Green gem of the silver sea

Green gem of the silver sea

In Brief

Bloom hears "A sudden screech of laughter" from inside the Telegraph office and enters to find Ned Lambert reading aloud the Dan Dawson speech that he had tried unsuccessfully to read from his newspaper in the funeral carriage. The following section of Aeolus, in which he hears the first of many sentences from this speech in praise of Ireland's natural beauties, receives a fitting headline: "ERIN, GREEN GEM OF THE SILVER SEA." Commentators have identified many possible inspirations for this phrase, but no one has yet remarked on the political resonances that the image of a green gem carries in the text of Joyce's novel.

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Gifford notes the possible influence of three different literary works. In Shakespeare's Richard II John of Gaunt patriotically praises England as "This precious stone set in the silver sea" (2.1.46). In Let Erin Remember the Days of Old (1808) Thomas Moore writes of a time "Ere the emerald gem of the western world / Was set in the crown of a stranger." Another Irishman, orator and politician John Philpot Curran (1750-1817), wrote in Cushla Ma Chree, "Dear Erin, how sweetly thy green bosom rises! / An emerald set in the ring of the sea!" In Curran's poem, Ireland is the speaker's cuisle mo chroidhe, the "pulse of my heart." Joyce's phrase does not precisely reproduce any of these expressions.

In an essay on James Joyce Online Notes John Simpson shows that there are still other possible sources for the phrase, all of them likewise inexact fits. In an earlier poem, Remember Thee, Moore called his country the "first gem of the sea," and his phrase was taken up by many Irish nationalists. Both England and Ireland were often called "gem of the sea" or "gem of the ocean" in the 19th century, and the American poet Ina Coolbrith, in a 1911 poem titled Tom Moore, called "Erin" the "Green gem of the ocean." Simpson believes that Joyce added Shakespeare's "the silver sea" to some version of this "gem of the sea" meme, observing that various writers had "commandeered it when needed to Ireland."

All of this source-study seems plausible, but none of it addresses the intratextual foundation of the image or the diversity of its implications. In Telemachus, when Haines takes out a cigarette and offers one to Stephen, the narrative notes his "smooth silver case in which twinkled a green stone." Given Stephen's resentment of Haines and the English in general, it is difficult not to regard this image as symbolyzing imperial conquest, and this hunch is confirmed in Oxen of the Sun when English subjugation becomes linked, via "an emerald ring," with the papal bull that gave King Henry II dominion over Ireland. The "GREEN GEM OF THE SILVER SEA" strongly recalls Haines' green stone set in a silver case, so readers are encouraged to ask whether the nationalist feelings embedded in Moore's "emerald gem" may carry over into Aeolus.

They most certainly do. When the headline first sounds it seems to apply only to Dan Dawson's catalogue of natural wonders, but an exchange at the end of this section and the beginning of the next adds another dimension:

      — What is it? Mr Bloom asked.
      — A recently discovered fragment of Cicero's, professor MacHugh answered with pomp of tone. Our lovely land.

                     SHORT BUT TO THE POINT

      — Whose land? Mr Bloom said simply.
      — Most pertinent question, the professor said between his chews. With an accent on the whose.

Bloom's question and the professor's reply may be short, but the "point" that Ireland's land is not its own will soon be receiving a lot of attention in Aeolus

JH 2023
The Kerry coast. Source:
Dan Sweeney portrait of Ina Coolbrith reproduced in her 1918 volume of poems, California. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
2007 Eric Jones photograph of Caernafon Bay in Wales. Source: Wikimedia Commons.