James Joyce’s beloved short story ‘The Dead’ is set on January 6th – and marks the first major event in every Joycean’s calendar.
It is the final story in his short story collection Dubliners and unites the themes found throughout the book.
As readings and film showings can’t go ahead as usual this year, we decided to celebrate ‘The Dead’ by sharing some trivia you might not be aware of.
1. ‘The Dead’ was a late addition to Dubliners
James Joyce wrote ‘The Dead’ in 1907 – three years after finishing the other 14 short stories that make up Dubliners. While living in Rome, his feelings toward Dublin softened somewhat and he wished there was an Irish club in the city where he could meet other Irish expats.
In 1906, he wrote to his brother Stanislaus:
“Sometimes thinking of it seems to me that I have been unnecessarily harsh. I have reproduced (in Dubliners at least) none of the attraction of the city for I have never felt at my ease in any city since I left it, except in Paris. I have not reproduced its ingenious insularity and its hospitality.
“The latter ‘virtue’ so far as I can see does not exist elsewhere in Europe. I have not been just to its beauty: for it is more beautiful naturally in my opinion than what I have seen of England, Switzerland, France, Austria or Italy. And yet I know how useless these reflections are.”
Joyce didn’t want to rewrite his existing stories. So, instead, he finished off the collection by adding ‘The Dead’, which showed Dublin’s warmer side. It is based on Joyce’s own experience of visiting his hospitable grand-aunts every Christmas.
2. It is set around the Feast of the Epiphany
In Ireland, the 6th of January is known as Little Christmas, Women’s Christmas or Nollaig na mBan. After all the hard work women did over Christmas, they finally got a day off. Traditionally, men did the house work while the women of the household visited friends and ate the last of the Christmas cake.
But this date also marks the Christian feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the moment when the Three Wise Men revealed that a baby Jesus was the son of God. In ‘The Dead’, an evening of food, drink and dancing ends in an epiphany for Gabriel who makes a surprising discovery about his wife’s past.
3. The Dead was John Huston’s last film
John Huston wrote and directed many Hollywood classics, such as The Maltese Falcon and The Man Who Would Be King. But in 1952, he left the US in response to the anti-Communist investigations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The hearings, which he described as witch hunts, impacted many of his friends in film.
As a result, he set down roots in Ireland. His grandfather had emigrated to Canada from County Armagh just before the famine. But Huston settled in a large Georgian manor in County Galway. Twelve years later, in January 1964, he formalised his affiliation with Ireland by becoming a citizen.
While in Ireland, he directed Moby Dick, which was shot in Cork in 1956, and Casino Royale, which was shot in Meath in 1966. But then in 1987, at the age of 80, he worked on his film adaptation of The Dead.
His son Tony wrote the screenplay, while his daughter Anjelica played the role of Gretta. But having suffered from emphysema for almost a decade, he had to direct the film from a wheelchair while hooked up to an oxygen tank.
Huston saw the project through to the end. But less than a week before its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, he died from his illness. The Dead went on to win a handful of international awards and was nominated for two Oscars.
4. The story went unpublished for 7 years
James Joyce started sending his Dubliners manuscript to publishers in 1905 – before he even wrote ‘The Dead’. In fact, London publisher Grant Richards agreed to publish it in 1906, but his printer refused to print the book because it contained crude language. (At the time, any charges of obscenity would have been brought against the printer, rather than the publisher.)
When Joyce completed ‘The Dead’ in 1907, Dubliners was rejected four more times before being accepted by a Dublin-based publisher. But, once again, the printer wouldn’t comply. This time, an apparent slight to the British royal family in ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ prevented publication.
Eventually, 1,250 copies of Dubliners were released in 1914 by Grant Richards – the publisher who had initially agreed to release the book.
5. It’s set at 15 Usher’s Island, but filmed in LA
In ‘The Dead’, the characters of Kate and Julia – Gabriel’s two aging aunts – are inspired by Joyce’s own grand-aunts. The story is set at 15 Usher’s Island, where they lived and taught music in the 1890s.
The exterior of this house is seen in John Huston’s movie adaptation – as are other views of Dublin, such as Temple Bar and the Ha’penny Bridge. But scenes inside the house were actually filmed in a studio in Los Angeles.
Measurements and photos of the original house informed the reproduction and antique Victorian props were flown from Dublin to LA to decorate the set.
Just after the film was released, Dublin City Council listed 15 Usher’s Island as a protected structure. But since then, it’s experienced fires, dereliction and restoration. Right now, there are plans to turn the Georgian house into a 56-room hostel.
Want to learn more about the contributions Irish emigrants have made to the world of literature, film and music? Explore EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum through a free online virtual tour.