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Clever, Very: Mary Burke

As part of our “Clever, Very” series, we recently interviewed Mary Burke, Associate Professor of English and Director of the Irish Literature Concentration at UConn. She is author of “Tinkers”: Synge and the Cultural History of the Irish Traveller (Oxford). Her recent articles consider the politics of Irish souvenirs, Celtic Tiger motherhood and Claire Kilroy, overlooked dissident and queer voices in a 1966 Easter Rising commemoration and correlations between the Synge and Stravinsky riots. She is a former University of Notre Dame NEH Keough-Naughton Fellow and outgoing MLA Irish Literature Forum Chair. Dr. Burke’s most recent article, “Forgotten Remembrances: The 6 January ‘Women’s Christmas’ and the 6 January 1839 ‘Night of the Big Wind’ in ‘The Dead,’” appears in JJQ 54.3-4.

James Joyce Quarterly: Your article brings together two important things in Irish culture that have largely been forgotten and we’re eager to learn more. First, what exactly was the “The Night of the Big Wind”? What did this extraordinary storm later come to symbolize in the Irish imagination and memory?

Mary Burke: Having grown up in the Irish West, I was aware of two unofficial/local memories associated with the date of the Epiphany, the Women’s Christmas celebration and the Night of the Big Wind, forgotten remembrances that are conjured up by the bad weather and party of “The Dead.” This hurricane-like storm arrived without warning on 6 January 1839. Thousands abandoned suddenly roofless houses, and the country experienced flash floods and showers of salt water driven miles inland by the raging sea. Estimates suggest deaths in the hundreds and a loss of 250,000 trees, while Dublin’s Liffey flooded the quays in the wider spectacle of what the Dublin Evening Mail called a “sacked city.”  In retrospect, the deadly storm was recollected by the rural poor– for whom it had long-lasting economic effects– as a harbinger of the 1845 Famine, with succeeding weather events evoking memories of the seemingly related mass traumas of ruination and hunger. In the millenarian atmosphere of colonial Ireland, many thought the Day of Judgement had arrived, and it does seem to have been the first day of the End of Days for the Irish language and rural culture, which the Famine decimated. “The Dead” evokes such memories on the anniversary of what the folk record assessed to have been the real beginning of the Famine and its accompanying cultural and linguistic holocaust, which is the Night of the Big Wind on Women’s Christmas in 1839. The storm reemerged in public/print discussion briefly in the decade Joyce wrote “The Dead”: when the state pension was introduced in 1909, applicants lacking documentation of birth were asked whether they could remember the storm of 1839, exactly seventy years previously.

JJQ: Could you also tell us about “Women’s Christmas”?  What led to you connect this fading practice to the famous party in “The Dead?”

Burke: In parallel to the Western Christian liturgical calendar that celebrated the Epiphany, an alternate Irish folk calendar observed January 6 as the carnivalesque “Women’s Christmas,” when women took a break from the season’s chores and ate, drank, and danced together. Nollaig na mBan appears to have been passed on orally from mother to daughter and to have become widely forgotten with the loss of the Irish language. In contrast to the women’s revelries of the traditional January 6, the mostly Anglicized, urban female guests in “The Dead” are noticeably abstemious, and the fare on offer is, according to traditional classification, more to “male” than “female” taste. (Moreover, the story’s invocation of the Famine − via that catastrophe’s association with another freak weather event on a previous January 6 − adds a frisson to the party’s over-abundance.) Joyce audits a terrific amount of female labor in “The Dead,” and Gabriel’s lack of deep appreciation for his aunts’ hard work on what should have been their day of rest materializes once the date’s traditional significance for women is acknowledged. “Women’s Christmas” has been reinvented in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland as a kind of “girls’ night out” and has (re?)-emerged in Irish America too: in January I will be involved in the inaugural Boston Nollaig na mBan, a fundraising celebration organized by the Irish American Partnership.

JJQ: One thing which comes up repeatedly in your article is the notion that the Gregorian and liturgical calendars are haunted by their predecessors, whose roots are embedded in folk and pagan tradition. Could you describe what an awareness of this “haunting” brings to a reading of “The Dead”?

Burke: January 5-6 had been the days on which Christmas was celebrated prior to the Gregorian calendar. The ensuing temporal instability allowed ghosts to enter and the dates acquired many supernatural and “pagan” associations. (Given this massed body of belief saturating January 6, it is unsurprising that that the 1839 storm was widely perceived as a supernatural/providential event.) A further temporal instability in the calendar of revels and forgotten trauma that undergirds “The Dead” is that July 12, on which the Battle of the Boyne is celebrated in loyalist Ireland, is actually the date of the Battle of Aughrim – the defeat of Jacobite/Gaelic Ireland— in the old Julian calendar. The implied political, linguistic, and cultural forgetting of Gabriel’s ancestors extends to the Ultramontane Catholicism his family has embraced by 1904, which is embedded in a “male” liturgical calendar that erases Catholicism’s “pagan”/“female” traces.  Thus, the forgotten trauma and commemorations of women, the poor, and the defeated return to haunt both Gabriel and official calendars at the close.

JJQ: Why do you think it’s important for readers to have an understanding of Irish history and culture in order to get an appreciation for Joyce?

Burke: I was educated in Dublin and I see it everywhere in his work, of course, but I grew up in Galway, so Nora Barnacle’s childhood world is particularly visible to me in “The Dead.” Knowledge of both the seemingly insignificant and significant in Irish memory helps when reading Joyce, but of course, one can also gain such an understanding from Joyce!

JJQ: For the last several decades, Joyce scholarship has been powerfully guided by historical work like yours, starting with post-colonial studies and moving toward the steady revelation of an Irish Joyce. Where do you think this kind of research is headed next?

Burke: I cannot speak to the whole field, but my personal experience is that Joyce speaks to current concerns– both Irish and global– at any given time and that scholarship is engaging with such issues. I was recently honored to speak at Boston College’s landmark event on institutional abuse in Ireland, “Towards Transitional Justice,” and found my topic in what I briefly note in this article is Joyce’s prompt regarding Dublin’s forgotten Bethesda Protestant Asylum for “fallen” women, which burned down on the Night of the Big Wind. Additionally, in postulating that the 1839 storm haunts succeeding weather events, I was struck by how the memory of storms is everywhere in Joyce, and this resonance with current climate change and the increasing and traumatic recurrence of weather catastrophe which I see emerging in Joyce scholarship also entered my reading of “The Dead.” Finally, Joyce’s attention to how women are elided is particularly pertinent in this #MeToo moment, and challenging Joyce scholarship in that vein is coming too, given ongoing and emerging controversies.