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Country Matters: Joycean wit no match for a Guinness-loving Toucan


The Guinness ad by John Gilroy and Dorothy Sayers

The Guinness ad by John Gilroy and Dorothy Sayers

The Guinness ad by John Gilroy and Dorothy Sayers

‘To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower,” wrote the poet William Blake in Auguries of Innocence.

A bee’s brain is like such a miniscule grain, yet it can build honeycombs following simple construction rules. In the 18th century there were naturalists who suggested the insects executed this perfect geometry of hexagonal mesh by divine guidance. 

Bees can be trained to play ‘football’ — to manipulate a tiny sphere into a hole for a sugary reward — and bee enthusiasts will also tell of insect dancing movements, waggling to convey information about food sources to others in the hive. There is more to the waggling to astonish those of us who know little of the apiary world.

I noticed three small black bees on cut blossoms on a flower stall at the junction of Grafton and Duke Streets in the centre of Dublin where there is a footfall of thousands of people, some of them enthusiasts of James Joyce and the wining and dining places mentioned in Ulysses.

The bees were the native Irish species Apis mellifera mellifera, about which there is some survival anxiety. Seeing them in such an urban context was unusual.

My ignorance of bees is like my knowledge of another talent of Mr Joyce, that of a writer of advertising slogans, though his creation Leopold Bloom wandered around the city hustling a few spare inches of space to commercial outlets.

One of Joyce’s slogans was for Uncle Arthur, revealed back in the 1980s when Guinness held an exhibition, Wine of the Country, at its visitor centre where an advertisement, “James’s Choice,” noted “when it came to writing slogans Mr Joyce was no slouch. He suggested replacing ‘Guinness is Good for You’ with ‘Guinness — the Free, the Flow, the Frothy Freshener’”.

This comes from Finnegans Wake where HCE boasts, “I brewed for my alpine plurabelle, wigwarming wench (speakeasy!) my grandvilled brandold Dublin lindub, the free, the froh, the frothy freshener.”

 In their book, Our Friend James Joyce, Padraic and Mary Colum claimed Joyce was “disappointed” that Guinness did not use it, according to John McCourt, author of a current Joycean best seller, Consuming Joyce: 100 years of Ulysses in Ireland. 

However, Joycean inspiration was no match for  a tropical bird balancing pints on a massive beak. The bird was a toco toucan (Ramphastos toco), which can hang upside down and find figs with its amazing bill and it inspired two people in a London advertising agency in 1935.

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John Gilroy, a graphic artist, and Dorothy Sayers, a writer (later to become a bestselling author), were commissioned to compose a new campaign for the brewers. Gilroy made a drawing of the toucan balancing glasses of the black stuff on its massive black-and-white beak. Ms Sayers wrote the memorable copy: “If he can say as you can ‘Guinness is good for you’/How grand to be a Toucan/Just think what Toucan do.”

Biding a moment at the flower display, I asked the seller about the bees. They were regular visitors but she didn’t know where they came from. College Park, perhaps, or people in apartments in high buildings might have hives on their roofs — something that might have interested Mr Joyce, perhaps.

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