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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

3 - Music: the cultural issue


In ‘The Dead’, James Joyce's wonderfully composed short story, the musical world of turn-of-the-century Dublin is evoked with the author's characteristically exacting sense of social and cultural detail. Music is a principal topic of conversation at the Misses Morkans' annual Christmas soirée for their friends and pupils at the music school they run together, and it plays a crucial part in the meaning of the tale itself. As well it might in Edwardian Dublin, where a musical career was one of the few open to a respectable unmarried woman.

Gabriel Conroy, the Misses Morkans' nephew, is to give the after-­dinner speech at this culinary and musical feast at his aunts' rented home in Usher's Island. He judges that his audience would respond most enthusiastically not to a quotation from the ‘difficult’ Victorian poet Robert Browning, but to something they would recognise, ‘some quotation from Shakespeare or from the Melodies’. As a soi-disant intellectual, he fears that the culture of his aunts and their friends and pupils is essentially middle-brow and conventional. He knows that the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore are wholly familiar to them and vested with the same unexceptionable respectability that the Victorian and Edwardian middle classes, even in Ireland, curiously allowed the Bard of Avon.

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Kelleher, J. V., ‘Irish History and Mythology in James Joyce's “The Dead”’, The Review of Politics, 27, 3 (July 1965), 414–33
Moore, T., ‘Prefatory Letter on Music’, in The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore (Edinburgh: W.P. Nimmo, Hay and Mitchell, 1891), p. 430
Vance, N., Irish Literature: A Social History (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. 102
Deane, S., ‘Thomas Moore’, The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. I (Derry: Field Day Publications, 1991), p. 1055
Petrie, G., ‘Preface’ in The Complete Collection of Irish Music as Noted by George Petrie, Edited from the Original Manuscripts by Charles Villiers Stanford (Cork University Press, 1996), p. viii
Leerssen, J., Remembrance and Imagination: Patterns in Historical Literary Representation of Ireland in the Nineteenth Century (Cork University Press, 1996), pp. 173–7
Pearce, C., ‘Contemporary Irish Music’, in Boydell, B. (ed.), Four Centuries of Music in Ireland (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1979), p. 50
Price, Alan (ed.), J. M. Synge: Collected Works, Vol. II: Prose (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 100