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Clerical abuse, boom and bust: how Joyce predicted Ireland today

Many of Ireland’s current woes were foreshadowed and even diagnosed by a writer who saw us as ‘gratefully oppressed’

James Joyce: Irish society today still has a lot to learn from both his diagnosis and his prescription. Photograph: Hulton Getty

“We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries,” Richard Ellmann wrote in the first line of his biography. Those words, first published in 1959, remain true even today, in ways that have a direct bearing on the Ireland in which we now live.

Recent years have seen a massive revision of our sense of our country’s past and of our relationship to it. Much of its ethos, morality and values have been increasingly questioned. The disclosures about clerical sexual abuse, mother-and-baby homes, major failings in the Garda, and cover-ups by church and State have contributed to a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the State as it has developed since independence – that these are not just individual malfunctions but evidence of a more generalised malaise.

A further shock was provided by the recession of 2008, which showed that the country’s apparent prosperity was a bubble, an illusion generated by excessive optimism and false assurances. This was accompanied by considerable evidence of corruption in public life, especially at local level. This may seem remote from a writer who died in 1941, who had left Ireland in 1912 and whose works, while focused on Dublin, are treated as quintessentially literary artefacts, important for critical theory and other rather abstruse concerns. In fact, however, much of our current plight is foreshadowed – and indeed diagnosed – by Joyce.

Take the story After the Race in Dubliners. This concerns a young man, Jimmy Doyle, the possessor of newly acquired wealth from his father, formerly an “advanced nationalist”, who had prudently moderated his views as his business empire expanded. Jimmy blows quite an amount of this wealth in a card game with some foreign visitors who are clearly out to exploit him. He is carried along on a tide of optimism, excitement and self-importance; he is flattered to be in the company of these exotic young men, to be one of their number.

Even in Ulysses there is the same clear-eyed, unblinking rendering of the realities of Irish life, as they existed then and as many exist now

This pleasing sense carries him into folly until the sobering announcement by one of his companions, at the end of a night of card-playing in which Jimmy has been the chief loser, “Daybreak, gentlemen!” Could there be a more apt metaphor for the stunned realisation, at the end of 2008, that the country’s alleged elite had been on a collective binge, a massive spending spree for which the bill was finally being presented – and that, as with Jimmy and his creditors, there would be no debt forgiveness?

The story, more broadly, has something to say about subservience, and about the nature of subservience – call it colonialism if you wish: how, when one starts from a position that is internally and structurally subservient, something almost inherent in one’s make-up propels one to the kind of disaster that Jimmy (and more recently Ireland) undergoes. This underlying theme is rendered explicit in a line that could easily be overlooked very early on: describing the Irish crowds who are watching the motor race – featuring exclusively foreign drivers – that precedes the night of card-playing, the text states that they “raised the cheer of the gratefully oppressed”.

The phrase, which is a near-oxymoron, catches perfectly in its concision, its economy, the bind that Joyce is exploring: it is one thing to be oppressed, it is another thing to be “gratefully oppressed”. That is the position of the Irish as Joyce sees it, and if one wants to believe that this is merely a historical matter – British colonial oppression, etc. – it is worth reflecting on the eagerness with which this country embraced its new masters in the ECB and the austerity measures they imposed.

Other stories in Dubliners also have a bearing on the Ireland of today. The first story, The Sisters, concerns the relationship between a boy and a priest who is in disgrace for some rather obscure reason. There is nothing at all abusive about their relationship but there is a question about its appropriateness, a question articulated early by a character who is despised by the boy-narrator as a “tiresome old rednosed imbecile!” The boy, however, has in a sense been singled out by the priest, made to feel special, and the whole strange story is suffused by the queasy sense of the consequences of that privilege.

This strange sense is continued into the next story, An Encounter, which is explicitly about a potential child abuser. This story is about two boys who encounter this individual, but it is the boy-narrator, again, who is singled out for special attention, who is, in a sense, groomed by being privileged. That the second story sheds something of a new light on the first is confirmed by the reaction of the book’s potential first publisher, George Roberts, who, on taking fright at An Encounter, asked Joyce whether there was something unwholesome about The Sisters as well. It is extraordinary that something which now looms so large in the national consciousness – child abuse and exploitation – should be explored with such delicacy and perception in a work written so long ago, when the subject could not normally be mentioned.

Physical abuse, too, looms large in Joyce’s work, whether it is the pandybatting administered by Father Dolan to young Stephen in A Portrait or Farrington’s beating of his son at the end of Counterparts in Dubliners. Joyce’s attitude is never judgemental: he merely depicts what happens, but neither does he shirk from portraying the realities of Irish life in what he described as his “nicely polished looking-glass”.

As Joyce moved on, as his work expanded, it embraced many other things than just Ireland, of course. But even in Ulysses there is the same clear-eyed, unblinking rendering of the realities of Irish life, as they existed then and as many exist now. I am thinking, for instance, of Molly Bloom’s casual reference to the husband of her cleaning woman, Mrs Fleming: “and he beats her”. This is stated without any further comment, as if it were just another part of the world as it is. Similarly, Bloom, seeing an undernourished, impoverished young boy near Lime Street who is smoking a cigarette, thinks: “Tell him if he smokes he won’t grow. O let him! His life isn’t such a bed of roses. Waiting outside pubs to bring da home. Come home to ma, da.” Again, the perspective is unsentimental, realistic, but not without compassion. This is the way things are and, in spite of all the many other things going on in the text, this reality remains an essential underpinning of the entire work.

More broadly, the Nestor episode of Ulysses engages very seriously with the “nightmare” of Irish history. As I have indicated in my book Ulysses Unbound, Stephen Dedalus tries to come to terms with the bloodshed, the hatred and the violence that disfigure that history and are its irreducible subtext: “They are not to be thought away”, as Stephen puts it, but he refuses to accept that he or we are bound just to repeat it. By changing God from being the ultimate goal of all history to just “a shout in the street”, he changes the terms of debate and ensures for Ireland and for all of us a certain indispensable modicum of freedom. The relevance of this in the context of recent Irish history hardly needs underlining.

It is worth stressing that Joyce was a revolutionary, and not just in the artistic sense; in his early days he had a vision of society that entailed nothing short of a revolution (admittedly a very Joycean revolution) for its fulfilment. This is evident in his very early essay, A Portrait of the Artist. Later, of course, artistic considerations took precedence over everything, but Irish society today still has a lot to learn from both the diagnosis and the prescription of our 135-year-old contemporary.
This article first appeared in Books Ireland magazine, issue 373 May/June 2017 @booksirelandmag
Ulysses Unbound by Terence Killeen is published by Wordwell, at €19.50. Terence Killeen reviews Irish Divorce/Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ by Peter Kuch and Joyce in Court by Adrian Hardiman in The Irish Times on June 17th