Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

James Joyce: Poster boy for Irish emigration

Joyce was a modernist genius, gifted tenor, lapsed Catholic – and also an emigrant, writes Niall McArdle

Sat, Jun 15, 2013, 15:30


Niall McArdle

Of all the things that James Joyce epitomises – modernist genius, gifted tenor, lapsed Catholic – one thing is apt to remember as we celebrate Bloomsday tomorrow: Joyce was also an emigrant. Feeling constrained and paralysed in Dublin, he told Nora Barnacle he felt he was fighting a battle with every social and religious force in the country, and begged her to escape with him to the continent. They left in 1904… but Joyce always looked back.

He lived in self-imposed exile, finding an artistic freedom in Europe that he could never find in Dublin.  But he also froze Dublin in amber. June 16th, 1904 is not just Bloomsday, but the mental image of the city that Joyce carried with him for the rest of his life. It is ironic that although he strove to escape the city’s paralysis, he had the paralysed view of the emigrant.

Just as any Irish person abroad who remembers “home” with a mixture of love, contempt and regret, Joyce was obsessed with Dublin after he left. He pestered his relatives as to the exact location of houses and were there trees behind the Star of the Sea church in Sandymount, and if so, what kind.  He often said that if the city was destroyed, that it could be rebuilt using Ulysses as a guide. If that fails, we could always use Dubliners.

Every emigrant fixes a notion of home on the day they left, and Generation Emigration has many examples, such as Patrick McKenna’s view of Belfast in 1975, Philip Lynch’s memory of leaving Mullingar for Melbourne in 1983, and Clar Ni Chonghaile’s image of Galway when she was nineteen.  I feel the same. I remember the awful shock on a return trip to Dublin when I discovered my beloved Greene’s Bookshop was no more. I want to go back. I want to be “walking into eternity along Sandymount Strand”, but I want my preserved vision of the city of Dublin to be there waiting for me.

It isn’t a coincidence that the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom never feels fully accepted in Dublin. The son of an immigrant Jew, he can identify with outsiders. He observes what many a returning emigrant feels, that “the coming back was the worst thing you ever did because it went without saying you would feel out of place as things always moved with the times”.

Many emigrants carry a mental image of Ireland, but Joyce carried a physical emblem of his home: his ashplant cane that he swung as he strolled the streets of Paris. He insisted to friends that it was made of a wood that only grew in Ireland and clutched it as a symbol of his eternal Irishness.

It is Joyce’s genius that allowed him to see exile not only as a way to escape, but as a form of artistic expression in itself. The question hanging over the legacy of Joyce’s exile is, what would have happened to him had he stayed?  Could he have written his masterwork had he stayed in Ireland “where Christ and Caesar are hand in glove”?

For full Irish Times coverage of Bloomsday celebrations this weekend, click here.