Portlaoise artist paints a doorway into Joyce’s most difficult book

A despondent grasshopper stares at his reflection in a lake: is he an angel with cloudlike wings floating in ripples of blue; or a horned devil brandishing a trident in burgundy waves of hellfire?

A despondent grasshopper stares at his reflection in a lake: is he an angel with cloudlike wings floating in ripples of blue; or a horned devil brandishing a trident in burgundy waves of hellfire?

One of the 46 beautiful colour illustrations by Portlaoise artist and illustrator Thomas McNally, this striking image is part of a new book which strives to introduce to modern audiences the work of Ireland’s greatest writer, James Joyce. ‘The Ondt and the Gracehoper’ is Joyce’s unique take on Aesop’s fable ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’ and features in Joyce’s most infamous book, Finnegans Wake. Thomas’ book reprints ‘The Ondt and the Gracehoper’ accompanied by the artist’s detailed acrylic paint and ink colour illustrations.

“On average I made about two dozen sketches for each image until I arrived at the right one that was most suited to Joyce’s text. The entire process took about three years to complete,” he explains.

On the surface, Thomas’ artwork is evocative of a child’s fairytale, but a closer inspection reveals a more detailed, almost mechanical intricacy to the images which reflects the nuanced layers of Joyce’s prose.

“The first layer is the purely sensory enjoyment of them: either in viewing the images or listening to Joyce’s words, or both together. At this level, meaning doesn’t really enter into it. When we go further and try to understand the meaning of Joyce’s words beyond how they sound, we engage in a different type of reading. The illustrations are supposed to help readers move from the enjoyment of the sounds of Joyce’s words to the exploration of their meaning.”

A past pupil of the CBS in Portlaoise, Thomas studied and obtained philosophy degrees at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy (BA), UCD (MLitt), Cambridge University (MPhil) and Trinity College Dublin (PhD), and since finishing his PhD has been working in Trinity as an adjunct lecturer in philosophy.

Published with the aid of crowdfunding, the book was officially launched recently in the beautiful surroundings of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, where Irish actor Owen Roe gave an amazing dramatic reading of Joyce’s fable.

“Hearing Joyce’s words read aloud by such a great actor really brought it to life for people,” enthuses Thomas.

It was this desire to bring to a new audience one of modern literature’s most daunting tomes that inspired Thomas to journey into the ornate linguistic maze that is Finnegans Wake.

“One of the things that attracted me to Finnegans Wake was its very unusual position in twentieth century literature. Unlike Ulysses and Joyce’s other works, it has been ignored or misunderstood for the most part. However, there is also a sense of mystery or curiosity about it because it is so unlike other novels in its use of language and its approach to characters and plot.”

Finnegans Wake is the culmination of a literary journey that Joyce started with his mosaic of Irish middle-class Catholic life in Dubliners, through the spiritual awakening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and into the dreamlike flow of Ulysses. But even readers of these earlier works may find themselves confounded by the impenetrable styling of Finnegans Wake.

“Finnegans Wake is like a vast unsolvable puzzle. For me, the attraction is in developing a different way of coming to terms with it: to see it not as a puzzle to be solved, but as a sort of spectacle where we can witness Joyce’s playfulness with language and his wicked sense of humour in action.”

Thomas selected just one extract from the book, Joyce’s take on the Aesop fable of the rivalry between the industrious ant and the lazy grasshopper, to serve as a precis of the greater novel and thus provide an easier access for readers.

“I chose Joyce’s fable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper because it has features that make the task of illustration possible: it has clearly identifiable characters and there is a loose plotline with a beginning, middle and end. In Joyce’s imagination, this fable mirrors the rivalry between two of the main characters in Finnegans Wake, the twins Shaun and Shem. It struck me that readers could not only enjoy the fable on its own, but also get a sense of the broader issues in the novel.”

Also included in the book are essays by Thomas and eminent Joyce scholar Danis Rose. The book will be on sale in Eason’s in Portlaoise.