Famine, plague, slaughters

In Brief

After thinking back to the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries, when Viking longboats ran up on the beaches, Stephen apparently turns his mind to the 14th century, when "Famine, plague, and slaughters" decimated the Irish population. He mentions two dramatic occurrences from that time: the stranding of "A school of turlehide whales" in 1331, and an unusually cold winter in 1338 that allowed Dubliners to play on "the frozen Liffey."

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Gifford notes that the beaching of the whales occurred when Dublin was in the midst of a terrible famine. His source is the "Dublin Annals" section of Thom's 1904: "a prodigious shoal of fish called Turlehydes was cast on shore at the mouth of the Dodder near the mouth of the Liffey. They were from 30 to 40 feet long, and so thick that men standing on each side of one of them could not see those on the other. Upwards of 200 of them were killed by the people" (2092). Stephen imagines hordes of citizens pouring out of "the starving cagework city" armed "with flayers' knives, running, scaling, hacking in green blubbery whalemeat."

He does not visualize the effects of the plague, but waves of bubonic plague did sweep across Europe in the 1330s and 1340s. Gifford notes that some scholars estimate that the disease killed half of the people living in Ireland. Again, Joyce's source may be Thom's: "a great pestilence raged through many parts of the world, and carried off vast numbers in Dublin" (2092).

Ireland has endured slaughters in many eras, but some of the worst occurred in the 1310s, when "The Bruce's brother," mentioned one paragraph later in Proteus, invaded Ireland from Scotland and sought to have himself proclaimed High King. Never lord of more than parts of Ulster, Edward Bruce waged war from 1315 to 1318 in attempts to expand his dominion, pillaging wherever his army went, sacking and burning many towns, and massacring the civilian population (Gaelic and Anglo-Irish alike) in at least one, Dundalk. So unpopular was he at the time of his death in 1318 that his body was decapitated and quartered, so that the whole island (and King Edward II in England) could share in the joy of his passing.

Still one more detail from Thom's 1904 enters Stephen's thoughts, this one from 1338: "a severe frost from the beginning of December to the beginning of February, in which the Liffey was frozen so hard that the citizens played at foot-ball, and lit fires on the ice" (2096). Stephen imagines himself moving "among the spluttering resin fires." The Liffey has frozen at other times, as the photographs at right document. Gifford notes one freeze in 1739, documented in the 1904 Thom's, hard enough "that the people amused themselves on the ice" (2096). But Stephen pretty clearly seems to be concentrating on the early 14th century.

Stephen engages in a kind of time-travel in these vignettes, thinking of "that I, a changeling," who lived another life in another time. It is one among many moments in Ulysses that ponder the possibility of reincarnation or "metempsychosis." And, more immediately relevant for Stephen, it offers one more way in which his personal identity is wrested from protean flux. Past times inform the present, and racial experiences shape the individual: "a horde of jerkined dwarfs, my people . . . Their blood is in me, their lusts my waves."

JH 2015
194 whales and bottlenose dophins that became stranded on King Island near Tasmania in 2009. Source: www.theguardian.com.
Photograph by Jane Wigham Shackleton of the Shackleton family lighting a fire on the frozen Liffey in the 1890s, in the suburb of Lucan south of Dublin. Source: www.lucannewsletter.ie.
1938 photograph of a frozen River Liffey in the village of Kilcullen, in County Kildare. Source: kilcullenbridge.blogspot.com.