown wanders about backstage, foreshadowing Rath’s fate. The club where Lola performs is covered in nets and ropes, which frequently entangle Rath.

Rath is not a bad person. However, he is unfit for modern times. Pompous, ineffective and naïve, he is unable to see these times for what they are. Rath’s dignity, his inner core and identity, is destroyed, and this causes his descent into madness. First he loses all confidence and sense of himself as a teacher, reduced to selling ‘sexy’ cards advertising Lola. His marriage is unconsummated and his wife takes lovers. The ultimate blow comes when the company returns to his hometown and past colleagues witness the extent of his destruction, and, as the company director insists on a final humiliation, madness and death.

In this sense, Rath is a true tragic hero, destroyed by the new times that have dawned. His frailty is that he cannot understand the nature of the times, nor can he find a way to save himself. Ultimately, the new times destroy him. In this reading The Blue Angel foreshadows aspects of Nazi Germany, a ruthlessness that will not shrink from destroying people, and that was set to rise to power meteorically.

Both Sternberg and Dietrich left Germany for Hollywood in 1930. In the 1930s and 1940s, Dietrich starred in many famous films including Shanghai Express (1932), I Love a Soldier (1936), Manpower (1941), and The Lady is Willing (1942). She was among the first to embody the emancipated woman onscreen, and became a style icon with her characteristic trouser suits, hats and challenge to other ‘male’ domains. She had relationships with both men and women and is celebrated to this day by the LGBT community.

The Blue Angel was banned in Germany in 1933. Jewish actor Kurt Gerron, the company director and magician in the film, was murdered by the Nazis, after suffering terrible humiliation. The Inn Keeper, the Hungarian Jewish actor Charles Puffy, died while fleeing Hungary from the Nazis. Hans Albers, Lola’s young lover, on the other hand, stayed in Germany during the Nazi regime and became a star actor, although he never endorsed the fascists. Carl Balhaus, the boy in Rath’s class who feels for him and is bullied by the others, is the only actor in the film who lived in the GDR after the defeat of fascism and worked for DEFA, the state film production company.

When Nazi Germany was revoking the citizenships of many German artists, leaving them stateless, Dietrich refused any overtures by the Hitler regime and renounced her German citizenship, when WWII broke out, and took out US nationality. Dietrich, together with Billy Wilder among others, set up a fund to help persecuted people flee Germany. In 1937, she donated her entire income from Knight Without Armour to helping the refugees.

After Pearl Harbour was attacked on December 7, 1941, Americans were called on to support the US war effort by volunteering, joining the military, or selling war bonds. Dietrich helped sell war bonds. In 1942, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) approached Dietrich to assist in their propaganda efforts. She recorded American songs in German, including “Time On My Hands,” “Mean to Me,” and “Taking a Chance on Love”, but also German songs like “Lili Marlene”.  

When the United Service Organizations (USO), founded in 1941, sought to entertain troops in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, Dietrich was among those who volunteered in 1944 and 1945 and sang to the troops, often under dangerous conditions close to the frontline.

After the war, in 1948, she returned to acting, taking on the part – most reluctantly – of  a Nazi singer in Billy Wilder’s comedy, “A Foreign Affair”, set on location in in the ruins of Berlin. In 1952, Dietrich decided to return to the theatre. She made exceptions for films such as Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil or Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. In 1962, she narrated the US documentary The Black Fox, which links the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler to Goethe’s story of Reynard the Fox. She also toured the world giving concerts, and included in her repertoire new anti-war songs such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”. In 1975, Dietrich retired from public life.

When Dietrich died at the age of 90, her funeral service in Paris was attended by approximately 1,500 mourners in the church itself with thousands more outside. Three medals were displayed at the foot of the coffin recognising Dietrich’s fight against Nazism.

Dietrich had requested to be buried in her birthplace Berlin, so her body was flown there on 16 May 1992. Her coffin was draped in an American flag and the cortege travelled through Berlin. However, there was little public acknowledgement of this event and comparatively few people attended the burial. On her last visit to (West) Berlin in 1960, she had been threatened and harassed, telling her to “go home”, and the police had feared disruptions of the funeral by neo-Nazi groups.

Berlin’s Mayor, the conservative Eberhard Diepgen, was jeered over the city’s failure to afford Dietrich a formal tribute, bowing to right-wing pressure. A wave of hate mail and insults such as “traitor” to a Berlin newspaper and the Senate administration had caused the Berlin Senate to cancel the planned transfer in a Bundeswehr jet and a memorial service in the Deutsches Theater in her honour.

Almost 8 months later, 1 December 1992, the Berlin Senate decided on an honorary grave, which was desecrated a year later, and it was not until her 100th birthday on 27 December 2001, that the city apologised for the hostility she had faced in Germany after the war. There was no mention of the controversies over naming a street after her, and nothing about the cancellation of the official commemoration. On 16 May 2002, Marlene Dietrich was posthumously made an honorary citizen of Berlin.

Tuesday, 19 April 2022 10:00


Published in Visual Arts

On 26 April 1937, eighty-five years ago, the Basque town of Gernika was devastated by German Nazi bombers. This event gave impetus to Pablo Picasso's painting Guernica. The painting has become one of the most famous artistic anti-war statements of all time.

Gernika, Leningrad, Hiroshima, My Lai - places that associate horrendous war crimes - have come to symbolise the horrors of war, endured by many peoples. They stand out in our collective memory as grave warnings to do our outmost to oppose war. Yet time and again, governments manage to manipulate their populace into believing that they ought to support the latest war efforts, mostly by fake news and outright lies. Voices against war are silenced.

As Rosa Luxemburg stated, following her arrest for speaking at an anti-war rally in Berlin in 1913, in her defence in the courtroom:

"When the majority of working people realise ... that wars are barbaric, deeply immoral, reactionary, and anti-people, then wars will have become impossible."

Culture Matters published an article on Picasso's painting five years ago, on the eightieth anniversary of the slaughter. It can be accessed HERE.

Leonardo da Vinci
Wednesday, 13 April 2022 08:20

Leonardo da Vinci

Published in Visual Arts

Leonardo da Vinci, the great Italian painter, engineer, inventor, and scientist was born 570 years ago, on 15 April 1452. He embodied in many ways the High Renaissance, one of the most progressive periods in history, of which Engels said, "it was the greatest progressive revolution that humanity has so far experienced, a time which called for giants and produced giants—giants in power of thought, passion, and character, in universality and learning."

To commemorate the half millennium since his death, in 2019, Culture Matters published an article looking at aspects of Leonardo's work, focusing on his painting and the Mona Lisa in particular, and how Leonardo's universality fed into this most famous of all images in art. In Leonardo's honour, in celebration of his achievement and legacy, we republish this article today. Ben Jonson's tribute to Shakespeare applies equally to Leonardo: "He was not of an age but for all time!"

Read the article here.

Tomás Mac Síomóin: From One Bright Island Flown
Saturday, 19 February 2022 11:11

Tomás Mac Síomóin: From One Bright Island Flown

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell pays tribute to Tomás Mac Síomóin and reviews From One Bright Island Flown - Irish Rebels, Exiles,and Martyrs in Latin America, Nuascéalta, 2022

Tomás Mac Síomóin has died on the eve of his 84th birthday. He was a significant Irish language writer, poet, publisher, scientist, and Marxist. A former editor of the Irish language and weekly newspaper Anois and later for the monthly magazine Comhar, he published four collections of poetry before embarking on prose fiction writing. His sardonic Cín Lae Seangáin [An Ant's Diary] (2005), won first prize in the 2005 Oireachtas short story competition.

Mac Síomóin was one of the finest Irish language novel writers of the late 20th/early 21st century. His novel An Tionscadal won the highest award for an Irish language piece of literature in 2007. In an effort to bring to the non-Irish speaking public the work of the outstanding poet Máirtín Ó Direáin, Mac Síomóin along with Douglas Sealy translated his work into English, published as Selected poems/Tacar dánta (1984). We have presented his work before in Culture Matters.

Among his outstanding achievements are the republication for the first time since their original edition outside Ireland and subsequent banning in Ireland of three of Liam O’Flaherty’s five novels placed on the index. Apart from this, Tomás Mac Síomóin wrote two studies on the cultural conquest of Ireland by Britain and more recently Anglo-American cultural domination, following in the footsteps of Frantz Fanon and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, applying and developing their thinking in the Irish context.

Mac Síomóin wrote tirelessly, exposing neoliberal society and its profoundly inhuman nature in both fact anf fiction, often in a very satiricalway. His internationalism found expression, among other things, in his indefatigable translation work into and out of Irish, English, Catalan, Spanish. Among his outstanding translations into Irish are Juan Rulfo's classic Pedro Páramo and the selected poems of Marxist priest Ernesto Cardenal. He also translated The Communist Manifesto into Irish.

Being ostracised in Ireland for his outspoken anti-establishment views, Mac Síomóin made Spain his home in 1998. There follows a review of his last book, From One Bright Island Flown, published only last month.

Tomas 2

The defeat of the Gaelic Irish, supported by Spanish forces, at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, was the final blow in the English conquest of Ireland and  a watershed in Irish history. Following this, a great number of the aristocratic and military leaders of Gaelic Ireland fled the country as the only alternative to submitting to criminalisation by the coloniser. This brought with it the rapid decline of the Gaelic society and culture, eventually leading to the near destruction of the Irish language.

The majority of those who emigrated went to Catholic countries, above all France and Spain, although they also went to other European countries such as Austro-Hungary to serve in their armies and become military and administrative advisors. The great Lament (keen) for Art O’Leary/ Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire tells of the return of one such officer to Ireland, defying the British authorities and paying the ultimate price. 

Tomás Mac Síomóin, who was one of the foremost Irish language writers and activists, has now published a book on the “Wild Geese”, as these emigrants are known. However, this is a book with a particular focus on the men who went, via France and Spain, to Latin America and became Latino heroes in their own right.

Typically, they initially went to Spain to study, work or join distinct military units in the Spanish army,  commanded by their own officers. Some travelled on to Spanish colonial countries in South America, in roles such as administrators, business people, military men. Frequently, the men integrated, and settled in their new homelands, indeed becoming involved in the fight for independence in these countries. A number became so famous, that their names known to this day. These are the stories Tomás Mac Síomóin tells, in by what he describes as 'an incomplete compendium'. Nevertheless, it is an encouragement to future researchers to look further into the lives of those in the Irish-Latin American hall of fame.

Mac Síomóin introduces the reader to six of these colourful lives.

Liam Lamport was born in Wexford in 1615, later became Guillén Lampart in Mexico, and wound up intriguingly as the inspiration behind Zorro, the fox. He is the only non-Mexican represented in statue at Mexico City’s Ángel de la Independencia.

Alejandro O’Reilly, too, has left a mark in present day Latin America – a street in Havana, Cuba, is named after him. Born in Moylough, County Galway, in 1722, his family fled the notorious Penal Laws and took him to Spain as a child. A military man, he was sent to Cuba by the Spanish crown in 1763, and from there continued his service to the Spanish monarch in Puerto Rico and Louisiana and back to Cuba and then Spain. Many other Irishmen are memorialised alongside him in this chapter.

Camila O’Gorman, on the other hand, was born in Argentina and suffered the same Catholic prejudice against women and those who opposed Catholic values, as so many women have done in Ireland. Aged twenty and eight months pregnant by her lover, Father Uladislao Gutiérrez, she was hounded and betrayed, and suffered the death penalty for living outside the iron rule.

The next chapter explores the story of a group hero (as did some of the early ones), the St. Patrick’s Battalion. Their deeds for Mexican independence are commemorated on a plaque at the San Jacinto Plaza in the district of San ÁngelMexico City: “In memory of the Irish soldiers of the heroic St. Patrick’s Battalion, martyrs who gave their lives to the Mexican cause in the United States’ unjust invasion of 1847”.

The chapter on Eduardo Bulfin acquaints the reader with the background to the largest Irish migrant population outside the English-speaking world in Argentina, which of course includes the family that brought forth Che Guevara. In this chapter, however, Mac Síomóin focuses on a family that returned to Ireland only to take part in the Easter Rising. Both children of the family were actively involved in the Irish struggle for freedom. Eduardo, a Republican activist and Catalina, secretary to the Irish revolutionary, Austin Stack. 

This small collection of outstanding Irish people with a Latin American connection concludes with the story of Rodolfo Walsh, another Argentine-Irishman, who saved the Cuban revolution. Rudolfo was a founder of Prensa Latina in Havana. He famously cracked the secret code which revealed the CIA’s intentions leading up to the Bay of Pigs. Consequently, Fidel Castro was able to defeat this assault on Cuban sovereignty.

Mac Síomóin points out that the book opens a window on a fascinating connection between Ireland and Latin America. Many more stories await their telling. Among them Daniel Florence O’Leary, aide-de-camp and chronicler of Simón Bolívar, the father of the Argentine navy, William Browne, and Bernardo O’Higgins, Liberator of Chile. Ireland’s loss of her Wild Geese was the Hispanic world’s gain.

Karen Dietrich’s beautiful illustrations complete the book’s purpose to reimagine the lives of those who took their sense of rebellion to the new continent.

The book is available here.

Class-based barriers to cultural production
Sunday, 13 February 2022 09:51

Class-based barriers to cultural production

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell's presentation to the recent conference in Dublin on working-class writing

In an unprecedented venture, Culture Matters published a trilogy of anthologies of contemporary Irish working people’s writings between 2019 and 2021: The Children of the Nation (Farrell, 2019), a collection of poetry, From the Plough to the Stars (Farrell, 2020), a volume of prose writing, both fiction and memoir, and Land of the Ever Young (Farrell, 2021), a fully illustrated book of writing for children. These anthologies were the first of their kind in Ireland, gathering in a grassroots, democratic way the writings of working people.

The editor in chief of the socialist online publication Culture Matters, Mike Quille, suggested this project. The website focuses in particular on promoting the voices of working people, who represent the second culture: not the mainstream affirmation of the ruling class, but the distinct voice of the disadvantaged who make up such a large proportion of the population.

In addition to living and working in Ireland, Mike Quille was aware of my background: I was born and educated in one of the socialist countries, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. This background meant that I was particularly conscious of the importance of working-class culture and its absolute validity in the cultural discourse, the importance of its development, and as a subject of academic research. In addition, I grew up in a household with a heightened awareness of the significance of working-class cultural expression. My father Jack Mitchell devoted his entire academic career researching Irish and Scottish working-class literature, and as a singer he took a great interest in folksong and political song. A family friend was Mary Ashraf, one of the outstanding scholars of working-class writing.


The GDR, like the other socialist countries, defined itself as a working-class state, one where the working-class had taken power, where this state distributed the wealth produced back into the living standards of the working people. This included aside low rent, free health care, education, very inexpensive basic foodstuffs and public transport, work place season tickets to theatres and concerts, in addition to state subsidized access to all fields of sports and culture.

In order to ensure working-class input into the arts, most workplaces had, among other things, creative writing circles, free of charge. They were usually tutored by established writers. From these workshops arose a number of successful authors. In addition, professional writers were encouraged to spend time in production, familiarising themselves with working-class people and life, to be able to write more authentically about this, set stories and novels in the factory sphere. Authors were financially supported by the state, which meant they could write fulltime - irrespective of other income.

The working class under socialism and under capitalism

In the socialist countries, there was no unemployment, and all people entering the workforce were trained in their jobs. Qualified workers in factories did not earn less than professionals. There was little difference in incomes, and living standards were similar across the population. Everybody received a comfortable living wage and through this and the many state subsidies, participated in the national wealth they produced. There was ‘positive discrimination’ favouring working-class children’s access to university and thereby giving the professions a sound awareness of working-class life. Working-class studies at universities was a very regular field of research in the socialist countries.  It is important to note, when defining the working class, that it is only under capitalism that the working class generally experience poverty and generally poor education.

Marx defined the working class under capitalism as those who own nothing but their labour force, which they sell to employers:

the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market. (Marx & Engels, 1848)

In return, the working class participate only marginally in the wealth they create. This is why in a capitalist society, the working class are generally poor. And of course it also includes the unemployed, and people who also receive very little for the work they do – some self-employed, small farmers, people on short or zero contracts: teachers, nurses and others in formerly well-paid jobs, and all people who are excluded from the possibility of earning a living wage. So in fact, the working class is increasing in size.

The lower strata of the middle class – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population. (Marx & Engels, 1848)

Lack of money brings with it reduced educational opportunities and access to participation in cultural life and so on. In capitalist society, the working class includes all strata of population who are experiencing precarious work and living conditions – these groups are a reserve army of workers who serve to keep down wages.

Taking them as a whole, the general movements of wages are exclusively regulated by the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army, and these again correspond to the periodic changes of the industrial cycle. (Marx, 1867)

To return to contemporary Ireland, while all kinds of financial obstacles are put in place to exclude the working class from education, it does not mean that a university graduate is automatically precluded from identifying as working class. In addition, very many academics and graduates find themselves on short contracts, low hours, or indeed unemployed – in other words, they are largely excluded from the wealth of society. They too are experiencing the condition of the working class under capitalism.

While in capitalist society, being working class is most often associated with poverty and lack of education, not all working-class people are poor. Thanks to trade unions, there are companies that pay the average industrial wage and their workers receive a living share of the wealth they produce.

Representation of the working class in culture

If the cultural mainstream is an expression of the ruling ideas in a society, and therefore the ideas of the ruling class (Marx, 1845, publ. 1932), then the powers that control publishing and the media are not exempt from this. The control exercised by this class over cultural institutions is examined for example in the book Culture is Bad for You (O’Brien, Taylor  & Brook, 2020).

When working-class writers depict the realities of their lives, they are quite often silenced by these mainstream cultural powers. I experienced this when trying to promote the three anthologies mentioned at the start. Two literary festivals, Cúirt in Galway, and the Dublin Book festival, refused to include readings from the anthologies. Cúirt did not answer, despite repeated emails, and the Dublin Book festival, after months of very intermittent communication, finally wrote to say they didn’t have the space.

An example of a prize-winning working-class writer who has been a firm part of the anthologies and who has experienced such class prejudice, is Alan O’Brien. He submitted his radio play Snow Falls and So Do We (O’Brien, 2016) to RTE, based on the true event of Rachel Peavoy, who froze to death in a Ballymun flat in January 2010. O’Brien won the P.J. O’Connor Award for Best New Radio Drama but encountered significant opposition from RTE about the broadcast of his play. O’Brien was told his lines were crude and that the portrayal of the Gardaí was unacceptable. A significant and inappropriate change in the narrative was suggested whereby the main character, Joanne, rather than disliking the Garda known as “miniature hero”, actually fancies him, and wants him to take her out of this hellhole.

This smacked more of make-believe Hollywood that the reality of Ballymun. O’Brien’s statement that the people of Ballymun have a very different experience of the Irish Constabulary was sneered at. He rejected the changes to his script, explaining his reasons. But RTE made them anyway and many more, without further consultation. Most significantly,  they changed the ending of a working-class woman dying as a result of social depravation, metaphorically (and actually) freezing to death. Working-class tragedies are not allowed. The establishment will only accept its own interpretation, and rewrite history accordingly.

This reflects a generalized denial, ignorance and rejection of the cultural expression of working-class experiences, values and culture across most areas of cultural production. Publishing is not exempt – its readership, critics, and reviewers and especially its workforce are biased towards middle-class experiences and lives. Not only are working-class people excluded financially from mainstream cultural consumption, they are also often actively prevented by the media – including the publishing industry –  from expressing artistically their experience of the world. By recognising this class barrier and attempting to tackle it, these anthologies of working-class writing are blazing a new trail. However, unless other cultural workers, institutions, trade unions and universities acknowledge this deficit with a view to redressing it, they will remain a drop in the ocean.

Unlike the establishment, the Irish trade union movement has fully and most generously supported this project. Individual unions and trades councils supported the three publications financially, and three Irish trade unionist wrote the forewords. In two instances they were the Presidents of the ICTU, Brian Campfield and Gerry Murphy, the third foreword was written by Andy Snoddy who works for the international trade union movement.

Finding working-class writers was a challenge. Galway working-class poet Rita Ann Higgins was very helpful in identifying potential contributors and their networks. Furthermore, the call for submissions went out to many writers’ networks. Salmon Publishing was also most supportive.

Until recently, I taught modern Irish literature at GMIT and have, over the years, observed the difference between the effect highly wrought poetry by representatives of the literary canon have had on students as opposed to the poetry that calls a spade a spade – literally. The students respond far more enthusiastically if they think a poem has something to do with their lives. That the students found their own experiences reflected in these works was nothing short of a revelation to them. This is not to put either side down, devalue the texts of our Nobel Prize for Literature winners etc, nor is it to say that the writings of the working people are somehow simplistic. Yet, the latter find a more direct line, shall we say, to the people about whose life experience they are writing.

These anthologies are different to collections of political writing. All writing is written from a particular point of view, the author’s point of view. This can either consolidate or undermine the mainstream culture. The point of view in these anthologies of working people’s writing, is that things are not as they should be. Things as they are, are not in the best interest of the working population. Important themes are homelessness in all its forms, including emigration, the abandonment of women in the mother and baby homes, poverty, but also about fightback, internationalism and solidarity.

There are very many more themes of course, but all of them reflect what if feels like to be disadvantaged, a victim in a society that punishes the poor and rewards the rich. By writing about his experience, the authors are creating political writing with a small P. And of course, the fact that this trilogy of working people’s writing exists, that they give expression to the voice of a class, is a political statement.

Many contributors only took up writing because they felt no one like them was in the books they read. To make this common ground clear to the readers, every contributor was asked to supply a short biography outlining their connection with the working people. Many readers have commented very favourably on the inclusion of these biographies. It is a break with convention, where authors are asked to list their publications, prizes and successes, which can sometimes falsely alienate readers who wish to find themselves in a book, their biographies, their stories, their life experience.

Another important consideration was the inclusion of Irish language writing. Far too often, an artificial divide is put up between Irish and English – most commonly published in separate books, which obscures what authors have in common. We need to see the writings in both languages put side by side and highlighted for their common concerns. Ireland has a significant tradition in working-class writing in Irish. Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), cowherd and labourer, or the 20th century literary giants Pádraic Ó Conaire, Máirtin Ó Caidhin, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Liam O’Flaherty, or Máirtín Ó Direáin, to name but a few.

It is imperative to incorporate this substantial body of writers in any research of working-class writing in Ireland.

Moreover, these anthologies needed to represent the whole island of Ireland. There are a significant number of contributors from the North of Ireland and here from both communities. The fact that there are contributors from both parts of Ireland also highlights common ground between the people living in the North and those living in the Republic. Working people’s lives are not so different.

All three anthologies have about an even number of female and male contributors.

Finally, I would like to mention the other anthology published in 2021 of working-class writing, The 32 (McVeigh, 2021). The collection is mainly memoir, or faction, and therefore an important companion volume to the Culture Matters anthologies, which are largely fictional writing, inspired by working-class experience. A new page has been turned for Irish working-class writing.

Let me conclude with the famous poem by Bertolt Brecht:

A worker reads and asks questions

 Who built seven-gated Thebes?
In the books you'll find the names of kings.
Was it the kings that lugged those hunks of rock?
And what of Babylon, so often demolished?
Who rebuilt it time and again? In which
Of golden Lima's houses lived its builders?On the day the Chinese Wall was finished where
Did the masons go in the evening? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who raised them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium of the songs
Palaces only, for its inhabitants? Even in fabulous Atlantis,
The very night the sea swallowed it,
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
All alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Didn't he have so much as a cook with him?
Phillip of Spain wept when his fleet
Sank. Did no others shed tears?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year War.
Who else?

A victory on every page.
Who cooked the victory feast?
A great man every ten years.
Who paid the bill?
So many accounts.
So many questions.

To find answers to these questions, we need working-class art.

 From Plough to Star cover   children of the nation resized  9781912710430 resized

Georg Weerth, the German proletariat’s first and most important poet
Saturday, 12 February 2022 16:54

Georg Weerth, the German proletariat’s first and most important poet

Published in Poetry

Weerth, the German proletariat’s first and most important poet, the son of Rhineland parents, was born in Detmold, where his father was church superintendent. In 1843, when I was in Manchester, Weerth came to Bradford as an agent for his German firm, and we spent many a pleasant Sunday together. In 1845, when Marx and I lived in Brussels, Weerth took over the continental agency for his firm and arranged things so that he, too, could make Brussels his headquarters. After the revolution of March 1848, we all met up in Cologne to found the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Weerth took on the feuilleton, and I don’t think any other paper ever had one as hard-hitting and funny.” – Engels in 1883, on his friend Georg Weerth.

In 1836 Weerth began a commercial apprenticeship and little later, he became acquainted with the industry and commerce of the Rhineland and its captains in his uncle’s company in Bonn. The very next year he went to work as a correspondent for a worsted and wool company in the industrial city of Bradford and made the acquaintance of Engels. Through this friendship and his own observation, Weerth got to know the English capitalist system, which was more advanced than German capitalism, as well as the class struggles of the organised proletariat.

With Engels, who was then working on The Condition of the Working Class in England, Weerth saw the poverty and hardship of the workers in the textile factories and identified with the class-conscious proletarians. Through Engels, Weerth became acquainted with the ideas of early socialism and leaders of the English labour movement, as well as Marx in 1845; he made contact with the revolutionary wing of the Chartist movement. All this profoundly politicised Weerth: not only was it necessary to understand the misery of the working class as the flip side of enormous technical progress, but also that this class was destined to overthrow capitalism. That same year, he moved to Brussels and worked here with Marx and Engels on the Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung. In 1847 he became a member of the League of Communists.

As early as 1845, Weerth’s short story “The Flower Festival of the English Workers” does not depict worn-out industrial workers, but confident proletarians. For the first time in German literature, a new image of humanity emerges directly from the experience of the fighting proletariat: workers as class-conscious, fighting people with a developed aesthetic sense. The story ends:

But in the inn “Zur alten Hammelsschulter” (The Old Mutton Shoulder) they opened the windows, for the night was too delicious. The stars twinkled so cheerfully, as if they were rejoicing over the poor small people down there on earth, over the workers in Yorkshire who, despite all the tyranny celebrate such splendid poetic festivals.

 Yes, poetic festivals! For a flower festival of English workers (...) is of all the greater importance because it has sprung from the people without any outside cause. This is proof that workers, in addition to their political development, have preserved in their hearts a treasure of warm love for nature, a love which is the source of all poetry and which will one day enable them to propel a fresh literature, a new, mighty art into the world.

With historical-materialist understanding, Weerth figuratively captures the inherent power of the proletariat as an industrial, militant, as well as an aesthetic capacity, a power of the future.

Weerth’s songs and poems are among the best poetry of the Vormärz, the pre-revolutionary period in the German arts. Engels again:

Where Weerth was master, where he surpassed Heine (because he was healthier and more genuine) and where he is second only to Goethe in German, is in his expression of natural, robust sensuousness and physical lust.

In his poem “Industry” Weerth articulates the dual character of capitalist industry. On the one hand:

She sits upon the darkest throne,
And flogs to untold servitude,
Calamity’s cruel stamp she bears,
The poor she drives to temple cold!

At the same time, it is she who produces the weapons for liberation:

And they who forged the sword and chains,
Will use the sword to smash the chains!

Liberated, industry takes on a new character, and she herself appears as the precondition of her own liberation:

Transformed, the goddess dark appears –
Happy, and glad are all who’re near!
From labour’s anguish long unseen,
She rid the rock and made us free!

Ultimately, this struggle for liberation is the prerequisite for a free society in which freedom achieves the unleashed sensuousness of humanity:

And nature with enthralling kiss
Lures the living to greater bliss!

Like “The Flower Festival of the English Workers”, Werth’s poetry goes beyond the depiction of misery, showing the class-conscious working class, its humanity and strength. His poem “They sat on the benches” is about the reaction of English workers to the Silesian weavers’ uprising:

They sat along the benches,
They sat around their board,
The beer was poured in plenty
They drank with pleasure deep.
They knew no heavy sorrow,
They knew no ache nor woe
They knew not past nor future,
They only lived this day.

They sat below the alder -
Great was summer’s frill.
Wild and angry lads
From York and Lancashire
Their song was rough and throaty,
They sat until late night
They listened to the tale
“Of Silesian weavers fight.”
And when they knew it all, -
They almost were in tears.
The sturdy lads lept up
And urgent was their sense.
They clenched their fists in anger,
Their hats waved stormily;
Meadows and woods resounded:
“Good Luck, Silesia!”

In this vivid account, Weerth depicts confident proletarians enjoying the day sensuously, yet with an internationalist grasp of their common cause with the Silesian weavers. Both poems are written from the perspective of the struggling proletariat, conscious of their power and eventual victory; and the poems reinforce this class consciousness. (Note: The abpve poems are translated by myself).

Humorous Sketches from Contemporary Commercial Life

In 1846/47 Weerth embarked on a novel project – a contemporary account of German society. Based on three family histories and from the perspective of the workers’ movement, he planned to depict the advance of capitalism and the development of the working class into the antagonist of the bourgeoisie. Ultimately, Weerth did not succeed in this epic venture of artistically realising his Marxist insights.

However, one character in the novel, that of Mr Preiss (Price/ Prussian), survives in “Humorous Sketches from Contemporary Commercial Life”, Weerth’s most mature prose work. Preiss knows only one motto: to make money. Here all humanity ceases. His encounter with the March Revolution in Germany turns Preiss into a comic figure. He dreads the revolution, which threatens his commercial concerns. He adapts to the changing fortunes of the times, always in the interest of his financial interests, and ultimately reckons with a ministerial post. The sketch ends:

Upon the completely unfounded rumour that Mr Preiss was to become prime minister, raw proletarians threw in his windows that very evening.

Once again Werth conveys an historically optimistic perspective of the resistance of the proletariat, of the destruction of capitalist society. The revolution is not over yet. The ridicule of Preiss lampoons the moral weakness of rulers; by laughing at them, one is a little closer to one’s own liberation.

The Feature pages (feuilleton) of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung

In February 1848, Weerth went to Cologne and worked for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which was edited by Marx. The feuilleton genre, growing increasingly popular in Germany at this time, became a tool for Weerth in the political struggle.

Weerth’s most famous contribution is “Life and Deeds of the Famous Knight Schnapphahnski”, published between August 1848 and January 1849, the first German serialised feuilleton novel. The political satire targets the Prussian squirearchy, the Junkers, and their counter-revolutionary machinations. Its model is Prince Lichnowski, whom Heine had already satirised in Atta Troll as Schnapphahnski. In 1848, Lichnowski represented the deeply reactionary interests of the Prussian Junkers as a member of the Frankfurt Assembly.

Engels comments:

The collected Schnapphahnski feuilletons were published in book form by Hoffmann and Campe in 1849, and they are still very amusing today. However, on September 18, 1848 Schnapphahnski-Lichnowski rode out with the Prussian General von Auerswald (also a member of the assembly) to spy on peasant detachments on their way to join the fighters on the Frankfurt barricades. Both he and Auerswald were, deservedly, put to death by the peasants as spies, and so the German Imperial Administration charged Weerth with libelling the dead Lichnowski. Weerth, who had left for England long ago, was sentenced to three months imprisonment, long after reaction had put an end to the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. He later actually served those three months, because his business required him to visit Germany from time to time.

After a brief interruption due to the libel proceedings against the paper, new episodes appeared from December 1848 onwards, stating that Schnapphahnski did not refer to a particular nobleman, but to Prussian Junkerism in general.

The Schnapphahnski  novel ends:

Yes, the great Cologne cathedral farce was over, in which all the high lords, with the most beautiful phrases in their mouths but resentment in their hearts, devised, amid the cheers of the foolish people, all the fine plans which were soon to bear such excellent fruit in the summary executions of Vienna, in the octroying of the Prussian and Austrian constitutions and in the ridicule of the Frankfurt Assembly.

 Yes, this feast of the most disgusting coquetry with the stupid sovereign Michel was over, and we would perhaps still be laughing about it if the bullet-torn corpses of the proletarians of Paris, Vienna and Berlin did not grin at us through the shimmering heap of these “people-friendly” princes, of these fine servants and of these duped representatives of the people, of Vienna and Berlin, if through this tangle of the most hypocritical assurances, the most shameless lies, the dying sighs of the trampled Poles, the cry for help of the tortured Hungarians and the cry for revenge of devastated Lombardy did not ring out to us, if the bloody head of a Robert Blum did not roll at our feet – but enough! the humour has dried up; the book is over.

This feuilleton novel continues the tradition of political literary journalism of Börne and Heine, which reaches its most significant highpoint with Weerth. Weerth marks the transition to socialist literature in Germany.

After the counter-revolution, Weerth resigned and began to work in commerce again. Engels comments:

In 1850/51, in the interest of another Bradford company, he travelled to Spain, then to the West Indies and across almost all of South America. After a brief visit to Europe, he returned to his beloved West Indies.

Weerth continued to correspond with Marx and Engels, but died of yellow fever in Havana 30 July 1856, aged only 34.

Engels once more:

In this he differed from most poets in that he was completely indifferent to his poems once written down. If he had sent a copy of it to Marx or me, he left the verses lying around and it was often difficult to get them printed anywhere. Only during the “Neue Rheinische Zeitung” this was different. The following extract from a letter from Weerth to Marx, Hamburg, 28 April 1851, explains why:

“I have written all sorts of things lately, but have not finished anything, for I see no purpose, no aim at all in writing. When you write something about national economics, it makes sense. But me? To make poor jokes, bad jokes, in order to draw a stupid smile from the patriotic grimaces - truly, I can’t think of anything more pathetic! My literary activity perished most decisively along with the ‘Neue Rheinische Zeitung’. (...)

We never compromised ourselves. That is the main thing! Since Frederick the Great, no one has treated the German people so en canaille as the 'Neue Rheinische Zeitung'.

 I don’t want to claim this as my achievement; but I was a part of it ...”

Tuesday, 01 February 2022 17:58


Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell celebrates Joyce‘s Ulysses, on the centenary of its publication

On James Joyce’s 40th birthday, Sylvia Beach in Paris published his now most famous work, Ulysses, written in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, 1914-1921. That was on 2 February 1922. It had appeared in excerpts in the US magazine The Little Review between 1918 and 1920, but deemed obscene, it was banned in the English speaking world. The modernist novel immortalises in its nearly one thousand pages a single day in Joyce’s home town of Dublin – 16 June 1904, the day he met Nora Barnacle, then a chambermaid from Galway, working in Dublin. Bloomsday, named after the main hero Leopold Bloom, has been celebrated in Dublin and the world over ever since Ulysses was published.

Joyce was born in 1882, the eldest of ten children, into a lower middle-class family in Dublin, which rapidly became impoverished due to his alcoholic and financially inept father. A turbulent youth was followed by language studies and first literary attempts, as well as efforts to gain a foothold in Paris. After the death of his mother in 1903, the family fell apart and Joyce persuaded Nora to leave Ireland with him just a few months after they met.

Following their own odyssey, Joyce found employment teaching English mainly to naval officers in Pola, an Austro-Hungarian naval base, now Croatia. He gave up this post soon afterwards in favour of employment at the Berlitz language school in Trieste, in 1905. From Trieste (then in Austro-Hungary), where he was considered an enemy alien, he moved to Zurich as a British citizen in 1915. In 1920, the family moved to Paris, where they lived until 1940. After the invasion by the Wehrmacht, the Joyce family hoped to return to Zurich, but this was only possible in December 1940 after months of great effort. Joyce died just weeks later, on 11 January 1941.

At its most succinct, Ulysses is about how three characters, the advertising seller Leopold Bloom, the teacher Stephen Dedalus and the singer Molly Bloom, spend the day. Stephen Dedalus teaches in the morning and gets paid for it; in the afternoon he attends a discussion at the National Library; in the evening he gets drunk and goes to a brothel. Leopold Bloom prepares breakfast for his wife, goes to a funeral, worries about selling an advertisement, wanders around town and also ends up in a brothel. At night, Stephen and Leopold go to Bloom’s house together and have a drink. Then Stephen leaves and Bloom goes to bed. Molly, who had received her lover during the day, lies in bed thinking.

Joyce’s acquaintance with the Odyssey came via English translations based on the Latin version (Ulysses), hence this title. A thorough knowledge of Homer’s text is unnecessary to understand Joyce’s book. He alludes to the Homeric epic in the light of an archetype, a symbolic expression of human experience, and uses the contrast between an heroic past and an unheroic present ironically. The setting is dilapidated Dublin, Ulysses is not a king but an advertisement seller for a newspaper, and he returns home not to a loyal queen but to a woman he knows has cheated on him that day. Bloom is no Greek hero. He passively accepts Molly’s/Penelope’s infidelity. This puts both past and present into perspective. In addition to the Ulysses epic, other myths are invoked, that of the Wandering Jew (Bloom is a Hungarian Jew), the Eternal Feminine (Bloom is a man with many feminine qualities), as well as Jesus’s love of humanity (Joyce himself was an atheist).

Joyce’s image of Dublin paints a society in hopeless decay, exploited and ruined by the Catholic Church and the British Empire. There is a lack not only of heroism, but of productive work in general – there is hardly a worker in the book. Despite its setting in the colonial backyard of Britain, however, Joyce, writing in the years of WW1, creates the peaceful life 10 years before the outbreak of that war, in which three characters of the petty bourgeoisie simply go about their day. The plot remains rooted in the doings of the (partially impoverished) petty bourgeoisie.

One of the novel’s leitmotifs is Stephen’s refusal to pray at his mother’s deathbed, and it is related to his rejection of “The imperial British state (…) and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.” He rejects both England and colonial Ireland. Casualties of the Boer War are seen in the streets, as is the representative of the English Crown, Viceroy Dudley.

Taking Chapter 10 as an illustration, the opening and closing scenes – with Father Conmee and the Viceroy – not only add to the richness of the Dublin scene, but also have symbolic significance: they represent the Church and the State, both of which Stephen refuses to obey. The chapter provides a cross-section of Dublin life between 3 and 4 pm.

Most of the episodes concern minor characters who appear in other episodes in the book. Father Conmee notices Mrs McGuiness’s stately smile, who has in her pawnshop a large part of the Dedalus household; Dilly Dedalus meets her brother at a bookstall; a one-legged sailor is blessed by Father Conmee and receives money from a corpulent lady in the street as well as from Molly Bloom, who tosses a penny out of the window as she prepares for her lover Blazes Boylan’s visit. In the final section, the Viceroy makes his only appearance.

Random, unnamed characters such as the men carrying sandwich-boards appear throughout the book. There are references to the past and the future – the flushed young man Father Conmee sees emerging from a gap in the hedge with his girl will reappear as the medical student Vincent in the hospital scene; Stephen notices a “sailorman, rustbearded” who will resurface late at night in the cabman’s shelter.

Seemingly unrelated phrases link this episode to others, at once evoking and reminding us that characters continue to exist in the background, even if they are not present at that moment. Thus, in the middle of Mulligan and Haines chatting over a snack and tea, there is a sentence about the one-legged sailor and the words “England expects...” There is more here than a mere reminder of the seemingly unrelated existence of the sailor hobbling down Nelson Street. It also points to the Viceroy. Thus, on the surface, a feeling of crowded Dublin life emerges in this chapter, and at the same time a sense that a reality exists independently of individual consciousness.

Joyce’s style is at pains to recreate the thought processes of the characters. Here Bloom leaves his house in the morning:

On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have. Creaky wardrobe. No use disturbing her. She turned over sleepily that time. He pulled the halldoor to after him very quietly, more, till the footleaf dropped gently over the threshold, a limp lid. Looked shut. All right till I come back anyhow.

There is an unusual multi-layered interweaving of first and third person narration, although the famous Molly soliloquy in the last chapter is different. By dispensing with punctuation altogether, Joyce attempts to reproduce an actual stream of consciousness. The thoughts are now no longer interrupted by a third person narrator, but move into each other. The long soliloquy ends:

O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around Him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

As well as ironizing the epic, the novel also contains humour, such as Bloom’s thoughts at the funeral:

Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else. The resurrection and the life. Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their graves. Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job. Get up! Last day! Then every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps.

Anyone planning to tackle this work, which is, after all, Jeremy Corbyn’s favourite book, should read uninhibitedly and simply skip the passages that seem difficult on first reading.

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