David Langwallner: The Dead At Christmas


From top: A still from John Huston’s 1987 film adaptation of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’; David Langwallner

To my mother, Mai Cashman Langwallner.

A Broadsheet reader wanted a piece on Irish mothers but not just that. What about the disturbed Madonna/whore neo-liberal hierarchy that is Ireland? The missionary position to invoke, blasphemously, Hitchens. Also, dead.

And, of course, my mother floats across my consciousness. Songs my mother told me. Have I let her down? No. I have left and regained a measure or slice of life.

When I once lost a debating competition in Ireland, fixed in UCD, I could see her disapproval before the verdict. She loved Ireland and wanted so much to be someone in that infernal country. I saw her make a brilliant speech as head of a Fianna Fáil cumann – much better than all the plutocratic politicians surrounding her and patronising her when she had several strokes. Her love of Ireland was misguided; her dissatisfaction thus is part of my heritage. Songs my mother told me.

Her great gift to me though was, apart from supporting me through childhood, her intellect and her doting voice, under-recognised and under-appreciated in Ireland. Women of her generation without means and from certain backgrounds.

One also remembers others to use the imperial voice who have influenced us and, close to his death, orator and a gentleman Adrian Hardiman frequently spoke about his posthumously published book Joyce in Court.

I got around to reading this on Remembrance Day. There is only one page in it referencing the greatest Irish short story The Dead.

It is at Page 17, where the main protagonist Gabriel Conroy is evoked as a Castle Catholic, or that is the substance of the remark made to him for writing for the Protestant press. Adrian, conscious of proper traditions, is non-approving of the remark, implicitly so.

The Dead is about Gabriel Conroy attending with his wife Gretta at a dinner party, his dowager aunt’s annual mass ritual on St Stephen’s day or Boxing Day, and he, conscious of the snow, is reminded of an adolescent dead lover and his lust for his wife derailed that night by her and the realisation not helped by being with his elderly aunts and the ballad song that we are all soon to be dead. A gradual realisation more obvious than ever in Covid times. For many.

It is the most lyrical thing Joyce ever wrote, apart from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. And it is a cornucopia of traditional Irish self-destructive obsessions, nationalism, sex, and death. The crucible of awfulness that is our unholy, or should that be holy, mess then and now. Freud would have a field day with Ireland. It is also about a mass-enforced social obligation and indeed personal inquisition and self-evaluation.

A time of remembrance and chastisement or, a non-Irish word, self-criticism. A time for the realisation that a relationship or marriage is not what it was or could be. Lachrymose, unfulfilled expectations in that most awful of places, Dublin, which has stoked the imagination of all. Awfulness does. As it does me. At Christmas.

Joyce buried in Zurich. Beckett buried in Montparnasse. Wilde in a gaudy grave in Per Lachaise. Yeats his bones contested in France and Sligo but, unlike Harry Gleeson, exhumed. Found.

The legendary actor Donal McCann, dead at 57, played Gabriel in John Huston’s final film and Huston, dying of emphysema, directed the film from an oxygen tent. Late emphysema, as people close to me have. Soon to be dead? Well, in his case, Dead before completion in fact.

The obsessions contained within the short story are a reflection then and now of the limitations of the Catholic bourgeoisie which Hardiman clearly saw. Nationalism and chauvinism, the national failing, leading to the destruction of Parnell also a short story in Dubliners (Ivy Day in The Committee Room) and that tribalistic chauvinism was nothing that Hardiman wanted part of, and rightly so, nor the grubby Fine Gael class.

Greasy, saving, cravenly praying. Sucking up to an ever more corrupt business class. The living dead, or the non-receptive living dead. Though much of the country and other countries in Covid times, without opportunity, enters the realms of the living dead?

And what is wrong and treasonable in writing for the British press? Well, taking the Queen’s shilling, as opposed to taking the shilling of the Irish state, the latter much worse it seems to me in context. The UK to adapt Shakespeare and John Mortimer has given me the lease of life and life is precious as is quality of life in these awful times of moral, economic and, above all, spiritual devaluation.

I should say I charge nothing for anything I write for Irish or UK publications so I’m immune from the rebuke to Gabriel. “The books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry paycheck.”

But I have taken the Queen’s shilling as a West Brit, whatever that means currently or, better still, work in a system which preserves under enormous stressors fair procedures and the rule of law which Ireland never has and now clearly does not.

Snow is unusual in Ireland hence the reference to even in The Bog of Allen where there are many dead bodies. And it is often, at one level, associated with cleansing, certainly Calvino’s novel Marcovaldo evokes that sense, snow also comforts. In the Cherokee Indian parable, the sparrow with the broken wing is protected and healed by the pine trees during the winter. Well, all god’s children have wings, and this is a time for healing.

The legendary Danish novel Ms Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is snow as purifier and a metaphor for the exposure of corruption. But snow passes and is ephemeral and thus, as Joyce understood, a metaphor for life as ephemerality in Briggs’ book The Snowman invokes. The death of the snowman as a metaphor for the death of all of us and let us try and pass something on as birds of passage.

Thus Christmas, on a positive note, is about also about renewal, birth, children, and resolutions of what should be done. Happy Christmas, war is over, as John Lennon indicated in a work of art as great as The Dead in a more compressed way.

So let us reflect at Christmas on tribalism, chauvinism, corruption, exclusion of others and the degradation of others and of our own people, the soon-to-be dead through unaffordable housing, living structures and dehumanisation and the virus with more to come, real or hyper real, and be conscious of its social effects.

So, we the living, not the dead, triumph and not dwell on dead lovers or us soon-to-be dead.

Snow as cleansing. But let us not forget the gift of the dead. The gift of knowledge and remembrance. The archaeology of knowledge in a forgetful age.

Time for those living resolutions then. And remember, but not obsess, with the dead for we owe them no obligation but remembrance. The reason we are kind to the dead, as Kundera remarked unkindly, is that we owe them no obligation.

But we do. We owe them the gift of remembrance and what those great ones have done to make things better for us and for the world. Better for the living.

David Langwallner is a barrister, specialising in public law, immigration, housing and criminal defence including miscarriages of justice. He is emeritus director of the Irish Innocence project and was Irish lawyer of the year at the 2015 Irish law awards. Follow David on Twitter @DLangwallner


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26 thoughts on “David Langwallner: The Dead At Christmas

    1. Nilbert

      “What about the disturbed Madonna/whore neo-liberal hierarchy that is Ireland…”

      This kind of hackneyed drivel was jaded 30 years ago.
      For the most part, Irish people are not the subjugated, self-flagellating , kowtowing peasants of your fantasy.

          1. Bodger

            A curfew (‘an order specifying a time during which certain regulations apply’) on pubs and restaurants. Thought you’d be happy.

        1. Nilbert

          ‘5PM Curfew’ should be the name of a new cocktail.

          But what would it contain readers?

          Gin and Hydroxychloriquinine tonic?

          1. U N M U T U A L

            OK…meaningful Christmas cocktails.

            The Freedonia:
            1 part sweet vermouth
            1 part bourbon whiskey
            1 part Licor Beirão or Grand Marnier
            Shaken over ice in a chilled glass, twist of orange, no ice.

            The 5pm Curfew:
            1 part brandy(for the aul ticker)
            1 part dark rum
            1 part irish cream
            1 good of dash lemon juice (joke) :-D
            Served on ice, in a long glass just out of arms reach!

  1. Ann

    I thought the dinner in “The Dead” was on the 6th January to celebrate ” Little Christmas” “Twelfth Night” “Nollaig na mban” and not St Stephen’s Day

  2. U N M U T U A L

    Thanks David… Always enjoy your posts.

    Disregard some of this lot in here…
    Entrenched positions are often harder to escape when mud laden. ;-)

    1. Johnny

      Agreed,that was a great read,thanks David,for some fabulous pieces this year.
      Didn’t Joyce leave Ireland less than a year after Mary,his mum died in abject poverty in Cabra,reason enough to never come back.

  3. Duncan Wheeler

    Thank you for your salient thoughts and remininscences. My mother whose intellect and charisma was ignored and sidelined throughout her life found it difficult to live through. Only now in her 90’s has she gained a measure of peace. Your mention of Peter Hoeg’s hypnotising and thought provoking novel brings to mind a quote from Ms Smillas. “Parents become so hungry and unfulfilled that they devour their own children”. Macro Ireland in a quote.

  4. Andrew

    Thanks David, I enjoy reading your pieces and long may you keep writing them.
    I love the John Huston film and it’s so sad that Donal McCann died so young, a truly great actor, what charisma!
    I saw him play Frank Hardy in Faith Healer many years ago, on one of my first dates with my now wife. The memory stays with me still.

  5. Lilly

    I’d say the greatest short story, not just the greatest Irish short story.

    Mai was a lovely, lively woman and David the apple of her eye.

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