(D) about “Clay,” October 31, Samhain When the Dead Roam the Earth

Dublin by Lamplight competed against the Catholic-run Magdelena laundries for business and a workforce. This laundry advantaged its prosperous neighbors and leveraged the friendship and business associations of the Protestant board members. Lamplight was perhaps also more attractive to “working girls” because it intended to convert fallen women by employing the Protestant carrot more often than the Catholic penitential stick.

In an annotation of the story, Jackson and McGinley tell us the laundry’s name suggests that Dublin was a sinful locale after dark. Dublin’s Monto served the garrison of occupying soldiers and locals, but girls in trouble came from across the counties too. There were drunken uncles and fathers and concupiscent parish priests enough to send girls to the washtubs. Dublin by Lamplight was a self-proclaimed success reporting to Dublin Charities in 1902, “not one percent who leave return to their former evil life. Those who remain two years are placed in situations or sent to America.”

The inmates are vulgar and prone to violence like Ginger Mooney, whose name translates as either “dumb” or “guileful,” say Jackson and McGinley. The governors of the laundry might have knowingly shaken their heads. Ireland was filled with Mooneys. This story is told in unpolished Mooney vernacular.

Maria is not one of those coarse women. Her story unwinds in a coarse voice but not her voice. She is a woman of prayer, of purity, and of family though without a home. She is a peacemaker, so says the coarse narrator. She hasn’t come to Dublin by Lamplight under bad circumstances. Her position was secured for her by Joe and Alphy. She’s not one of those women. Well, perhaps not. 

Maria’s goodness is, however, somehow imperfect. Jackson and McGinley point to the “incompleteness” that surrounds her. The gathering is incomplete for Alphy’s absence. Maria’s attempt at peacemaking seems to have made things worse between the brothers. Joe swears, “God might strike him stone dead if he ever spoke a word to his brother again,” a reference to Cain and Abel not to the Sermon on the Mount. The refreshments are incomplete as the result of Maria’s embarrassment at the old colonel’s mild flirtation. She forgets her “wedding cake” after changing trams at Nelson’s Pillar (noted in Ulysses as a monument to the one-handed adulterer). Her song is incomplete too. She fails to sing the second verse, perhaps because it tells of a maid with two competing suitors. Maria denies the desire of either a man or a ring.

Maria’s imperfections may be due to mere bad luck. She has been given ill fortune, but she has tempted fate by her actions. Joe and Alphy, now separated by spite, tempted fate when they traveled on WhitMonday, then shared their bad luck with Maria. Travel on that day brings bad luck, as does a gift (like Maria’s token from Belfast) given on that day. It’s also bad luck to turn the clock backward (even to rise early for All Saints Mass), travel North while facing backward as she does on the tram, or sing “I Dreamt that I Dwelt” outside of the context of Balfe’s operetta. With such a trove of ill luck, it’s no wonder that Maria draws clay, the symbol of death, as her fortune. But in the Irish language, “cle’ ” may also suggest inappropriateness (Jackson and McGinley).

Superstitions, particularly those associated with Pentecost, a celebration of Divine inspiration, are antithetical to Maria’s Catholicism. A family gathering on Hallow’s Eve may seem like a small departure from Catholic theology, but she is the only adult to engage in the divination game. The plants she nurtures include the fern. Holding fern seeds were believed to convey invisibility, as noted in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Her nose and chin nearly meet when she laughs in her grotesquely uncontrolled way. Like the witch she resembles, she travels about on Samhain with the souls of the dead. 

“Mamma is mamma but Maria is my proper mother,” Joe was known to say; the narrator says she had nursed both boys. It’s possible that Maria merely served as a maid in raising the brothers. Expect that Joyce chose the spelling for Mamma intentionally. It implies the Latin for breast and, therefore, a wetnurse. Were Maria never pregnant, this would not be possible. The Donnellys may have claimed the children to avoid family shame while allowing Maria to act as “proper mother.” When the household dissolves, she is moved inconspicuously to Dublin by Lamplight, not as an inmate but as an employee with a special understanding of the other residents.

Indications of suppressed sexual desires are the phrase “quaint affection,” an Elizabethan usage indicating an adventure of loose morals, and the laying out of her clothes on the bed for the next day. Another superstition says this summons a future lover during her sleep. The choice of a name for Maria may have been ironic. All this would be improper for an unmarried lady.

In her paper “James Joyce’s Dubliners as a Realist Text” (2019), Karmel Knipprath lays out the argument that “Clay” is the contest of Realism (even an emerging Modernism) and Irish Revivalism. There may be another conflict as well: Catholicism resisted by covert Druidism.

Druidic worship incorporated the use of plants such as mistletoe in selecting sites for their rituals. Similarly, Maria tends to her wax plants and the ferns that render her invisible. She enjoys a distinction in feeding the women of the laundry (rather than washing at the tubs as they do). The druids ritually cooked and chewed pieces of sacred beasts in divination. The Celtic witch Ceridwen had two sons, one she abandons in a river. Irish chieftains and kings gave sons to friendly or even unfriendly peers as hostages or to foster alliances. Maria has given away her sons, losing one seemingly forever. Chief druid Beag mac De was able to share the visions of Saints Brendan, Ciaran, and Columba (Wood, The Celtic Book of Living and Dying). The Tuatha De’ Danann Goddess Brig crossed over into the canon of Christian Saints as Brigit. Tiny Maria practices that persistent cross-over brand of Druidism hiding among the folds of Papish robes.

An unsanctified marriage like Samhain and All Hallows.

don ward November 5, 2020

2 thoughts on “(D) about “Clay,” October 31, Samhain When the Dead Roam the Earth

  1. I enjoyed this. You make interesting connections. I thought your research on Druidic behaviours and religious ones, insightful, informative, and well crafted. A couple of queries I have regarding the post. First, when you mention the link between clé (Irish term) and inappropriateness, which meaning are you referring to? As you’re aware, there are many interpretations of this in English, including ‘left’ and ‘near.’ Also, is the title in any way suggestive, if we take its literal meaning of Maria’s formlessness as a lump of clay fashioned only by the hands of her surroundings, influences, and outside manipulations? Does she mould herself to conform or is she moulded by an unrelenting way of life? Does she have any shape or form? Is this the reason she goes abroad ‘on Samhain with the souls of the dead’? Is this why ‘her nose and chin nearly’ meet?

    Second, the ‘Mamma’ passage in your prose works well and generates a few queries. Again, the word itself seems alien somehow because it’s not ‘Ma’ (cagneyesqe link aside). It’s almost too considered. By the same token, ‘proper mother’ is just off the target. Your etymological analysis of the term is on point. The whole sentence I’ve always found strange and stilted. It’s out of sync with much of the surrounding language. That said, Joyce was fond of placing an unusual word or two in these stories. 😊

    Overall, a great read. Fine choice of ‘Mooney’ vernacular. Keep these coming. All best.

    1. Thanks, so much for your input, Mary. The “connection” of unformed and cle’ is really great. I wish I had thought of that. I thought to connect cle’ with the meaning as “improper,” despite all outward appearances. I think she is the biological mother of the boys. You cannot underestimate my knowledge of the Irish language.

      Don’t I wish Ihad evidence and could contend the boys were twins, one druid/ one priest?

      As you say, I don’t think Joyce enjoys any accidents in his choice of a word (although I confess that every meaning I would like to bestow probably isn’t intended). WC Fields wanted to juggle when played Micawber in David Copperfield. The director already overwhelmed by Fields’ many suggestions said : “Dickens didn’t have Micawber juggle.” Fields relentless:’ He would have if he thought of it.”

      I really value your feedback, remedial too.


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