Irish traditions: James Joyce’s “The Dead”

In the days leading up to Christmas Day 2011, I had the opportunity to listen to a radio version of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens at least a dozen times.  I tuned in on four different occasions by finding where it was playing using my Stitcher app.  My listening pleasure, however,  was interrupted by the general hustle and bustle of the season, and I never made it past the visitation of Jacob Marley each time. For me, the story of “A Christmas Carol” is an essential part of the season like Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” playing on Thanksgiving.

In Ireland, a tradition is to listen to a reading of “The Dead,”  the last short story in James Joyce’s collection, Dubliners.  The story takes place at a Christmas season party held by the main character Gabriel Conroy’s two aunts.  To the inexperienced reader, “The Dead” is just about the dullest story on record, with a lot of random cocktail conversation and some boring entertainment.  There’s turkey and traditional plum pudding and conflict about Irish nationalism.  No ghosts, no Tiny Tim, and, most notably, no happy ending.

The story, though, is considered one of Joyce’s masterpieces, and an early indicator of his greatness to come.  It’s been a long time since I read Dubliners, and, thanks to available e-texts, I’m giving it a second read.

Just as we Americans find great amusement in “Alice’s Restaurant,” I can see the Irish enjoying the familiar and complex reactions they have to their heritage and their relationship to the English.

Mostly, I don’t suppose it matters which story stirs our hearts. It’s the tradition of storytelling at Christmas , The Nutcracker, “A Christmas Carol,” “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and, yes, “The Dead” that matters. I was just reminded that Roger reads Faulkner’s “The Bear” at the beginning of each hunting season! That’s the kind of tradition we love.

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