Monday 20 January 2020

Zozimus - a farewell

Zozimus, the newspaper
Zozimus, the newspaper
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

His most famous recitation was the lengthy Saint Mary and Zozimus written by the Bishop of Raphoe, Dr Anthony Coyle, which tells the story of how St Mary wandered about in the deserts of Egypt for 47 years until discovered by the pious Zozimus.

The facility of memorising and reciting this saga earned the blind rhymer Michael Moran, born of humble parents in Faddle Alley in Black Pitts, Dublin around 1794, the sobriquet, Zozimus.

He dressed in a long coarse dark frieze coat with a cape, "an old greasy brown beaver hat, corduroy trousers, and strong Francis Street brogues" and always carried a blackthorn stick with a heavy iron ferule, we're told in the anonymously written Memoir of The Great Original Zozimus, introduced by Joseph Tully of McGlashen & Gill in 1871.

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The back cover of this publication offers, for 1s 6d (and post free), an image of the ''celebrated Dublin street rhymer and reciter'' by Horatio Nelson. Zozimus's best known song, The Finding of Moses, I first heard sung by Al O'Donnell many years ago and he may even have been the originator of the Come All Ye ballad, as that was the favoured opening line of some of his songs. "Gather 'round me, boys, gather 'round poor Zozimus, yer friend" was the blind balladeer's call and, "before commencing his celebrated recitation, he would pause and seem absorbed in a deep reverie, as if waiting for the favouring afflatus of the muse, or collecting all his thoughts," says the Memoir.

Living in a room at 14A Patrick Street with his first wife, Sally, he "had obtained laudable notoriety as the chief of itinerant reciters from the Liberties and elsewhere". Among his competitors on the streets of Dublin were John McBride, the hedge poet; JM Brady, author of humorous songs; the blind fiddler, John Kearney, and imitators such as William Keogh and even Mr E Rogers "who distinguished himself by his high-education and refined manners" but took delight in mixing with the riff-raff of the streets.

He also had friends such as Peg-the-Man, Fat Mary and Cantering Jack - political correctness not being in vogue in those times!

But Zozimus "bate them all", wandering up and down the streets of Dublin and colonising a pitch on Bloody Bridge (officially known as Rory O'More Bridge and still in working order, joining Ellis Quay with Watling Street) singing songs, reciting poetry, gathering crowds and getting drunk.

He fell foul of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), established in 1836 with intent to end the chaotic and colourful street life of Dublin with its throngs of beggars, street performers, pick-pockets and ne'er-do-wells.

"Zozimus regularly found himself hauled before the magistrate to face charges (usually fines) for obstruction, loitering, drunkenness or brawling," says Liam O'Meara in his life of the street performer.

He reprints one court report from the Caledonian Mercury in which Zozimus appeared before the bench with another street artist who was dressed as Othello, one half of his face painted white, the other black.

''Othello'' confined himself to dealing with the magistrates' questions with quotes from Shakespeare.

There was much mirth when they were fined five shillings each and the judge told them, "You can be off to the Brook now" - a reference to the famous Donnybrook Fair.

"I pray you in your letters when you shall this melancholy deed relate, speak to me as I am, nothing extenuate. Not set down ought in malice," responded ''Othello''.

"Holy St Brigid of Egypt, bless your worship," intoned Zozimus in a more local argot. "May your bosom friends never turn back-biters."

''Othello'' then took him by the arm and, making for the courtroom door, declaimed: "A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come (Laughter)."

A romanticised moonlit portrait with the inscription ''The Street Poet Zozimus in 1838 painted from memory by Henry M MacManus RHA and presented to Alexander Patten Esq MD'' was sold at auction in Dublin a few years ago.

Years of hardship and hard liquor or vice versa had taken its toll and the last sighting of Zozimus was reported in George's Lane, but when passers-by spoke to him, he put his finger to his lips and made signs to show he could no longer talk. "Soon after, he became feeble and took to his bed," says a report.

Calling to his lodgings, the Rev Nicholas O'Farrell described the scene. "There I found poor Zozimus lying on a straw pallet on the floor, and the room crowded with ballad-singers" who, after murmurs of "long life to yer riverence", withdrew.

Zozimus died on Friday, April 3, 1846 at Patrick Street at the age of 52. The wake on the Saturday was attended by a "suffocating crowd" singing humorous songs and ballads, declaiming rhymes and remembrances "and perhaps a quiet prayer".

After Mass in St Nicholas of Myra on Palm Sunday, friends led by Matt Carroll, James M'Laughlin (known as the dear man) Arthur Dogherty and John Meade and "not forgetting the corpse", set off for Prospect Cemetery. "The day was raw, cold and wet; gusts of wind and a touch of sleet touched the marrow in the bones," it was reported. They longed to stop for a ''pure drop'' but as the pubs didn't open until 2pm on a Sunday, they were stymied.

As the cortege made its way glumly through the city, Matt Carroll pulled a half-pint of John Busby's (whiskey made in Fumbally Lane) from his inside pocket, "which was handed round with delight".

Zozimus was buried in the ''Poor Ground'' of Glasnevin Cemetery in a grave that would later fall "under the shadow of the round Tower" commemorating Daniel O'Connell, who died the following year and had been the hero of a Zozimus ballad, following his election as Lord Mayor of Dublin.

In 1988, the ballad group the Dublin City Ramblers and the Smith brothers, owners of the Submarine Bar in Crumlin, paid for a memorial stone to be erected over his grave.

Some months after his death, his son, a sea captain living in the United States, sent for his mother, Zozimus's second wife Mary Curran, and his step-sister, and "thus the history of poor Zozimus comes to a close".

So might Zozimus have fallen into the long shadows of history but somehow his songs and recitations became of interest over half a century later, possibly inspired by the Celtic Revival sweeping through the Dublin intelligentsia.

This led to the establishment of a weekly publication by AM Sullivan, called Zozimus and printed every Wednesday in Middle Abbey Street in 1870 and 1871. The front cover was adorned by a drawing of Zozimus accompanied by a mangy looking cur.

The Memoir which was published in 1871 maintained that this was not a genuine representation of Zozimus. Apart from the dress being wrong, "the dog is also an addition for Zozimus knew the city too well to require the aid of what, under other circumstances, is a most valuable assistance to the blind".

The introduction to a second edition of the Memoir, signed by "TW" and published in 1976 by Carrig Books, explains that his "greatest claim to fame" is that he inspired an essay by the poet WB Yeats called The Last Gleeman which appeared in the National Observer in 1893 and was included in his book, The Celtic Twilight.

Yeats also used "the burlesque verses of the Moses song" in one his Broadsides, which was published by Cuala Press in August 1935, illustrated by Victor Brown.

Zozimus is also mentioned in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.

Zozimus: The Life & Works by Liam O'Meara (2011) maintains that the original Memoir was probably written by the highly unpopular former politician, Judge William Keogh (leader of the Irish Independent Party, known colloquially as the Pope's Brass Band). It also reprints his better known works such as St Patrick was a Gentleman, The Finding of Moses, The Song of Zozimus, Maguire's Triumph, and a tender lament for his first wife, Sally.

Liam O'Meara disagrees with the Dictionary of National Biography which pronounced that our hero "lacked the poetic facility or even the ear for music". While he concedes that he was a rhymer rather than a poet, "he brought poetry to the common people in the streets and he also caused some of the issues of the day to be discussed by those people. In his crude way, he put into words what a lot of them were thinking, and to those people he was as important as Homer."

Your correspondent would never claim to have achieved such a lofty status, but would like to sign off his term as a modern incarnation of Zozimus by saying a fond farewell to readers, contributors and those who appeared in these columns, willingly or otherwise.

Sunday Independent

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