Synopsis of Clay

Maria works as scullery-maid in a laundry where prostitutes and drunken women are employed rather than sending them to prison.  Although it is a Protestant establishment Maria’s employers are tolerant of her Catholic faith.  On All Hallow's Eve, after tea with the inmates, Maria goes to a party at the house of Joe, to whom she was formerly a nurse, and his family.  On the way she shops for cakes and chats to an elderly, slightly drunk man who gives her his seat on the tram, with whom she accidentally leaves one of the cakes.  At the party she joins in the games and sings a song, mistakenly repeating its first verse. 

Commentary on Clay

Barmbrackbarmbracks From the Irish bairín breac meeting literally a speckled cake; a fruit bread or cakes used at Hallowe'en in games about predicting the future.  Certain objects, like a ring or a coin are baked in to the cakes and, if you find one in your portion, it suggests your fate: a coin to bring great fortune, a ring to promise marriage.
a veritable peace-maker Echoing Matthew 5:9: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’.
the Board Ladies The institution where Maria works is Joyce’s recreation of the Dublin by Lamplight laundry, a Protestant foundation that assisted ‘fallen’ (i.e. unmarried women no longer virgins) and drunken women. It was run by a Board of Governors whose women members are referred to here.
Whit-Monday In the liturgical year this public holiday celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, which marks the start of the early church, as described in Acts 2:1-6. It occurs on the Monday following the seventh Sunday after Easter, traditionally known as Whit-Sunday or Whitsun.  (In England it is now known as the Spring Bank Holiday and occurs on the last Monday in May.)  
half-crowns The silver half-crown was worth two shillings and six pence, so two together were worth five shillings or a quarter of a pound.
coppers A slang term for coins worth one penny and less. 
tracts on the walls Religious pamphlets hung on the walls for the inmates to read in the hope that they be morally ‘improved’.  This practice would have been typical of a Protestant institution such as the laundry. 
already mixed with milk and sugar This is an indication of the class of the establishment.  In polite society tea-drinkers added their own milk and sugar.
get the ring See the first note to this story.
Hallow Eves The action of Clay takes place on 31 October, Hallowe’en, the same time of year as the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain. This marked the end of summer and was also associated with the dead, as well as with the appearance of fairies. The following day, 1 November, is an important feast in the church calendar, All Saints' Day, in memory of the saints of the church, particularly revered in the Catholic faith.
a mass morning All Saints’ Day is a Holy Day of Obligation, when the Catholic faithful are required to attend Mass.
changed … from six to seven  Maria’s Protestant employers allow her to attend Mass, but she gets up an hour earlier so that she will be able to carry out her duties as usual.
apples and nuts These were traditionally eaten at Hallowe’en parties.
Two and four Two shillings and four pence, quite a lot of money for someone in Maria’s kind of work to spend.
a drop taken Had had something to drink and showing signs of being a little drunk.
Hallow Eve games Hallowe’en was thought to be a particularly good time to predict the future so divination games were very popular.  See also the first note to this story.
I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls A popular aria from The Bohemian Girl, a light opera (first produced in 1843) by Michael William Balfe (1808-70), a Dublin musician. Maria sings the first verse twice, accidentally omitting the stanza about the singer’s suitors.
poor old Balfe Since his death about thirty-five years earlier, Balfe’s previously high reputation as a composer had declined.

Investigating Clay...

  • What symbolic roles do the ring and prayer book play (see Imagery and Critical approaches for further discussion)?
  • What role does Catholicism play in Clay?
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