Old Brazen Head

you got a decent enough do in the Brazen Head

The Brazen Head
Ah, I see that you decided to come over to the bar and have a chat with the barkeep, eh? Well, let me pull a pint of Guinness for you, and allow me to bend your ear for a while. I have just enough Irish blood in me to talk the damn thing off, but I'll try to be as simple as possible.
So . . . the Brazen Head, eh? Where'd I pull that one from? Well, first of all, let me tell you that coming up with a title for the James Joyce section of the Libyrinth was not an easy task, and I found myself going through dozens of suggestions. This was my very first literature Web site, you know -- and I had big plans for many more to follow. I needed a catchy name, something that had that buzz, that edge, the welcoming and distinctive feel of a fine lager or a favorite wool sweater. Many names seemed just fine at first, only to inexplicably lose their charm after a few hours had passed. I thought of "7 Eccles Street," "Joyicity ," "Dedalus' Workshop," and the absolute worst, "The BloomPage," which I thankfully discarded the very second I wrote it down on paper. What I wanted was some name that could express several ideas at once. It had to sound like a place, or actual location; it had to relate to Joyce; and ideally it should allude to my overall "Libyrinth" theme. I wanted something that had a Joycean spirit of wordplay, something that could exist at several levels at once.
As it happened, while creating this site I immersed myself in so much Joycanalia that I literally dreamt Joyce. (Which made certain passages in Finnegans Wake a hell of a lot more clear!) Then early one morning, I was in that half-state of sleepywakedness, when suddenly I pictured Joyce's deathmask, all bronze, revolving in my head with the words: "you get a decent enough do at the Brazen Head," from the "Eumaeus" chapter of Ulysses. I couldn't believe it! The Brazen Head! It was perfect! It sounded bold, and yet had a slightly dark and tangled aspect to it, and what's more, it fit all my self-imposed requirements. The final portentious omen was still to come -- when I rolled out of bed, the first thing I saw was one of my T-shirts hanging out of the laundry basket: a black shirt I bought in Dublin at, you guessed it, the Brazen Head. The logo was staring me right in the face. Ah. So this is what happens when the gods smile upon you.
So what does "The Brazen Head" mean? Well, let's see:

1. There are many historical and mythical references to "Brazen Heads," the first being an artifact created by Albertus Magnus after some three decades of hard labor. This oracular device was then broken "into a thousand pieces" by his disciple, Thomas Aquinas -- a fellow with no small Joycean connections of his own!
Mention of a similar Brazen Head can be found in a play by the English poet and playwright Robert Greene (1558-1592). The play, The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, involves a love triangle, set against a comical background that involves the necromantic competitions of the title characters. In Act IV, Friar Bacon completes his masterpiece -- the Brazen Head, this time a project of only seven years' labor. The Head is a sorcerous creation that, when invoked, was supposed to spew forth great words of wisdom, as well as encircling all of England in a magic wall of protective brass. Needless to say, all this involved the proper magical incantations. As comedy demands, however, the Head is invoked improperly by Bacon's inept assistant Miles, who I'm sure would have been played by the Marty Feldman of the time. The head begins to utter its wisdom -- "Time is! . . . Time was! . . ." and when Miles responds improperly, a magical hammer appears and destroys the Head as it finishes, ". . . Time is past!"
The fact that it was a magical head that took a long time to come to fruition, and then was destroyed by a moron who thought its utterances were nonsense. . . Hmmm. . . .
Another version of this legend is told in E. Cobham Brewer's 1894 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:

It was said if Bacon heard his head speak he would succeed; if not, he would fail. Miles was set to watch, and while Bacon slept the Head spoke thrice: "Time is;" half an hour later it said, "Time was." In another half-hour it said, "Time's past," fell down, and was broken to atoms.

Several poets have since made reference to Bacon's marvelous relic, including Alexander Pope, Samuel Butler, and the indomitable Lord Byron:

Bacon trembled for his brazen head.
--Alexander Pope, Dunciad, iii. 104.

Quoth he, "My head's not made of brass,
As Friar bacon's noddle was."
--Samuel Butler, Hudibras, ii. 2.

Like Friar Bacon's brazen head, I've spoken,
"Time is," "Time was," "Time's past."
--Lord Byron, Don Juan, i. 217.

Other Brazen Heads were said to be owned by the Marquis de Villena, who kept his in Spain, and the Italian Polander, a disciple of Escotillo. And then there was a gigantic version, a huge Brazen Head supposedly mastered by a Portuguese giant named Ferragus, and hidden in his magical castle. According to Brewer, "it was omniscient, and told those who consulted it whatever they required to know, past, present, or to come."

2. The Brazen Head is the name of the oldest tavern in Ireland, and possibly one of the oldest in Europe. Located on Bridge Street in South Dublin near the "Medieval Dvblina" area, the pub claims to have been built on the site of a tavern dating back to 1198, and reliable records show that it was clearly in existence as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century. The Brazen Head is a very enjoyable tavern, with a stone courtyard and a maze of cozy public rooms. It used to serve as a hotel as well. It also has a sense of history beyond that of its age; it was the preferred meeting place of the United Irishmen up to 1798, and the list of those it served includes Robert Emmett, Wolfe Tone, Daniel O'Connell, James Joyce, and of course, myself! (I found it to be one of the more atmospheric pubs in Dublin, and the sign hanging out front is just very damn cool; although the sign below is for the hotel, not the tavern.)

The Brazen Head is located at 20 Lower Bridge St., Dublin 8, Tel: +353 1 677 9549, FAX: +353 1 670 4048. If you drop by, raise a pint to the Great Quail and think of me fondly. You can visit the Brazen Head's Web site, as well.
There is also a restaurant in San Francisco named the Brazen Head -- though, alas, they are named after the Dublin pub, not my site! And I have since been told that there is also a Brazen Head pub in London, right off Bell Street in Marylebone. This establishment uses the image of a Roman Centurian's helmet on its sign, and as far as I know is unconnected to the Dublin Pub. And, oddly enough, within a year of my moving to Brooklyn, a Brazen Head pub sprang up a few blocks away on Atlantic Avenue! The Brooklyn Brazen Head has evolved into a bit of a sports bar for legal beagles, though they do maintain a modest tribute to James Joyce upon the wall. And no, they don't know about this site, and remain singularly unimpressed by my attempts to finagle free drinks. So much for local celebrity. Additionally, there is a new establishment called the BrazenHead Inn, located in Mingo Village, West Virginia, a "traditional Irish inn" that features sessions of folk music from the Appalachians and the Celtic Old World. Happily, the kind folks there have not only linked to this page, but have invited me to raise a pint. Slainté!

3. Joyce makes two references to the Brazen Head in Ulysses, including the quote that begins this page. Both are in the chapter known as "Eumaeus," written in the run-down and exhausted style of "Narrative, Old."

Corley, at the first go-off, was inclined to suspect it was something to do with Stephen being fired out of his digs for bringing a bloody tart off the street. There was a dosshouse in Marlborough street, Mrs Maloney's, but it was only a tanner touch and full of undesirables but M'Conachie told him you got a decent enough do in the Brazen Head over in Winetavern street (which was distantly suggestive to the person addressed of friar Bacon) for a bob. He was starving too though he hadn't said a word about it.

-- Yes, that's the best, he assured Stephen, to whom for the matter of that Brazen Head or him or anywhere else was all more or less . . .

4. The Brazen Head -- as Chris Gostlick and Max Peltier have since come to inform me -- is also the title of a novel by John Cowper Powys (1872-1963). Powys, whose novels resonate with Celtic mythology and have a decidedly metaphysical bent, was one of the first fellow writers to truly recognize Joyce's genius, and published an essay in 1923 entitled "James Joyce's Ulysses -- An Appreciation." He was also one of the key witnesses for the defense when The Little Review was prosecuted in New York in 1917 for the publication of Ulysses. (The Peltiers have assembled a nice Powys page you may be interested in.)

5. Brazen: (adj) 1. Made of brass; 2. Of the color of polished brass; 3. marked by a contemptuous boldness; 4. (Vt) to face with defiance or impudence

So I was altogether pleased with the many layers of meaning that the phrase "Brazen Head" invoked, and I chose it for my Web site on Joyce. To get a graphic for the page, I first used a picture of Joyce's deathmask with a bronze cast added to it; but that looked too spooky, as you can see if you visit the Joyce Images section. So instead, I found a photograph of a 1930 bust of Joyce sculpted by Jo Davidson. I then used KPT Convolver to add a bronzish look to it, then laid some fractals behind it so give Joyce that hip "chaos in order/information is recursive" sort of look. This stood as my main graphic for almost two years, until my recent revisions came along . . . you can still see the old image, though, a faded photograph pinned above the bar at the top of this page. The new image -- more to my liking, though larger -- incorporates a Man Ray photograph of Joyce, a pint of Guinness, and several scans from a signed first edition of Ulysses. I decided on a green, white, and bronze color scheme for the whole site.
The naming of the links was quite easy -- I just pulled relevant phrases out of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, an activity which is so amusing that I would be willing to bet that scanning Joyce for nifty titles is a hobby which has probably created more Joycean scholars than anything else.
Well . . . so that's the story of this little pub, but what about the guy pulling the pints?

So Who am I?
So who am I?
My name is Allen B. Ruch, but in cyberspace I go by the name of "The Great Quail." I have more personal information available on my Homepage, a place I call Sarnath, but for now I'll just add that I have been a Joyce enthusiast since I first read Portrait many years ago, and Ulysses is my absolute favorite novel. This site is part of a larger network of literature sites I run, a sprawlingly cluttered place called TheModernWord.com -- so if you liked the Brazen Head, feel free to follow the thread leading to the Libyrinth beyond. . . . just click on that mesmerizing brown spiral at the bottom of the main page.

Well, I hope that wasn't too painful, and I think your pint is ready now. So go in, have a great time, for the craic is grand and I'm here at the taps all night long. . . .

--A. Ruch
9 January 2003

Lash/Your itch and quailing, nude greed of the flesh -- Send email to the Great Quail -- comments, suggestions, corrections, criticisms, submissions . . . all are welcome!

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