22 May 2019

‘To live, to err, to fall, to triumph,
to recreate life out of life’

Words from Stephen Dedalus and James Joyce on a wall in Cecil Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

On a bright, sunny afternoon in Limerick this week, words on a wall street brought me back in my mind to sunshine in Crete and the myths of the labyrinth, the Minotaur and flying too close to the sun.

Carved on the stonework of a building at the top of Cecil Street in Limerick are the words:

To live to err to fall
to recreate life out of life
James Joyce

The Joycean quotation is from words spoken by Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, first published in 1916.

Stephen Dedalus first appears in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His name comes from Daedalus, the master inventor of Greek myth, who built the labyrinth at Knossos in Crete for the notorious Minotaur.

James Joyce was a close friend of George Clancy (1881-1921), later a Mayor of Limerick, who was the inspiration for the character Michael Davin in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

George Clancy was educated at Crescent College, Limerick, and the Catholic University in Saint Stephen’s Green, later University College Dublin. His college friends included Joyce, and in 1904 he became a teacher at Joyce’s old school at Clongowes Wood. He moved to Limerick to teach Irish in 1908. There he was arrested in 1916, but before he came to trial he was released after a hunger strike. He was elected Sinn Féin Mayor of Limerick in 1921, but during the War of Independence he was shot dead in Limerick on 7 March 1921.

One of Clancy’s killers was later said to be George Nathan (1895-1937), who also led the Black and Tan gang who attacked the Shannon Hotel in Castleconnel a few weeks later, on 17 April 1921. Nathan was Jewish and gay, and the first Jewish officer in the Brigade of Guards. He cut a lonely figure, and his defenders say the allegations besmirch the reputation of a man who later became a well-known socialist.

Nathan died in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 fighting as a major on the Republican side in British contingent in the XV International Brigade. In his diary, Peter O’Connor from Waterford described him as ‘one of the greatest soldiers taking part in the first fight against Fascism.’

But the words on the wall in Cecil Street, Limerick, come from Stephen Dedalus, the main character in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is essentially Joyce’s alter ego, and many of the events in his life mirror events in Joyce’s own youth. His surname is taken from the Greek mythical figure Daedalus, who also engaged in a struggle for autonomy.

Growing up, Stephen goes through long phases of hedonism and deep religiosity. He eventually adopts a philosophy of aestheticism, greatly valuing beauty and art. He questions and rebels against the Catholic and Irish conventions under which he has grown, culminating in his self-exile from Ireland to Europe.

Stephen Dedalus also appears in Ulysses, where he is the protagonist of the first three chapters. Later, Leopold Bloom is introduced, and Stephen’s interactions with Bloom and his wife, Molly, form much of the narrative in the final chapters.

The words on the wall on Cecil Street come from a passage in Chapter 4 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.

He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling. On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.

Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!

In the Labyrinth in Knossos on the island of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The myth of Daedalus and Icarus has parallels in the structure of A Portrait, and gives Stephen his surname. But it also calls to mind Joyce’s theme of challenging the status quo, as Daedalus defies the King of Crete.

In Greek mythology, Daedalus (Δαίδαλος) is a skilful craftsman and artist, and a symbol of wisdom, knowledge, and power. He is the father of Icarus, and he invents and builds the labyrinth at Knossos for King Minos of Crete.

When King Minos imprisons Daedalus within the labyrinth, Daedalus and Icarus devise a plan to escape by using wings made of wax shaped by Daedalus. They escape, but Icarus fails to heed his father’s warnings and flies too close to the sun. The wax melts, and Icarus falls to his death. Daedalus is left heartbroken, but rather than giving up he flies on to the island of Sicily.

In the sunshine this week on Clancy’s Quay – named after George Clancy and close to a new monument commemorating this year’s centenary of the Limerick Soviet – I gazed across the waters of the River Shannon back towards Saint Mary’s Cathedral. And I thought of Daedalus, Stephen Dedalus, George Clancy. And for a moment too, I smiled at thoughts of being under the warm sunshine and the bright blue skies of Crete.

Close to the sun on Clancy’s Quay, Limerick, looking across to Saint Mary’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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