An Irish-born professor and former dean of engineering, Michael Carroll, celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday on Tuesday, and we organized a party for him in one of the lab buildings. He’s a mechanical engineer but has also written two plays, both of which have been staged, and has composed crossword puzzles for the New York Times and various magazines. He’s a word lover and storyteller, and grew up speaking English and Irish. He loves Flann O’Brien (Keats and Chapman in particular) and is the only person I’ve known who has read An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) in the original.
The graphic designer and I put together a birthday card. On the front is a picture of Thurles, the town where Michael was born in North Tipperary, with Breithlá sona duit! (“Happy birthday!”) bridging the River Suir. Inside we inscribed Saol fada chugat! (“Long life to you!”). The same blessings appear on the birthday cake, in icing.
Several months ago Michael stopped by my office to talk about a story I was writing. He interrupted our digressions-within-digressions to ask if I remembered a passage in Joyce, something about “the smithy of my soul.” I did, for personal reasons, and I referred him to Chapter 5 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
I read A Portrait in ninth grade and had marked the passage. Its romantic grandiosity echoed in my adolescent bosom. A few years later, as a college freshman, I saw the sentences on a poster under a photograph of a young man with a guitar standing like Stephen Daedalus on the strand, gazing at the snotgreen sea. I bought it and taped it to the wall in my dormitory room.
On the back of the card, in a minute typeface, we added the phrase Tá m'árthach foluaineach lán d'eascanna. In English that’s “My hovercraft is full of eels,” which I knew Michael, a Monty Python enthusiast, would understand. What a blessing it is to have friends who get your jokes.