Dundrum press

Dundrum press

In Brief

Having mocked Catholicism and the Revival of “our Irish poets” earlier in Telemachus, Mulligan turns his wit to demeaning the cultivation of Irish “folk” identity: ancient legends, myths, customs, and spiritual beliefs that were being studied and imitated by scholars and writers from the 1880s onward. One particular target of his sarcasm is the greatest of the writers of the Revival, William Butler Yeats, whose Fergus song he has just been quoting from.

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Thornton notes that "five lines of text and ten pages of notes" seems to refer to "the work of the antiquarians who were editing, explaining, and annotating early Irish literature and folklore at this time"; Gifford says of the overall movement, “At times this interest ran to hairsplitting scholarship and at times to gross sentimentality.” For Haines' benefit, Mulligan adopts the persona of a hairsplitting pedant, and proceeds to demean the seriousness of the scholarly enterprise by citing all sorts of inauthentic arcane beliefs.

A central figure in his mockery is Yeats, who joined the ranks of the scholars when he edited a collection titled Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry in 1888. Yeats' poems in the 1880s and 1890s show how extensively and beautifully these myths could shape a vision of Irish life, and at the same time how readily they could encourage escapism, freefloating sentiment, and vague substitutes for thought.

The fishgods of Dundrum” ridicules Yeats' obsession. Gifford notes that fish gods “are associated with the Formorians, gloomy giants of the sea, one of the legendary peoples of prehistoric Ireland.” But Dundrum makes no sense in connection with them. One Dundrum, north of Dublin, was the place “where ancient Irish tribes held a folk version of Olympic games.” Another, south of Dublin, was both the site of an insane asylum, and the village where Yeats’ sister Elizabeth established the Dun Emer press in 1903 to publish his “new works and works by other living Irish authors in limited editions on handmade paper.” Her sister Lily became involved with the Dun Emer Guild, “which produced handwoven embroideries and tapestries.”

So a piece of authentic mythology (fishgods) is mixed up with some unrelated ancient customs, and both are attached to the Yeats family enterprise of reviving Irish art, with the implication that all these cultural enterprises, and all three Yeats siblings, belong in a lunatic asylum. At the end of Oxen of the Sun, Mulligan can be heard continuing to mock the Yeats sisters' publishing enterprise, now as the "Druiddrum press": "To be printed and bound at the Druiddrum press by two designing females. Calf covers of pissedon green. Last word in art shades."

Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind” establishes another chain of bizarre and wildly funny associations. The “weird sisters” have nothing to do with Irish mythology; they appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth as Scottish witches whose name may owe something to the Old English concept of wyrd or fate. But we have just had a glancing allusion to two sisters involved in the publishing business, so now it would seem that Yeats’ sisters are a bit “weird.” 

And indeed these sisters have used the phrase "the big wind." The Dun Emer edition of Yeats’ In the Seven Woods announces that the book was completed “the sixteenth day of July in the year of the big wind, 1903.” This phrase usually refers to 1839, which saw a terrible windstorm that destroyed hundreds of houses. Apparently there was another formidable tempest in 1903; but there is nothing ancient or mythological about it. Oxen of the Sun refers to this recent tempest: "the big wind of last February a year that did havoc the land so pitifully."

In his final sally, Mulligan gives up slandering Yeats and his family, and riffing on mythology; now he directs his attention to mocking the more pedantic scholars. Turning to Stephen, his professorial colleague in crime, and imitating academic affectation “in a fine puzzled voice, lifting his brows,” he asks for assistance with a bibliographic citation: "is mother Grogan's tea and water pot spoken of in the Mabinogion or is it in the Upanishads?"

The question is as absurd as Shakespeare’s Feste asking, “For what says Quinapalus?” Mother Grogan is a character in a silly contemporary Irish song rather than a figure of ancient folklore. The medieval Mabinogion contains many ancient Celtic legends, but it is Welsh rather than Irish. And the Upanishads are ancient Vedic texts of Hindu spirituality and philosophy—of great interest to Theosophists, but otherwise completely unconnected to Ireland. Stephen, “gravely” participating in the scholarly charade, ends the mockery with his own very funny reply to Mulligan’s question.

The humor may be aimed at more than just Irish revivalists, however. On ulyssesseen.com, Andrew Levitas argues that Mulligan invokes this song "to skewer Haines’ attitude toward Ireland and things Irish. Haines is collecting 'exotic' Irish sayings and other folk esoterica, in the same way Bartok, Dvorak and Smetana collected ethnic folk tunes from the backwaters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as modernity began to overtake these regions." Since Wales is "another Celtic nation incorporated into Great Britain," and India is "Britain’s leading colony," Mulligan may be mocking the Englishman's project of cultural appropriation.

JH 2011
William Butler Years, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. Source: alexandrianhouse.com.
The Dun Emer press in action, 1903: Elizabeth Corbett Yeats at the press, Beatrice Cassidy also standing (setting type?) and Esther Ryan correcting copy. Source: www.pitt.edu.
Colophon to In The Seven Woods. Source: privatelibrary.typepad.com.