Deshil eamus

Deshil Holles Eamus

In Brief

Joyce indicated that Oxen of the Sun would develop embryonically through a chronological succession of prose styles inspired by writers of English prose, but his opening sentences have little to do with English or with written prose. The three percussive, incantatory paragraphs beginning with "Deshil Holles Eamus"—a phrase compounded of Celtic and Latin words, meaning something like "Let us go rightward to Holles Street"—echo hymns chanted in late Roman fertility rites.

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According to Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses (1930), Joyce wrote the first three paragraphs "in the manner of the Fratres Arvales" (277). The Arval Brothers were a "college" of twelve Roman priests who conducted ceremonies dedicated to the Lares, Dea Dia, Ceres, and other gods concerned with fertility and good harvests. Thornton and Gifford, citing evidence uncovered in Theodor Mommsen's 1887 History of Rome, add that the ceremonies involved an incantatory hymn written in the early 200s AD, most of whose lines sounded three times (I.294). The hymn concluded with a Triumphe or "Hurrah," which Joyce imitates with "Hoopsa."

"Deshil" is an Anglicization of the Irish deasil (or deasal or deisiol), meaning "turning to the right" or "turning toward the sun." Joyce may have found it in P. W. Joyce's A Social History of Ancient Ireland (2 vols., London and Dublin, 1913, first published in shorter versions in 1903 and 1906). Gifford cites this work as authority for the word's use as "a ritual gesture to attract good fortune, and an act of consecration when repeated three times" (I.301). Slote, who detects many other debts to Joyce's Social History in the opening paragraphs of Oxen, instead quotes here from the OED: "towards the the same direction as the hands of a clock, or the apparent course of the sun (a practice held auspicious by the Celts)."

"Eamus" is Latin for "Let us go," so Deshil Eamus means something like "Let us turn ceremonially to the right"—or toward the sun, which, though gone from the sky at 10 PM, does figure prominently in the chapter's second paragraph as a god dedicated to fertility.

Where? To "Holles" Street, where Dublin's National Maternity Hospital is located. This place consecrated to facilitating childbirth will be the site where the mysteries of fertility are played out. Slote suggests that Deshil Holles may also echo Denzil Holles, the Earl of Clare, after whom the street was named. At the end of Oxen, the young men spill out of the hospital and walk past "Denzille lane" to Burke's pub on the corner of Holles Street and Denzille Street.

Joyce's decision to start the chapter with an Irish word suggests that his imitation of English prose styles may be not only appreciative but also somehow subversive. The next three paragraphs of Oxen continue to focus on the Latin that was spoken in Britain and Ireland before English came on the scene, and they address ancient Irish traditions of practicing medicine and founding hospitals. The language of the 12th century conquerors is thus presented as intruding into existing cultural traditions, merging with them, transforming and being transformed. 

JH 2021
Marble head of a flamen (a pagan priest), ca. 250-260 AD, held in the Louvre, Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Title page of vol. 2 of the 1913 Dublin (2nd) edition of P. W. Joyce's A Social History of Ancient Ireland. Source:
Marble portrait ca. 160 AD of the emperor Lucius Verus, with crown added later depicting him as an Arval Brother, held in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons.