When last we met, we looked at an impossibly long list of new words found in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I asked y’all to comment on which of those words you’d like elucidated. Though I received no responses in the comments (considering my recent track record, there will be no negative judgement from me!), I did have some private communications that resulted in a short list of words that beg further investigation. I did a bit of work on “ungyved” that can be found in the notes of that post (I’m looking at you, Jen!), and I have chosen for the subject of this post a single, dense sentence that we can spend some time unpacking (to no great benefit to anybody). Okay, is everybody ready?! I present for your general confusion this description of a handkerchief:
The scenes depicted on the emunctory field, showing our ancient duns and raths and cromlechs and grianauns and seats of learning and maledictive stones, are as wonderfully beautiful and the pigments as delicate as when the Sligo illuminators gave free rein to their artistic fantasy long long ago in the time of the Barmecides. – James Joyce, Ulysses
Did you get all that? Neither did I, at first. This quote contains the word “emunctory,” which made the short list mentioned above. I chose it for this post because this context sentence also contains the word “maledictive,” another word found in the 100 pages. I’m sure you noticed that there are a whole gaggle of other words that seem completely foreign. That’s because they are! Nevertheless, I aim to render this entire quote comprehensible. Can’t be done, you say? Strap yourselves in and read on; this is going to be a wild ride!
Let’s start with the word on the short list: “emunctory.” This is a fun word, and it’s ridiculously obscure. We have to dive into technical nomenclature to find its definition; Merriam-Webster’s online resource only has it in its medical dictionary (oh, and the entry is only for the noun, not the adjective):
emunctory – n : an organ (as a kidney) or part of the body (as the skin) that carries of body wastes.
Mmmm, charming. As disgusting, I mean interesting, as that is, it doesn’t seem to fit with our quote. In this case, we get a little more from the British. The OED has this adjective entry:
emunctory – adj physiol 1 : of or pertaining to the blowing of the nose 2 : that has the function of conveying waste matters from the body.
Bingo! Sense one is our man! The “emunctory field” is something on which to blow one’s nose: Joyce’s clever way of saying “handkerchief.” We have a lot to get through, so I hope you don’t mind if we just keep moving [If you are a Latin nerd, don’t miss the notes for this post. For those of you who aren’t, I’ll just say that “emunctory” is etymologically related to the word “mucous.”]. Let’s get to that other word on the 100 Pages list: “maledictive.” Now, this word is nearly as obscure as the previous one (and it’s as close as we’re going to get to a bit of practical knowledge in this post–which is not close at all).
maledictive – adj 1 : marked by cursing : invoking evil 2 : ACCURSED.
We saw the opposite of this word in a recent post (haha! “Recent.”). In that case, we leaned that something designed to avert evil is said to be “apotropaic.” In this context, “maledictive stones” are actually a specific thing, slightly more than simply stones that invoke evil. The OED tells us that maledictive stones are “stones said to have the power to bring good or bad fortune upon a person, arranged to form a cairne.”
And what is a “cairne,” you might ask? Merriam-Webster has it this way (with a slight spelling variation):
cairn – n : a heap of stones piled up as a memorial or as a landmark.
Okay, let’s get to those foreign words! What are duns and raths and cromlechs and grianauns? The short answer is that they are all monuments of ancient Irish architecture. Okay, “dun” can mean a lot of things that I won’t go into here, but in this case, it is simply the generic Irish term for “fort.” But don’t take my word for it; here’s what the OED says:
dun – n : an ancient hill-fortress or fortified eminence (in the Highlands of Scotland or in Ireland).
And though Merriam-Webster doesn’t have it online or in their newest “Collegiate,” I did find this in my trusty Webster’s Third New International Dictionary:
6dun – n : a fortified residence in Scotland and Ireland surrounded by two or more concentric circular earthen mounds with a deep moat filled with water between them or a wall and a circular mound fortified with palisades.
So, a dun is a “fortified residence,” but with specific earthwork fortifications. Let’s hit up Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate to field our next word and start to fill out the picture:
rath – n : a usually circular earthwork serving as a stronghold and residence of an ancient Irish chief.
Okay, dearest readers, as far as I understand it, the dun is the fort itself, and the rath is the surrounding earthwork fortification. I think that is right, but I might have to do some proper book research to sort out the details. I did find this page, which you can check out, yourself, and this wiki page for “dun.” So, what are all these cromlechs I keep hearing about?
cromlech – n 1 : DOLMEN 2 : a circular monoliths usually enclosing a dolmen or mound.
Okay, so what’s a dolmen?
dolmen – n : a prehistoric monument of two or more upright stones supporting a horizontal stone slab found especially in Britain and France and thought to be a tomb.
Check out this great poem about a cromlech; It’s called “Cromlech.” I wanted to include it here, but it’s too long.
I also found this in the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia:
Cromlech [Welsh or Breton,=crooked stone], term that has changed in meaning from its original equivalent to dolmen. It later came to be used for a single standing stone and now usually refers to a circle of such stones; however, the term is used in this sense for such remains on the Continent, e.g., Britanny and Portugal, rather than for those on the British Isle.¹
So, though a cromlech used to be synonymous with dolmen (as pictured, above), it is now usually associated with a group of large upright stones arranged in a circle. Nifty. Now for the trickiest word of the bunch: “grianauns.” I call it the trickiest because of the difficulty I had tracking this little bugger down. As it turns out, the source of my difficulties is that, as far as I can tell, there is no word with that spelling. Curse you, Joyce! But do you think we’re just going to stop there, throwing our hands up in defeat?! Hell, no! We will press on, and we will dig deep. What I have discovered is the word “grianán.” Now that we have that pesky “u” out of our way, we can get on with it. Let’s start with this little tidbit: I learned that “grian” is Irish for “sun.” Following from that, it is easy to see how we get this:
grianán – nm 1 : SUMMERHOUSE, BOWER 2 : SOLARIUM.²
Of course, it can’t be that simple. It appears that some take it to mean a palace, or any royal seat. But there are yet others who contest this and point to its long-standing meaning of “enclosure” or “paddock.” The waters get yet further muddied when we look at some real-life monuments with that attribution. Pictured here is the Grianán of Aileach. But that is, according to some, a bit of a misnomer, and what you see there is what’s generally referred to as a ringfort. Here’s somebody smart pointing that out: “Although the word grianán [sun porch] has an early association with the site, the structure is clearly not a sun porch; the names Grianán of Ailech and Greenan Elly are romantic attributions from the 19th century.”³ It is also interesting to note that the Grianán of Aileach was reconstructed from a big pile of rocks by a group of volunteers over the course of four years, completing the project in June, 1878.
So, Ireland is dotted with these piles of stone and forts and earthworks and monoliths, and all these things were reproduced brilliantly on Joyce’s ornate snot rag. In fact, the work is done as beautifully as that of the Sligo illuminators. Right. Besides being the name of my new band, who were these guys? Well, monks! Sligo Abbey was a Dominican Friary built in 1253. Irish monasteries are known for their important role in preserving literacy during the Middle Ages, and manuscript production was a big part of their legacy.
Those manuscripts are particularly famous for the quality of their illuminations (little paintings or drawings that complimented the written word). It’s probably fortunate for this post that I don’t know more about Sligo Abbey because we’re running a bit long, here. But what we do know is that the Sligo illuminators were the monks who skillfully painted beautiful and elaborate pictures in manuscripts at Sligo Abbey.
How is everybody holding up? I know it’s a lot of information, but hang in there, we’re almost done! In fact, let’s all relax and read a bit of poetry.
My eyes are filmed, my beard is grey,
I am bowed with the weight of years;
I would I were stretched in my bed of clay,
With my long-lost youth’s compeers!
For back to the Past, tho’ the thought brings woe,
My memory ever glides,
To the old, old time, long, long ago,
The time of the Barmecides!
To the old, old time, long, long ago,
The time of the Barmecides.4
Holy smokes, there’s that bit from the end of our sentence and the final piece to our puzzle! What you just read is the first verse of a poem entitled “The Time of the Barmecides” by Joseph Clarence Mangan (1803-1849). When appearing in print, it was often accompanied by a note stating that it was translated from the Arabic, but in truth, though Mangan did translate some poems from a number of different languages and with varying levels of interpretation, this poem was an original creation only posing as a translation. I’ll tell you a bit about Joseph in a moment, but I’d first like to share the editor’s note to a 1897 publication of the poem: “The Barmecides, or the house of Barmek, enjoyed a great power under the Abbasid caliphs of Bagdad. In the Arabian Nights, it was one of the Barmecides who made a sham feast for a beggar, which the beggar was too good-humored a wit to decline. The poet, therefore, evidently means that time of youth when its illusions, even though consciously such, are better than the realities of later life.”5
Joseph Clarence Mangan was an interesting character. He was an alcoholic and opiate addict, to start with. For the purpose of understanding why Joyce would quote one of this guy’s poems, it is worth while to note that he is often associated with the Young Ireland movement and therefore the burgeoning Irish nationalism of the 1840s6. Mangan probably wouldn’t have agreed with that; though he was a frequent contributor to nationalist journals, there is a fair chance he was more interested in his drink than their ideology. The other thing he is known for is being something of a failed, first attempt at a distinctly Irish writing tradition.7 Again, this is a little unfair. He only failed in contrast to the next generation of writers. He wasn’t Yeats or Joyce, but he did help lay down the foundation for their work and can be considered something of a harbinger or predecessor.
Okay, here it is, the wrap up: What Joyce has done with this one sentence about an extravagant hanky is to trace the major accomplishments of Irish culture from ancient times to the previous generation. That’s pretty phenomenal! I urge you to go back to the top and reread our sentence, marveling at your full understanding as it unfolds. I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I did! What’s particularly amusing to me is that, after all that work, we are all the proud possessors of a bunch of knowledge that we will probably never have recourse to use. As fun as that was, in future posts, I think I will steer away from James Joyce. I may also try to keep things more brief (and perhaps more frequent!).
1 “Cromlech,” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, March 2017, 1, EBSCOhost (accessed June 4, 2017), http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=134510583&site=ehost-live.
2 “Grianán,” in Pocket Oxford Irish Dictionary: Irish-English, ed. Breandán Ó Cróinin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), https://www-oxfordreference-com.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780191739460.001.0001/b-ga-en-00001-0006640.
3 James MacKillop, “Aileach,” in A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 8.
4 Joseph Clarence Mangan, Current Literature 22, ed. Edward Jewett Wheeler (New York: Current Literature Publishing Company, 1897), 134.
6 David Lloyd, “Joseph Clarence Mangan’s Oriental Translations and the Question of Origins,” Comparative Literature 38, no. 1 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1986), 20.