Perfect opening lines: Joyce, Beckett, McCann, Heaney, Kavanagh and beyond

a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-manMy internet browsing habits are incredibly haphazard. Having been a committed user of Google Reader, I’ve migrated across to Feedly, but with a subscription to maybe 100 RSS feeds, each containing up to 20 stories daily, there’s no avoiding an incompleteness when it comes to reading them all. Getting to scan every headline in my Feedly on any given day is a rare feat.

So for me, finding interesting things effectively comes down to the wisdom of crowds. Devout on Twitter and trying to build on Google+ and Tumblr, I often just go where people suggest I go, which was how I found a piece from The Atlantic on great opening lines in literature this week. I like The Atlantic, but I’m not sure I’ve ever visited its homepage. Deep-linked by social media is the way of the web for me.

Three opening lines from James Joyce were included either in the article itself or in the extensive discussion generated in the comments.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Ulysses, James Joyce

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

– Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

A Portrait of the Artist of Young Man, James Joyce

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman was also suggested by one of the commenters. I am more than a bit ashamed to admit that I have yet to read The Third Policeman; even its opening line had escaped me until this week.

Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with a spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.

The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien

So which other Irish novels stand out? Here’s the first line from Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, which a recently auctioned manuscript revealed had gone through nine iterations before the version that stood:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

Murphy, Samuel Beckett

More recently, the first line(s) of Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin succeeded in drawing you into the story immediately:

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful.

Let The Great World Spin, Colum McCann

Away from Irish writing, if I may, and some of my favourite first lines:

Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buenda was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I think it’s fair to say this first line laid down a tone that sustained me days and weeks later as I struggled through some of the denser passages. It remained a memorable experience, mind, but I recall a sense of frustration in the reading.

Charles Dickens specialised in lengthy opening sentences, strewn with clauses, which would possibly have some readers casting aside before the end of Page 1. Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities are both from that school, but my favourite Dickens opening lines come from Great Expectations:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.

… and, a bit obviously, A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead, to begin with.

patrickkavanaghFirst lines are perhaps even more crucial to the success of a poem.

The title of The Atlantic piece is “This did something powerful to me”, and the opening lines of Seamus Heaney’s “Mid Term Break” and Patrick Kavanagh’s “Inniskeen Road: July Evening” certainly had a profound effect on my school-going self:


I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.

– “Mid Term Break”, Seamus Heaney

The bicycles go by in twos and threes  –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn to-night,

– “Inniskeen Road: July Evening”, Patrick Kavanagh

What all these great opening lines have in common (apart from a great poem or story or entire book beyond them) is in laying down an immediate certainty in the world that to be conveyed. There is no cloudiness, no vague qualifiers, no dearth of confidence. All of which leads me to believe that unshakable confidence is a hallmark of all the best writers (famous or otherwise).

Anyway, please forgive the digression across the Irish Sea and beyond.

Have you got any favourite first lines from Irish (or non-Irish) poems, short stories or novels?


4 thoughts on “Perfect opening lines: Joyce, Beckett, McCann, Heaney, Kavanagh and beyond

  1. Today a rare sun of spring. And horse carts clanging to the quays down Tara Street and the shoeless white faced kids screaming.

    J.P.Donleavy – The Ginger Man

    Three o’clock in February. All the sky was blue and high. Banners and bunting and people bunched up between. Greetings and sadness.

    J.P.Donleavy – A Fairy Tale of New York

  2. A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste and dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

    – A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)

    BTW, it’s ‘Finnegans Wake’

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