Samuel Beckett had huge admiration for his fellow Irish writer James Joyce which extended even into the exacting realm of fantasy football. So when it came to drawing up an All-Ireland XV of Irish writers, Beckett, a former First XV halfback, slipped his idol in at first five-eighths.
"Very crafty, very nippy," Beckett noted. "He might surprise you when the light is fading."
Joyce would be an unlikely choice at first five. He was half blind and prone to giving long thought to any serious matter such as what to do with the ball in hand.
But he seemed to appreciate a decent game.
In January 1925 Joyce was living in Paris. Three years after writing Ulysses, an abstruse masterpiece set over a single day, he was moving on to Finnegan's Wake, a history of the world as dreamed over a single night - idiosyncratic to the point of impenetrability and inevitably provoking utter admiration. In 1998 it would be ranked 77th on a list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, yet as its Wikipedia entry cautions "key elements remain elusive".
On the second Sunday in January, 1925, the astigmatic Dubliner pushed his writing blocks aside and took off for Colombes Stadium in Paris. There a French XV were playing a touring rugby side.
The touring side were the All Blacks. They were the side later to be nicknamed The Invincibles. Led by Cliff Porter, and featuring George Nepia and the Brownlie brothers from Hawkes Bay, they toured the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Canada playing 32 games, including four tests, winning all, totalling 838 points and conceding 116.
In Paris that day they were having a work-out against a French Selection before heading to Toulouse for a test.
It was a scrotum-tightening winter's day. James Joyce wiped his eyeglasses with his old snotrag and placed the thick lenses back about his Hibernian physog as the ABs ran out.
All those gathered prepared for what earlier reports of the tour had described as the "weird war cry of the visitors". Before kick-off, the team "formed in a line down the centre of the field with Nepia a few paces in front of them grinning broadly and leading them in strange convulsive movements." It was the team haka.
Ko Niu Tireni had been especially devised for the tour, written on the boat trip over by Wiremu Rangi of Gisborne, and then given a polish by Frank Acheson, a Native Land Court judge and one of a small group of supporters touring with the team.
It went like this.
Kia whakangawari au i a hau! I au-e! Hei! (Get ready for the clash)
Ko Niu Tireni e haruru nei. Au! Au! Au-e ha! Hei! (New Zealand's storm is about to break)
Ko Niu Tireni e haruru nei. Au! Au! Au-e ha! Hei!
Ka tu te ihiihi (We shall stand fearless)
Ka tu te wanawana (We shall stand exalted in spirit)
Ki runga ki te rangi, (We shall climb to the heavens)
E tu iho nei, tu iho nei, hi! (We shall attain the utmost heights)
Au! Au! Au!
The haka completed, the team strolled on to an easy win, 37-8. Joyce went home.
According to research done by Richard Corballis, professor of English at Massey University, some time after this Joyce wrote to a younger sister who had migrated to New Zealand. She had become Sister Mary Gertrude and was living on the West Coast of the South Island. Joyce wrote to her for the words of the haka he had heard at the stadium.
Corballis cites a tribute to Sister Mary Gertrude that appeared in the Tablet a month after her death and which he argues would have been written by her fellow Sisters of Mercy: "When the All Blacks first visited Paris, James Joyce attended the games and later requested that Sister Mary Gertrude send him the Maori words with translation and music of the Haka."
Sister Mary Gertrude - or someone - eventually did send Joyce the words.
Finnegan's Wake took 17 years to write (Ulysses, at a mere seven, was a breeze).
And there, in Book II, chapter iii, appears this: Au! Au! Aue! Ha! Heish! ... how Holispolis went to Parkland with mabby and sammy and sonny and sissy and mop's varlet de shambles and all to find the right place for it by peep o'skirt or pipe a skirl when the hundt called a halt on the chivvychace of the ground sloper at that ligtning lovemaker's thender apeal till, between wandering weather and stable wind, vastelend hosteilend, neuziel and oltrigger some, Bullyclubber burgherly shut the rush in general.
Let us propel us for the frey of the fray! Us, us, beraddy!
Ko Niutirenis hauru leish! A lala! Ko Niutirenis haururu laleish! Ala lala! The Wullingthund sturm is breaking. The sound of maormaoring The Wellingthund sturm waxes fuercilier. The whackawhacks of the sturm. Katu te ihis ihis! Katu te wana wana! The strength of the rawshorn generand is known throughout the world. Let us say if we may what a weeny wukeleen can do.
Au! Au! Aue! Ha! Heish! A lala!
Surely no one has written better of Wellington weather. And if "Parkland", as Corballis suggests, is Colombes Stadium and "rawshorn" a reference to the All Blacks' classic kiwi haircuts - bit off the top and short back and sides - then it's all pretty clear.
Corballis notes other Kiwi terms appearing in the general text, including pukkaru, but it's the references to the capital that excite him.
He suggests the battle of Waterloo between the Duke of Wellington and the Emperor Napoleon which is constantly referenced in the Wake may reflect among other things that 1925 Paris match.
"Moreover," he continues, "It may not be too impudent to suggest that Colombes Stadium is as significant a site in the Wake as Phoenix Park [in Dublin]."
Au! Au! Au!
All Blacks 37, French Selection 8.
James Joyce's Canterbury link
Irish author James Joyce has a sister buried in Waimairi Cemetery, Christchurch. Born Margaret Alice and nicknamed "Poppie" by Joyce, she was two years younger than him.
She became Sister Mary Gertrude and emigrated to New Zealand in 1909, aged 25, with three other Irish novices.
When Joyce heard she was migrating he returned to Dublin from Trieste to see her off. And when he read of the Murchison earthquake of June 17, 1929, and knowing she was living on the West Coast, he sent her a telegram anxious to know that she was all right.
She taught at All Saints Convent of Mercy in Greymouth, then at Runanga and Brunner, teaching the piano. In 1949 she moved to a convent in Papanui.
According to the centennial publication of the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Mary Gertrude was pleased when one of her pupils, a not particularly good student, became a priest.
"She took that as a sign that not in vain had been her lifetime of penance and prayer for her profligate brother, James Joyce, one of the most renowned - and permissive - of modern authors."
She died in 1964 aged 80.By Dean Parker