Exclaiming St Denis

U 3.393-6: Cissy wiped his little mouth with the dribbling bib and wanted him to sit up properly and say pa pa pa but when she undid the strap she cried out, holy saint Denis, that he was possing wet and to double the half blanket the other way under him.

Robert J. Schork reacts to the exclamation “holy saint Denis” in a footnote to his Joyce and Hagiography: Saints Above! (p. 205):

From both national and devotional points of view, I cannot explain Gerty MacDowell's [sic] exclamation in "Nausicaa": "holy saint Denis" (U 13.395).

This is all the more surprising as he quotes from Paul Mercanton’s memory of Joyce in the preceding lines that Joyce “was astonished that Saint Denis meant nothing to the French”.1 Mercanton’s following lines are enlightening:

Nevertheless, in "Nausicaa" he put an invocation to Saint Denis in the mouth of one of the young girls on the beach, just as he had once heard it, for he made up nothing.

Mercanton is undoubtedly quoting Joyce here, and we should rest assured that the girl’s invocation to “Saint Denis” (the patron saint of France) was authentic. St Denis was not unfamiliar to the Irish, and he appears in the opening line of a popular song praising St. Patrick, sung to the tune of “The Night Larry before was stretched”:

A fig for St Denis of France ­

He's a trumpery fellow to brag on;

A fig for St George and his lance,

Which spitted a heathenish dragon;

And the Saints of the Welshman or Scot

Are a couple of pitiful pipers;

Both of whom may just travel to pot

Compared with that patron of swipers;

St Patrick of Ireland, my dear!

Tait's Edinburgh Magazine (1839), p. 290

The exclamation Joyce once heard on a Dublin beach had obviously been handed on to the girl by her parents’ and grandparents’ generation, as in the following examples either the writers or their characters all have an Irish background:

— the divil a bit you've had man at all to eat with that old crone; I've been watching her all the time, and by the holy St. Denis of France I'll take my bible oath that she ate more than any four persons at the table.

Isaac Butt, Irish Life, 1840, p. 272

... but had'nt I been handy wid my legs in scaping from that divil Glanville, and his imps, by the holy St. Dennis, they'd have showed me as much mercy as a thumb nail would to a flay.

I. Laver, Rockland castle, 1842, p. 27

"Eh! What! How -?" ejaculated the astounded pilgrim. "Holy saint Denis! What's this at all! Why don't ye behave yersilf, ye great omadhaun!

All the Year Round (1895), p. 161

Holy Saint Denis! lamb has not crossed my mouth this season. And the day before that?' 'We had,' replied Mr. Flyn, 'two rabbits and a salmon.'

Gentleman's Magazine (1889), vol. 4, p. 228

"St. Denis Carrying His Own Head, woodcut, 1826."

(Wiki Commons: public domain)

The Authenticated report of the discussion which took place at Londonderry, between six Roman Catholic priests and six clergymen of the Established Church, in the diocese of Derry in March 1828 and published in Dublin that same year shows us that veneration of St. Denis was considered as typically Irish as that of St. Bridget:

They have no unity in their devotions either, when we enter a Romish Chapel, we behold one creature kissing and venerating a picture of Christ, another is prostrate before a Crucifix, or an image, one is calling on the Virgin, another on a saint Bridget, or it may be headless Denis, or perhaps the feigned resemblance of some imaginary saint; memorials you will call them, how can one of these pictures of a mortal, remind us of the invisible God?

Harald Beck

1 Paul Mercanton, “The Hours of James Joyce”, 219, in Portraits of the Artist in Exile. Recollections of James Joyce by Europeans, ed. Willard Potts, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979).


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