‘Chaplets of ringarosary’: ALP and the Grandmother of the Cemetery

February 18, 2014

Mythological and literary prototypes for James Joyce’s portrayal of ALP and her daughter, Issy, as goddess figures are plentiful, evident from obvious references in Finnegans Wake to Isis, Demeter, Persephone, as well as characters from medieval literature and folklore, such as Morgan le Fay and  Melusine. It is also highly likely that Joyce was aware of the assumption among some leading archaeologists of his day that a mother goddess figure was venerated by the builders of megalithic tombs and related structures in the Neolithic of north-west Europe. For instance, the Dublin-born archaeologist, R A S Macalister, had published a paper in 1926 called ‘The Goddess of Death in the Bronze Age art and the traditions of Ireland’, reflecting an interpretive trend to recognise goddesses in rock carvings – from those of tombs and gallery graves of the Paris Basin, to the megalithic monuments of Brittany and Ireland (Shee Twohig 1998). Perhaps Joyce was aware of a statue menhir at St. Martin’s Church, Guernsey. Dated to c.3000-2500 BC, it is known locally as La Gran’mère du Chimquiere – ‘The Grandmother of the Cemetery’.


Image from here.

A stone pillar terminating in a carved human head and shoulders, it now stands at the perimeter of the churchyard of St Martin de la Bellouse. The face, ‘roughly sculptured’, is still visible. There is a row of small knobs, ‘perhaps representing a chaplet of beads’, on either side of the forehead. The figure ‘seems to be wrapped in drapery which falls in regular folds around it’ (De Garis 1975: 244). Formerly the carved pillar stood within the churchyard on the south side of the church, facing east. At its foot there was a flat stone slab on which were two cup-like hollows, ‘presumably for the purpose of receiving small oblations offered to the idol’ (De Garis 1975: 244). The church stands on an ancient holy site from which two springs emerged, one of which, La Fontaine de la Bellouse, was reputed to have healing properties (from here). The two springs have a literary parallel in Finnegans Wake as the ‘twin streams’ of ‘the flash brides’ (FW 66.35), the ‘two madges on the makewater’ (FW 420.7). The origin of the word ‘Bellouse’ is not known, though it may be related to the Breton word ‘belorsa‘, meaning sloe or blackthorn bushes. The recurrent association between holy wells and thorn bushes is well documented elsewhere, so it would be no surprise if the blackthorn and its dark fruit were associated with St Martin’s.

Locally, La Gran’mère has been an object of awe and reverence throughout the centuries and ‘it is not unknown to find little offerings of fruit and flowers at its foot, or even a small coin on its head for luck’ (De Garis 1975: 244-5). She was broken in two by a zealous churchwarden in 1860, concerned at the ‘idolatry’ of the parishioners. Outraged, they had her cemented back together and placed in her present position (ibid.: 245). According to a more recent source, La Gran’mère shows up as a ‘guest’ in wedding photos taken outside the church to this day.


Image from here

The figure of La Gran’mère exists in Guernsey folklore in a way analogous to ALP in the Wake‘s ‘great myth of everyday life’ and its ‘six hundred and six ragwords’ (FW 478.9). So, when it snows, it is the old lady up in the sky, La Gran’mere, who is shedding her rags (chiques). Hence the Guernesais term for snowflakes, des chiques (De Garis 1975: 96):

Countlessness of livestories have netherfallen by this plage, flick as flowflakes, litters from aloft, like a waast wizzard all of whirlworlds. Now are all tombed to the mound, isges to isges, erde from erde.

(FW 17.26-30).


An old postcard of St Martin’s Church, La Gran’mere stands in the foreground. From here.

In Finnegans Wake ALP is identified as a great mother, her 111 children, ‘wan bywan bywan’ (FW201.29-30), cognate with 1/11, All Saints Day, the feast on which the hallowed dead are commemorated. This is confirmed by Joyce’s use of Kabbalistic number and letter mysticism, in that the numerological value of the letters Aleph, Lamed and Peh which spell ALP in the Hebrew alphabet, combine to make 111: ‘Olaph lamm et, all that pack? We won’t have room in the kirkeyaard’ (FW201.30-31).

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

James Joyce, ‘The Dead’, Dubliners 1914


Marie De Garis. 1975. Folklore of Guernsey. Self-published: The Channel Islands.

Elizabeth Shee Twohig. 1998. ‘A “mother goddess” in north-west Europe c.4200-2500 BC?’ In Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris (eds.) Ancient Goddesses. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, pp.164-179.

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