POWER OF THE HAKA; to Many, It's a Terrifying War Dance - James Joyce Saw It as Poetry in Motion

Daily Mail (London), November 22, 2013 | Go to article overview

POWER OF THE HAKA; to Many, It's a Terrifying War Dance - James Joyce Saw It as Poetry in Motion


Byline: by John Daly

LET us prepare ourselves for the fight! The New Zealand storm is about to break. We shall stand fearless and climb to the heavens!' Fighting talk in any language, but all the more daunting coming from the lips of the world's best rugby team.

When Ireland lines out against the All Blacks at the Aviva on Sunday, few would venture a guess at the final score in a contest heavily weighted against the home side. One thing is certain, however: the stadium will be treated to the prematch spectacle of the haka - the New Zealand war dance that has struck fear into so many opponents down through the decades.

A sporting ritual dating back to 1888, the haka is an ancient posture dance of the Maori tribes traditionally performed on the eve of battle to galvanise the fighting spirit. Delivered with a relish of wild eyes, bared teeth and musclebound aggression, its ferocious rhythm acts as a frenzied war chant for the impending conflict on the field. Little wonder that its call to arms has won many a game for New Zealand often before the first ball was kicked.

DOUBTLESS our rugby heroes will confront this invitation to battle with a suitably Celtic response of bared fangs and snorting nostrils this Sunday, but still, it's a chant that must make the blood freeze when experienced close up.

Among the many people whose lives were influenced by the warlike poetry of the haka, one of its most unusual fans was surely James Joyce - the bespectacled author whose reclusive literary life belied his enthusiasm for rugby.

Joyce was no Brian O'Driscoll, but his recollections in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, of his school days on the junior pitches at Clongowes Wood College, do indicate an individual with a sense of the game's glory: 'The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light... He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of players and his eyes were weak and watery.'

In January 1925, just a few years after publishing Ulysses, Joyce was living in Paris when the All Blacks came to the Colombes Stadium to play France. Having conquered Ireland, England and Canada, as well as 33 other provincial sides, they were christened 'The Invincibles'. On a cold January afternoon, Joyce found himself entranced not so much by the match, which the All Blacks won easily 37-8, but by the haka itself. Led by captain George Nepia, the antics prompted one newspaper to brand it 'a strange wailing by the visitors as they formed in a line down the centre of the field, grinning broadly and gyrating in strange convulsive movements'.

It was a haka called Ko Niu Tireni, written for the tour by supporters Wiremu Rangi and Frank Acheson. For Joyce, the sedentary writer on the sideline, it was a kind of poetry that would influence the novel he was then involved in - Finnegans Wake. 'Kia whakangawari au i a hau! I au-e! Hei!' went the rousing chorus on that frosty Parisian afternoon. 'Ko Niu Tireni e haruru nei. Au! Au! Aue ha!' ('Get ready for the clash. New Zealand's storm is about to break').

According to research by Richard Corballis, Joycean scholar and professor of English at Wellington's Massey University, Joyce went home and wrote to his younger sister Margret Alice, nicknamed Poppie, asking for a translation of the haka. …

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