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Irish Folk Songs in Joyce’s “Ulysses”

Wednesday, September 23, 2009; 02:31 am Leave a comment Go to comments

Mabel Worthington’s article Irish Folk Songs in Joyce’s “Ulysses” provides a valuable though fairly brief look into the use of Irish folk songs both in Joyce’s earlier works and in Ulysses, with a strong emphasis on the latter.  Structurally, the article presents an overview of some of the ways in which music and song played a role in Joyce’s life and writing, and then proceeds to cite some of the key occurrences of folk song within the text itself.

The introduction might be the most valuable part of the entire article.  It depicts the importance of and lifelong involvement with music that Joyce enjoyed, as well as providing some biographical information to explain the connection.  From the title of his collection of poems, particular stories in Dubliners and throughout Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, it becomes evident that music figures into all of Joyce’s works, not just Ulysses.  Joyce himself was a tenor, and was devoted to the opera, having grown up in a musical family.

Within a nationalist context, the songs of Ireland were not extremely well known outside of the country, and thus their use figures strongly in constructing a uniquely Irish text.  As Worthington states: “It is the purpose of this paper to call attention to references to Irish folk songs in Ulysses.  These songs, composed by Irish men and women, celebrate Irish experiences, historical or otherwise; they are about wars, battles, patriotism, nature, love, drinking, all in an Irish context; they are known and sung by the Irish, and by very few others” (Worthington 321-322).  The introduction also creates a valuable source list of books containing the original Irish songs, with the two most notable being Tom Moore’s Collected Works and Kathleen Hoagland’s 1000 Years of Irish Poetry.  It goes on to list five others, though it notes that the first two are considerably more useful both in terms of the number of songs referenced within Ulysses, and their relevance in the catalog of Irish songs in a broader sense.

Although the second, and considerably longer, part of the article focuses on particular occurrences and generally fails to provide further depth than Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. However, in several cases it does expand on the notes provided by Gifford, and most notably it does gather up all of the specifically Irish song references into one place, while tracking a specific song throughout the text, instead of tracing each occurrence chronologically (as in the Gifford).

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