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  • The Horses of "Araby"
  • Richard J. Gerber (bio)

Near the start of "Araby," in one of the most marvelous paragraphs he ever wrote, Joyce focuses on the play of the boys at dusk on North Richmond Street and the first appearance of Mangan's sister. At the center of this paragraph, the protagonist of "Araby" and his friends run through the lanes behind their houses, discovering sights, smells, and sounds that include:

. . . the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits . . . [and] the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.

(D 21)

The paragraph ends with a description of Mangan's sister:

Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair swung from side to side.

While the image of a "ponytail" comes readily to mind—and frescoes of Greek women displaying that hairstyle date back as early as 1600 b.c.—the word did not appear until 1916. However, the movement of Mangan's sister's dress and body is suggestive of the sway of a horse, and the swing of her hair is much like that of a horse's tail; those descriptions are not accidental. In retrospect, perhaps even the smoothing and combing of the horse hints at an unspoken desire by the boy in the story to do likewise with Mangan's sister's dark hair. In any event, the fact that "mangan" is a Gaelic word meaning "abundant hair" lends further emphasis to a careful construction of the paragraph's strong associative allusions. Joyce's unique ability here to distill beauty from the decay of Dublin's ashpits, and find music in the quotidian work of the stables, sensitizes him to other forms [End Page 245] of loveliness in the world—including his striking portrait of Mangan's sister, whose appearance evokes the image of a chestnut mare.

Later in the story, when she first speaks to the boy, Mangan's sister "bow(s) her head," one foot in front of another, revealing "the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease" (D 23). When a horse is relaxed or standing at ease, equine body language includes a lowered head and one foot presented forward. Horses and imagery suggesting them recur at several other points in "Araby" as well. For instance, Walter Scott's novel The Abbot—among the paper-covered books the boy finds in the waste room behind the kitchen in his house—features a young boy who helps Mary, Queen of Scots, escape on horseback from imprisonment at the island Castle of Loch Leven in 1568.

The title word itself, "Araby," means horse. It first appeared in print in the late twelfth-century Lambeth Homilies, a compilation of Old and Middle English sermons written in the Middlesex dialect of the Lambeth district in central London; the manuscript is held in the collection of the Lambeth Palace Library. The fifth Lambeth homily includes the following sentence:

He mihte ridan . . . on rich stede and palefrai [a small saddle horse] and mule and arabisz [an Arabian horse].

The Arabian horse is one of the oldest breeds; the archeological evidence dates back at least 4,500 years. With a distinctive head shape and high tail carriage, Arabians are noted for their speed, refinement, endurance, and strong bones. Arabian bloodlines are found in nearly every modern breed of riding horse.

In the summer of 1881, nine months prior to Joyce's birth, the annual Dublin Horse Show was held for the first time on showgrounds purchased by the Royal Dublin Society the year before at Ballsbridge, just south of the city. The Society's grounds were used as the site for a series of fundraising fairs and Joyce attended the "Araby in Dublin: Grand Oriental Fête in Aid of Jervis Street Hospital" there on the evening of Saturday, May 19, 1894. This event served as a primary source for his story and horsemanship was surely among "entertainments" he would have seen. The Freeman's Journal estimated that "more than 100,000 persons, or nearly one-third of the population of Dublin," attended the Araby...


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