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"The Old Irish Tonality": Folksong as Emotional Catalyst in "The Dead"

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 11, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 2007
pp. 136-148 | 10.1353/nhr.2008.0006

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We know that song as an artistic medium was enormously important to James Joyce throughout his life, and it particularly essential to his most famous short story, "The Dead." The story portrays the singing of three songs and alludes to as many as five others, ranging in provenance from opera and "art" song to music hall and folksong. Of all these song-types, however, it is a traditional ballad called "The Lass of Aughrim" that significantly affects the responses of the characters and the action of the narrative. Most critics who have addressed the question of why Joyce selected this particular song have focused on the lyrics, the narrative, and even the title in an attempt to draw connections—sometimes cogently, sometimes misleadingly—between its images or events and those of the story itself. Richard Ellmann, for example, comments that

Aughrim is a little village in the west not far from Galway. The song has a special relevance; in it a woman who has been seduced and abandoned by Lord Gregory comes with her baby in the rain to beg for admission to his house. It brings together the peasant mother and the civilized seducer.

More accurately, "The Lass of Aughrim" is a rarely collected traditional ballad of Scottish provenance—it appears as "The Lass of Roch Royal" in the Child collection—which relates the story of a young woman who seeks admittance for herself and her baby to the dwelling of her lover, Lord Gregory. Lord Gregory's mother, feigning the voice of her sleeping son, asks the girl to identify herself by naming love tokens that she and Lord Gregory have exchanged, and eventually turns the young woman away. When Lord Gregory awakens and learns of his mother's treachery, he curses her and sets off in pursuit of his lover and child. While the Scottish variants of the ballad tend to provide greater detail than the Irish ones, most contain at least this skeletal plot.

As George Geckle pointed out more than thirty years ago, Ellmann seems to have had "mistaken ideas about what goes on in the ballad," especially in attributing betrayal to the girl's lover, rather than to Lord Gregory's mother. While there are hints in some of the Scottish variants that she has been cast off by her own relatives and has therefore fled to Lord Gregory, there is no indication in any of the versions of the song yet collected that the girl has been abandoned by Lord Gregory himself. Nor do any of the known variants contain the slightest suggestion that the "lass" is a peasant or even that she is of lower social rank than Lord Gregory. Ellmann does not make it clear how he sees either of these ideas reflecting the events in "The Dead," although one can infer that he presumed the song to function as at least a partial reference to the possible seduction and abandonment of Miss Morkans' housemaid, Lily. He may also have thought that the ballad's putative "peasant mother" and "civilized seducer" recalled Gretta's status in relation to her husband Gabriel. Yet, Ellmann states no more than that Joyce felt that the ballad's image of the rejected lover standing in the rain "would connect more subtly with the west and with Michael Furey's visit in the rain to Gretta"—a conclusion it is difficult to contest.

Geckle, on the other hand, argues explicitly for a strong connection between the ballad story and Joyce's narrative. He links, for instance, Lord Gregory's mother's treachery toward the Lass of Aughrim with Gabriel's mother's hostility toward her daughter-in-law Gretta, and cites the following passage from "The Dead" in support of his thesis:

A shadow passed over his [Gabriel's] face as he remembered her sullen opposition to his marriage. Some slighting phrases she had used still rankled in his memory; she had once spoken of Gretta as being country cute and that was not true of Gretta at all. It was Gretta who had nursed her during all her last long illness in their house at Monkstown.

Thus Geckle, like Ellmann, seems to see the issue...



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