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Friday 31 March 2023 Dublin: 9°C
The Irish For Joyce’s The Dead is not white Christmas - my thoughts on 'that ad'
Darach Ó Séaghdha shares his thoughts on one of the most recognisable Christmas ads on Irish TV.

IT HAS BECOME one of Ireland’s best-loved seasonal ads – just as the clock strikes midnight at Christmas, a dog-walker in front of the Custom House looks up to see falling snowflakes, and then snowfall is, as the fella says, general all over Ireland.

I remember coming into work the day after this ad made its debut in 2003 and all my colleagues swooning over it and asking each other how they managed to get Parliament Street empty for long enough to put up festive decorations and create fake snowfall and remove it all without suspicion.

It is so well-loved that, when restrictions on advertising alcohol on TV before the watershed were suggested a few years ago, the first reaction in many quarters was “will this affect the Guinness Christmas ad?”

“Dreaming Of A White One” intentionally evokes two well-known works: Irving Berlin’s song “White Christmas” and “The Dead” by James Joyce, the final story in his collection “Dubliners” and a work widely considered to be one of the finest short stories of all time.

bloomsday-festival-2022 PA A man walks past a mural of James Joyce by Shane Sutton Art on Richmond Street North in Dublin ahead of Bloomsday 2022. PA

In particular, while many readers struggle with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, “The Dead” is a short in length, accessible in style and a good introduction to the great writer. All the more shame, therefore, that its ending is so widely misunderstood and that this ad has accelerated that misunderstanding.

In short: the snowfall at the end of The Dead is not a good thing. It is a bad thing.

Ending of The Dead

If you see the snowflakes coming down and you say “ah, sure it’s just like the ending of The Dead”, what are you talking about? Why is that snow different or better or worse than the snow in Oscar Wilde’s Requiescat or the sparkling frost in Patrick Kavanagh’s A Christmas Childhood?

Bing Crosby first performed “White Christmas” in 1941, the year that James Joyce died. America had just gone to war and the song’s early popularity was rooted in that wartime context: reminiscing for a simpler, happier time and hoping to return to loved ones.

It was the first secular, commercial Christmas song and its success kicked off a musical trend that has, eighty years later, led us to LadBaby’s various songs about sausage rolls. Irving Berlin wrote the song somewhere on America’s sunny West Coast, far enough from the cold weather of his childhood in Siberia and New York City to be able to sentimentalise it.

the-dead-an-opera-at-the-gaeity-theatre PA An adaptation of 'The Dead, An Opera' on stage at The Gaiety in 2021. PA

Joyce’s “Dubliners”, on the other hand, is a collection of short stories linked by a common theme: characters frozen in their circumstances, unable to escape to possible happiness, experiencing epiphanies about their lives.

The snow at the end of The Dead is the culmination of this paralysis as the entire Ireland becomes frozen stiff, unable to move. Joyce’s characters were not looking at the snowfall from the warm side of a double-glazed window, holding a hot chocolate with a dropeen of Baileys in it, delighted at the opportunity to cancel plans.

In the days before central heating, road gritting and statutory annual leave, snow was a disaster for people – especially in a country like Ireland which didn’t experience it regularly enough to expect it, to prepare for it well in advance, and to tailor its built environment accordingly. Newspaper reports from the 1910s describe snowfall in calamitous terms, with stories of entire towns cut off from receiving supplies, sheep going missing and being impossible to find against the white background, and parishioners unable to get to Mass and fearing the consequences of missing holy days of obligation.

Nobody expects ad producers to be literary critics, and I do actually enjoy the ad. However, the plethora of “snow was general all over Ireland” posts I’ll see on Mastodon, Instagram and Twitter if we do get a bit of sneachta this Christmas will set my teeth on edge, missing the point of the original text as badly as any Great Gatsby themed hen party or “Fail Again Fail Better” tattoo.


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