Gorse

In Brief

The paleolithic "hero" described near the beginning of Cyclops is covered "with a strong growth of tawny prickly hair in hue and toughness similar to the mountain gorse (Ulex Europeus)." This plant, evoked again several times in later chapters, is an evergreen shrub covered with long green photosynthetic thorns and with shorter leaves that, rather than unfurling, form additional spines. Its "prickly" quality and "toughness" are extreme. The bush is also called "furze," and makes some appearances in the novel under that name.

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The Ulex genus comprises 20 species scattered across northwest Africa, the Iberian peninsula, and other parts of Europe. The most common one in Europe, Ulex europaeus, grows to 2 or 3 meters in height (7-10 feet). Like all members of the genus it sports beautiful yellow flowers, but its resistance to drought, fire, and animals makes it an invasive pest in many settings. Because of its thorny toughness it has often been planted in hedgerows, where it forms impenetrable thickets. It also grows wild in many parts of Ireland, and once was important for thatching roofs and burning in fireplaces.

Gorse is adapted to recurrent fire: it ignites readily but grows back from its roots, and scorching prompts its seeds to germinate. In Nausicaa Bloom thinks of fires starting in the hills: "Howth a while ago amethyst. Glass flashing. That’s how that wise man what’s his name with the burning glass. Then the heather goes on fire. It can’t be tourists’ matches. What? Perhaps the sticks dry rub together in the wind and light. Or broken bottles in the furze act as a burning glass in the sun."

The toughness of the plant figures repeatedly in Circe. A verse of The Wren Song tells of the little bird "caught in the furze." Bello uses it to convey the fearsome virility of Boylan: "A shock of red hair he has sticking out of him behind like a furzebush!" And Bloom's schoolday memories of the forest at Poulaphouca give way to images of him walking on Howth Head with Molly, "Hatless, flushed, covered with burrs of thistledown and gorsespine."

§ This last word did not appear in any printed text until Hans Walter Gabler's 1984 edition. The "gorsepine" of the first edition, although it was not corrected in any of the Odyssey Press editions of the 1930s and stayed unchanged in the Bodley Head and Modern Library editions of the early 1960s, can hardly be supposed to represent Joyce's intention. The Rosenbach manuscript clearly contains an "s" between "gorse" and "pine" on page 55 of Circe, and no pine trees anywhere in the world are called gorse-pines, to my knowledge. Even if such trees existed it is hard to imagine how Bloom would get burrs from them in his clothes from tramping around the Howth headland. Gorse-spines, on the other hand, can easily mess with hikers' clothes.

JH 2018
Gorse bushes around Trim Castle. Source: www.design42.com.
Gorse growing along an Irish coastal headland. Source: theecologist.org.
Thorns and leaf-spines of Ulex europaeus. Source: www.kuleuven-kulak.be.