What’s the best short story ever written?

According to the English Professor who taught me in 1st year at Uni in Galway, it’s “The Dead” by James Joyce.

We were sitting waiting to board the car ferry at the North Wall in Dublin back in August. We were on our way back from attending the blessing of the graves down in Cavan, where my uncle, my mother’s only brother, lies buried (he died very young). Anyway, there was a great big billboard at the docks with a (bad) painting of Joyce and the quotation about how he would always carry a bit of Dublin in his heart wherever he was. I had a vague recollection that was a bit much given that he hardly ever went back there so I had a quick look at Wikipedia on the auld iPhone while I was sipping my expresso. Isn’t progress amazing? Drinking an expresso in Dublin. Is there no end to their growing sophistication 😉

So, I was more or less right. James drank like a drowning fish to keep himself sane in Dublin. He wrote about Dublin more or less on the grounds that he had to write about somewhere and he may as well choose somewhere he knew. In fact, he figured that he would focus better on everything else he wrote about if he kept location as a uniform constant. Dublin is the background canvas, to be sure, but not in the way that Bord Failte says.

Joyce had a theory that everyone in Dublin was culturally dead. The city was filled with the living dead. I’m not sure exactly why he thought that. It might be that although it was a large city, a hundred years ago in the early 20th century it was neither cosmopolitan England nor idyllic rural Ireland. You do get that line of thought still, as in for example postcards of the “Real Ireland”. I’d like to send postcards of the Surreal Ireland. You could put slogans on a picture of a donkey gazing longingly over Killarney with phrases like “nach bhfuil sé seo píopa”.

In the short story “The Dead”, the main character (Gabriel) and his wife are at a celebration dinner (Feast of the Epiphany, 12th Night, Little Christmas / Nollaig Bheag) and afterwards they stay over in the Gresham hotel rather than go back to their home in the suburbs. He gets a bit frisky but finds that she has a bad case of the blues. She is remembering her first love named Michael Furey back in Galway who died young from consumption. The “epiphany” (as in discovery) is that she may never have loved him, her husband, but in fact “had feelings” instead for the dead young man. Gabriel now has to cope with this new fact. He and his wife are in the ranks of the living Dead that walk the city’s streets.

Joyce also wrote a short poem in 1912 (i.e. when living in Trieste) called “She Weeps Over Rahoon”. Here’s a reading.

Rain on Rahoon falls softly, softly falling,
Where my dark lover lies.
Sad is his voice that calls me, sadly calling,
At grey moonrise.

Love, hear thou
How soft, how sad his voice is ever calling,
Ever unanswered, and the dark rain falling,
Then as now.

Dark too our hearts, O love, shall lie and cold
As his sad heart has lain
Under the moongrey nettles, the black mould
And muttering rain.

It’s a bit Emo I admit but bear with me for the rest of the story.

James Joyce fell in love with a girl he met in Dublin but who was originally from Bowling Green in Galway, next to the market at St. Nicholas’ church. She had been in love with a young man called Michael Bodkin who died aged 19, and who is buried in the family crypt at Rahoon cemetery. I have  a personal tie to Rahoon Cemetery, it’s where my father, uncle and grandparents are buried. If it is the same lad, then according to town records he was a clerk who lived at Prospect Hill, which is a short walk away from Bowling Green. There’s another story, which is even more Emo, that when he heard she was about to leave for Dublin he got out of his sick bed, and stood in the rain outside her room singing to her from under an apple tree. Hastened his end, did that.

Is it any wonder we have songs like “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”? That was the daily norm, by the looks of it.

The woman that Joyce married was Nora Barnacle. When James’ father was told that was the name of his intended, he is alleged to have said “She will never leave you”. Think about it. As it turned out, she never did leave him.