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Bloom, a self-portrait of Joyce as the Irish European

Bloomsday captures our complex national identity: Leopold Bloom is the son of an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as Joyce was an immigrant into it

Clanbrassil Street, the heart of Dublin’s Little Jeruslaem, in 1950. Photograph: Irish Jewish Museum

What is your nation if I may ask, demands the Citizen of Leopold Bloom in one of the best-known scenes in Ulysses. A good question, and one which a growing number of our citizens may find themselves having to answer some day. “Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland.” But not before he has defined, under hostile questioning, what a nation is, by saying: “A nation is the same people living in the same place.” To which he quickly adds: “Or also living in different places.” He might have added, but didn’t, that a nation is also different people living in the same place. But to find out what Joyce really thought about Irishness, and its relevance to identity in contemporary Ireland we need to take a closer look at Bloom’s answer.

What was Joyce’s nation? Undoubtedly born here, in 41 Brighton Square, he spent most of his life as an immigrant in France, Switzerland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, insouciantly waving a British passport. But he seems to have been in little doubt about his own Irishness. In 1940 when he had been refused a visa to enter Switzerland because of suspicion (for obvious reasons) that he might be Jewish, he said, “Je ne suis pas Juif de Judee mais Aryen d’Erin.” But what about Bloom, juif d’Erin, who is derided for his Jewishnesss by the Citizen, with the insinuation that a Jew cannot really be Irish? Let us not forget that though the Citizen is a comic character within the confines of Ulysses, in the very year the book was published the Citizen had seized control of the country, having exchanged his biscuit tin for deadlier weapons. The question posed to Bloom by then had ceased to be literary or rhetorical, but a serious existential matter for many people, and would continue to be so.

A senior RTÉ executive was heard to say that it was a disgrace to have a Jew making a film about the 1916 martyrs

Bloom was born in Dublin’s Little Jerusalem, in Clanbrassil St, in a house whose roof I can see from the desk where I write this. A couple of years ago, I walked down nearby Bloomfield Avenue to the Jewish Museum, to attend a talk by the late Louis Lentin about Leopold Bloom’s Jewishness. The talk was followed by an interesting discussion, and Louis talked about how in 1966, when he had been appointed to produce and direct Insurrection, the groundbreaking drama about 1916, a senior RTÉ executive was heard to say that it was a disgrace to have a Jew making a film about the 1916 martyrs. Louis said he was deeply saddened by this. A rabbi of known orthodox views who was present asked Louis if he drew any conclusions from this experience, with regard to the possibility, or impossibility, of assimilation into Irish society.

What emerged clearly from the discussion was Joyce’s ignorance and lack of understanding of the nature of Jewish society in Ireland at that time. In many ways Bloom is hardly a Jew at all. Among the predominantly Lithuanian Jews of Dublin a Jew is someone who is a member of a Jewish community – and Bloom certainly isn’t. His father Rudolph Virag is clearly a Jew but has married a Protestant, and Leopold himself is tainted by conversion and marriage to a Catholic. Not only is Bloom not a real Jew, he’s worse than that: he’s an apostate. To the Dublin Jewish community he would have been an outcast. Tellingly, Bloom doesn’t even speak Yiddish.

Joyce seems to have learned most of what he knew about Judaism from Ettore Schmitz (real name of the great novelist Italo Svevo), often touted as the model for Bloom. But the prosperous and cosmopolitan post-Enlightenment Jews of Trieste bore little resemblance to Dublin’s Lithuanian Jews, a very closed and sectarian-minded community, often poor and only one or two generations removed from the shtetl.

However, Joyce’s lack of understanding of the nature of Judaism and the Dublin Jews of 1904 is not important for his artistic purpose in Ulysses. It is not Bloom’s Jewish “content” which is important, his Jewishness is there to identify him as “the Other”, the wandering everyman. Above all, with one masterly stroke, Joyce short-circuits all the dreary discussions which would have ensued if Bloom had been made a Catholic or Protestant with all the attendant cultural and political baggage. Bloom is Jewish, Catholic and Protestant, with some atheism, freemasonry and Spinozism thrown in for good measure.

Bloom is the son of an immigrant, and in this the Blooms are mirror images of the Joyces. Leopold’s father was an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as Joyce was an immigrant into it. And his children Lucia and Giorgio were born there. Did that make them members of the Austrian, or later, Italian nation? Joyce’s brother Stanislaus was even interned there during the first World War as an “enemy alien”. But Joyce’s attitude to such matters is, like Bloom’s, noticeably relaxed, and Bloom can perhaps also be seen as a self-portrait of Joyce as the Irish European, the European Irishman.

Joyce’s blurring of the Austro-Hungarian Jew with Dublin Jews reminds us that there is no such thing as a monolithic immigrant community. There are only individual Moldovans, Syrians, Nigerians, and so on, none of whom define their identity as immigrants or refugees, and many of whom presumably identify with their own ethnic, religious or language group. The suburbs of Dublin, and some provincial towns, are now rich in Polish, Lithuanian and West African supermarkets, showing the truth of the old saying that patriotism is above all an attachment to the foods of our childhood.

The Irish attitude to immigrants is a complex one, obviously conditioned by our own experience and indeed ongoing expectations of emigration. After all, our patron saint was an immigrant. Not only that, our foundation myth sees us descended from the Celtic invaders who conquered and eliminated the original inhabitants. There are few other nations whose foundation myth is based on the notion that we’re not actually from around here. Recent research would seem to prove the opposite: we seem to be mainly descended from the original inhabitants of the island.

The fact is, Bloom is right: we are the same people living in the same place, for a very long time. That, however, is rapidly changing before our eyes. In the week when the son of an immigrant is crowned as the leader of the nation, we can perhaps consider the truth of the Citizen’s jibe at Bloom, when he calls him “the new Messiah for Ireland!”