Dream duet of James Joyce and John McCormack

Cork filmmaker Pádraig Trehy used music to explore the friendship of two of Ireland’s great cultural figures, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

Padraig Trehy filmed some of his film in the Everyman in Cork. Picture: Denis Scannell

THE later works of James Joyce can be hard nuts to crack, most famously his final novel, the dreamlike Finnegans Wake, which is stitched together with an invented language made up of composite words from the guts of 70 world languages.

The filmmaker Pádraig Trehy has used music — and Joyce’s friendship with the tenor John McCormack — as a way into the novel in his film, Shem the Penman Sings Again.

Trehy takes one of the threads from Finnegans Wake and weaves it through a series of silent films. He has the novel’s protagonist Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker tell a bedtime story to his three children — Shem the Penman, Shaun the Post and their sister Issy — about the blossoming friendship between Joyce and McCormack.

“Both men became quick friends through their shared passion for singing,” he reads to them. “Jim loved his perambulation. Both men loved the sounds of their own voices.”

Joyce, who was born in 1882, and McCormack, who was two years younger than him, became chummy in 1904, which was also the year Joyce fell in love with Nora Barnacle.

McCormack encouraged Joyce, who was toying with the idea of becoming a professional singer. The pair sang on stage together during Dublin’s Horse Show Week in August 1904. Shortly afterwards, McCormack set off for Milan to study opera singing, and Joyce left Ireland, too, to pursue his career as a novelist, but they met up again several times in Paris, where Joyce was stationed, in the 1920s.

“I don’t think Joyce ever lost the idea of being a singer or a performer,” says Trehy. “That Joyce had woven bits of his friendship with McCormack and then McCormack’s public persona into Shaun the Post, and that he had decided to make that character a twin of Shem the Penman — which is very clearly a line to him, but twin halves of the same thing — intrigued me.

Frank Prendergast in Shem the Penman Sings Again

“What struck me, and you see it later in the film, is the shots of the older Joyce dictating Finnegans Wake because he can’t write. He’s performing it. It’s that idea that the singer in him never left. It creates a line back into oral tradition where the bard would have been the carrier of stories and meaning. A critic has equated Finnegans Wake as being like a libretto, that it’s better to sing it than to read it.”

It’s fascinating to think Joyce, who got by from the kindness of benefactors for much of his days, could have made it as a tenor. Nora Barnacle was badgering him as late as the 1920s for having chosen writing over singing. McCormack, for example, made untold riches from the trade.

“It was a realisable vocation for Joyce,” says Trehy. “You could have made a good living if you reached a high enough standard. Seemingly Joyce did have the voice. McCormack reckoned he was good enough to be professional. He may not have made it as an opera singer but he could have made a very good career. It was also the time of the birth of the recording industry. Within 10 years, these guys who were making a decent living in concert performances or in musical theatre or opera were suddenly making ridiculous amounts of money from record sales.”

The amount of money McCormack was making is incredible in today’s terms. “During the First World War he was giving money away by the hatful, writing charity cheques every week between $25,000 and $50,000. He lived the rock’n’roll lifestyle too. He ate and drank and feasted all around him. He had eight houses and 15 cars. People in this country have forgotten how big John McCormack was. He was Elvis. He was a guy who almost created the recording industry.”

The filmmakers Pooleen Productions used a number of locations around Cork to shoot the film, including Fota House; Mr Bradley’s pub on Barrack Street; and the evocative Everyman Palace Theatre for a dream sequence.

“The Everyman is very like now what it would have been like in 1890,” says Trehy.

“It’s the twin theatre of the Olympia. It was originally built as ‘a palace of varieties’ for music hall stuff. It became a cinema at some point in the 20th century; then it closed in the 1980s as a cinema.

“They refurbished it about 20-odd years ago and brought it back to its former glory and re-opened it as a theatre. It has multiple connections for me of having been a cinema when I was a kid, then having shot it as a theatre in the film and now we’re going to be screening it back there again, which is a lovely bit of symmetry.”

Shem the Penman Sings Again will be screened at the Everyman as part of the Cork Film Festival, 8pm, Friday, Nov 13, visit: www.corkfilmfest.org.

CORK FILM FESTIVAL: Leeside highlights

  • The Bookshop ( October 10, Gate, as part of Irish Shorts 1)

Alan is the mercurial proprietor at the heart of Cork émigré David Gordon and Anna Byrne’s documentary about a bohemian bookstore in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. The Bookshop functions as more of a social club or refuge than a business, attracting a rogue’s gallery of ex-pat poets, deadbeats and book lovers. It plays host to all manner of dramas. They include fights and flings, all watched over with loving grace by Alan, “a wizard with his big Grateful Dead beard”, who throws dinner parties every Friday night in the bookstore and is the focus of a surprising development at the documentary’s end.

  • What’s Going On: Taste Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 (October 11, Cork Opera House)

Murray Lerner planned to record two tracks of Taste’s performance at the final legendary Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. Once Rory Gallagher (pictured) kicked into gear, however, the Oscar-winning documentary maker was compelled to keep his camera rolling for the hour of the band’s performance, which proved to be their last one (the event was also one of the last for fellow performer Jimi Hendrix, who died a few weeks later). The performance, along with contributions from the likes of Bob Geldof, Brian May and the Edge discussing Gallagher’s legacy, is relived in this 2015 version.

  • Yo Cambio (October 8, Gate)

Cork-based documentary maker Peadar King tackles South America’s notorious prisons in his ninth series of What in the World? He goes behind the bars of El Salvador’s prisons, which are woefully overpopulated, with typical cells for women affording a metre of space per inmate. However, it is crime and murder that worries inmates the most. In Yo Cambio/I Change, King finds an inspiring human rights-based approach is helping to improve life for some prisoners.


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