James Joyce and the Easter Rising: the first revisionist

In Harped History, Felix M Larkin, former director of the Parnell Summer School, places Joyce in the Irish historiograpical tradition critical of militant nationalism

J Percy Hayes’ idealised depiction of Parnell’s grave is rich in Irish nationalist iconography; while a  1913 Sunday Freeman cartoon celebrates Ireland’s insurrectionary tradition

J Percy Hayes’ idealised depiction of Parnell’s grave is rich in Irish nationalist iconography; while a 1913 Sunday Freeman cartoon celebrates Ireland’s insurrectionary tradition


James Joyce set one of his best-known stories in Dubliners in the aftermath of an Ivy Day commemoration marking the anniversary of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell on October 6th, 1891. He thus immortalised, in his own inimitable fashion, the persistence of the devotion – especially among Dubliners – to Parnell’s memory. That devotion may not be as strong today as it was in times past, but (as Gerry Adams might say) “it hasn’t gone away, you know”.

Nowadays, Ivy Day is celebrated on the first Sunday in October – close enough to the actual anniversary date – and a not inconsiderable crowd gathers at his grave in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin to remember the Dead Chief, the “lost leader” or, as Mr Casey calls him in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “my dead king”. Organised by the Parnell Society, which is also responsible for the Parnell Summer School at Avondale, Parnell’s ancestral home in Co Wicklow, in August each year, the proceedings typically include a lecture on an appropriate historical theme, followed by a wreath laying and an oration at the grave.

The wreath is made up of ivy leaves and other greenery – the ivy leaf being the emblem of the Parnellite movement, though it was not so during Parnell’s lifetime. Its adoption began with his funeral, and indeed the reason for the choice of the ivy leaf has been the subject of some debate. As Pauric Travers, historian and current chairman of the Parnell Society, has written:

“In a place of honour, beside Parnell’s remains as they lay in state in [Dublin’s] City Hall, was a simple ivy wreath from a Cork woman “as the best offering she could afford”. Later, at Glasnevin, as the multitudes filed into Glasnevin, some ordinary Dubliners took ivy leaves from the walls of the cemetery and put them in their labels. The origins of the tradition of wearing ivy to commemorate Parnell may lie in either or neither of these events. What is clear is that the “tradition” began almost immediately [after the funeral] and that it was astutely promoted by Parnell’s supporters and particularly by the Irish Daily Independent [the newspaper of the Parnellite faction of the Irish Party at Westminster from 1891 to 1900].

The tradition of wearing the ivy leaf continues to the present day.

At the Ivy Day commemoration last October, the guest of honour was Alex Salmond MP, former leader of the Scottish National Party whose programme for Scottish independence bears much resemblance to the Parnellite objective of Home Rule for Ireland. He spoke on the theme of “Parnell: the legacy in Ireland and beyond”. He said in the course of his address that what brought Parnell down in 1890 was not so much the Catholic Church in Ireland as “the British establishment and their most practiced weapon of statecraft – divide and rule – which they have been carrying through for generations, indeed for centuries”. One had the feeling that, in making this point, he didn’t only have nineteenth-century Ireland in mind.

The British late-Victorian artist, J Percy Hayes, paid tribute to Parnell in an oil painting supposedly representing his grave – a highly imaginative composition, dating from long before the great boulder of Wicklow granite bearing Parnell’s name which now distinguishes the grave had been put in place. The legend “Gone but not forgotten” attached to the flags in Hayes’s picture seems to anticipate the brief exchange between those who, in the Hades episode of Ulysses, visit Parnell’s grave after attending the interment of Paddy Dignam:

“The mourners moved away [from Dignam’s grave] slowly without aim, by devious paths, staying at whiles to read a name on a tomb.

– Let us go round by the chief’s grave, Hynes said. We have time.

– Let us, Mr. Power said.

They turned to the right, following their slow thoughts. With awe Mr Power’s blank voice spoke:

– Some say he is not in that grave at all. That the coffin was filled with stone. That one day he will come again.

Hynes shook his head.

– Parnell will never come again, he said. He’s there, all that was mortal of him. Peace to his ashes.”

The Hayes picture is rich in the iconography of Irish nationalist history: the Celtic cross and the round tower, the green flags and the pikes – and the sunburst behind the old Irish parliament building (now the Bank of Ireland), a device commonly used by the Irish Home Rule movement to express its aspiration to secure the restoration of an Irish parliament. It was, for example, used by the Freeman’s Journal newspaper, the unofficial organ of Parnell’s Home Rule party at Westminster, in the headpiece above its editorials – and, in that guise, it occasioned the cruel jibe deprecating Home Rule which Leopold Bloom recalls in the Calypso episode of Ulysses and attributes to the radical journalist Arthur Griffith:

“Sunburst on the titlepage. He smiled, pleasing himself. What Arthur Griffith said about the headpiece over the Freeman leader: a homerule sun rising up in the northwest from the laneway behind the bank of Ireland. He prolonged his pleased smile. Ikey touch that: homerule sun rising up in the northwest.”

The picture also features the words which, somewhat fancifully, are attributed to Parnell on his death bed: “Give my love to my colleagues and the Irish people” – and there is also a harp, the recognised symbol of Ireland that has figured since time immemorial in the arms and on the coinage of Ireland: “The harp that once thro’ Tara’s halls / The soul of music shed”, but which was metaphorically debased in Parnell’s time and in Joyce’s youth:

No more to chiefs and ladies bright

the harp of Tara swells ...

Thus freedom now so seldom wakes,

the only throb she gives

is when some heart indignant breaks

to show that still she lives.

Parnell and the movement he created showed that the aspiration to freedom still lived in Ireland, and Joyce self-evidently responded to that – and venerated Parnell’s memory. There is absolutely no doubt which side of the argument he favours in the famous Christmas dinner scene in the Portrait when the rights and wrongs of the Parnell “split” of 1890-1 are rehearsed. To quote from the Portrait, the young Stephen Dedalus was “for Ireland and Parnell, and so was his father”.

Returning to the motif of the harp: at Joyce’s own funeral, some 50 years after Parnell’s, his wife Nora brought along a wreath in the form of a harp entwined with green ribbons; she said it was because Joyce loved music, but surely there was more to it than that. She cannot have been unaware that her wreath would evoke the Irish past – the green ribbons are the give-away – just as Joyce himself had used the harp to suggest Ireland’s “pride of former days” in the story Two Gallants in Dubliners. Frank Callanan has written about this – the harp and harper in Two Gallants – in the Dublin James Joyce Journal, and he quotes Joyce as saying that “the ‘Two Gallants’, with the Sunday crowds and the harp in Kildare Street ... is an Irish landscape”. Callanan adds: “Even as landscape, it has political colouration. The Kildare Street club, outside which the harper plays, was a bastion of Ascendancy”. The juxtaposition of two things so emblematic of what Joyce in Finnegans Wake would call Ireland’s “split little pea” is a powerful conceit.

The harp is not only a symbol of Ireland, but is associated with Ireland’s bardic heritage – with the oral transmission of information from one generation to the next via bards reciting epics, and singing and playing ballads: in other words, with the popular perception of Ireland’s story and the understanding, or misunderstanding, of Ireland’s history. This is presumably what Joyce meant when he writes – in Finnegans Wake – of “history as her is harped”, the phrase from which the title of this essay is derived. And note his feminisation of history – a genuflection to Clio, the muse of history. This concept of “harped history” is precisely the same as what David Rieff, in his important new book In Praise of Forgetting, calls “collective memory” – and Rieff points out what should be obvious to all, that it is an artificial construct:

“Quite simply [he argues], the world does not have memories; nor do nations; nor do groups of people. Individuals remember, full stop. Yet ... collective memory is often spoken of as if it were indeed on a par with individual, which is to say genuine, memory, and not infrequently, though almost never explicitly, as if it morally outranked it.”

Rieff deprecates “the takeover of history by memory”, arguing that it amounts to “the takeover of history by politics” – and that phenomenon has been evident in Ireland in our celebration of the centenary of the 1916 Rising. It was a variation on “theme-park history”, a phrase coined by the ever-quotable Roy Foster – though the Irish Government, mindful of the dangers inherent in the interplay between history, memory and politics, was duly vigilant about how the commemoration was framed. It was recognised that there was an imperative to be careful when dipping into the past and raking up a bitter story. Rieff, however, argues that being careful is not enough: he challenges us to be faithful to history – not to memory. He writes:

“Surely it is history that must be the senior partner and memory the junior one, at least if the goal is, as it should be, to amass the facts necessary to establish an unimpeachable historical record – something that collective memory, which ... involves ‘editing’ the past to further the needs of the present, rarely if ever does well.”

It is history as “collective memory” that Joyce seems to find fault with when Stephen famously remarks in Ulysses that “History ... is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” and also when Haines, the Englishman staying with Stephen in the Martello tower at Sandycove, in the Dublin suburbs, opines that “history is to blame”. No echo here of the hope expressed by Abraham Lincoln that “the mystic chords of memory” will be touched “by the better angels of our nature”. On the contrary, like Rieff today, Joyce seems to have regarded memory as toxic – another of the nets flung at the soul of a man born in Ireland “to hold it back from flight”. But Stephen, Joyce’s alter ego, displays a fine sense of what history – as distinct from memory – is actually about when, during the class that he teaches in the Nestor episode of Ulysses, he speculates in his own mind about the contingencies that have shaped the past:

“Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death. They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass?”

Does this suggest that Joyce anticipated the so-called “revisionist” school of Irish history? That would be a ridiculous assertion, but this passage demonstrates that he had a proper understanding of the discipline of history. This led him to reject the nationalist narrative of Irish history that held sway in his time – and, in some quarters, may still hold sway – but which has been largely discredited by advances in historical scholarship in the last 50 years. He is on the side of the “better angels” in what the eminent Irish political scientist, Tom Garvin, has described as “the division in modern Irish historiography between nationalist narratives and the so-called ‘revisionism’ [decried by] nationalist ideologues, known to the rest of us as real history”.

In support of this contention, here are extracts from two seminal texts – both dating from 1916. The first is from the Proclamation issued by the rebels in 1916 and read by PH Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, outside the GPO in Dublin on Easter Monday:

“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms.”

These words are familiar to most Irishmen and Irishwomen, as the Proclamation is held to be the foundational document of the modern Irish State. The second extract is taken from A Portrait of the Artist, published in New York in 1916 – specifically, from the discussion that Stephen has with his friend Michael Davin, “the peasant student ... [who] had sat at the feet of Michael Cusack” and who was thought of “as a young fenian” by his fellow students. Joyce wrote of him in Portrait that “whatsoever of thought or of feeling came to him from England or by way of English culture his mind stood armed against in obedience to a password”. Davin was based on George Clancy, who went on to become Sinn Féin mayor of Limerick and was murdered by crown forces on March 6th, 1921, shortly after his election as mayor. The passage in question is as follows:

“– Try to be one of us, repeated Davin. In your heart you are an Irishman but your pride is too powerful.

– My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made? What for?

– For our freedom, said Davin.

– No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell, but you have sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’ll see you damned first.

– They died for their ideals, Stevie, said Davin. Our day will come yet.”

Some things don’t change: Irish republicans are still using the phrase “Our day will come” – or, in the Gaelic language, “Tiocfaidh ár lá”. Did Joyce invent the phrase? That would be a nice irony, since the contrast between the two pieces quoted could not be starker. Consistent with Joyce’s pro-Parnell sympathies already noted, he is clearly hostile to and dismissive of the physical force tradition of Irish nationalism represented in Portrait by Michael Davin – the tradition to which the 1916 Proclamation refers and to which the Proclamation now itself belongs. In Ireland today – where “revisionism” is widely, though not universally, accepted – advanced nationalists like Davin no longer command the intellectual heights as once they did. Their day is gone – at least as regards history.

Celebrating the advances made in Irish historical scholarship, Roy Foster wrote in the TLS in July 2016 that:

“In academe and even the world of op-ed journalism, there has been a shift to approaching Ireland’s dramatic history through nuance, complexity and an acceptance of mixed motives and the legitimacy of conflicting traditions.”

He noted that, in the battles “around the terrain of Irish historiography”, the battles about “revisionism”:

“... a certain resting place has has been reached. [However] the memory of clashing swords and flashing spears still arouses some echoes in the odd American university, where occasional Irish Studies specialists – usually Grumpy Old Men in departments of English Literature – continue to take refuge from post-post-structuralism in an oddly antique blend of republican nationalism, sometimes strangely yoked to old-style Marxism. And in untouched corners of the Irish landscape, amateur pietists can be relied on to come down from the hillsides and do battle with anyone who suggests that the IRA (in the present as well as the past) was spurred by any motivation other than the desire to make a better world founded on altruistic pluralism.”

This marginalisation of the nationalist narrative of Irish history – confining it to “the odd American university” and to “amateur pietists” – is a fairly recent phenomenon. Up to about 50 years ago, the nationalist narrative still prevailed in Ireland – albeit with a few honourable exceptions, very few – and it was endorsed by the independent Irish State through its education system and in so many other ways. It had captured the public imagination and had become an integral part of our “collective memory”, to use Rieff’s phrase – but, again quoting Rieff, it was a very blatant instance of “the takeover of history by politics”. It is interesting in this regard to recall a speech outlining education policy in Ireland delivered by the then minister for education, Richard Mulcahy, in 1950. He declared that “the foundation and crown of youth’s entire training is religion”, but then he stressed “the importance of seeing today our education work in the perspective of the nation and its history”. He expanded on the latter point as follows:

“We want all our young people to love their country and loving her to serve her loyally and faithfully in whatever walk of life their lot may be cast ... Education in this country has a task laid upon it in this connection that is almost unique. There is a breach which it has to fill, and any attempt to ignore that fact or belittle its importance would eventually, I think, be disastrous to the nation’s strength and character.”

The Irish education system was thus required to make good a supposed deficit in patriotism. Such was the framework which informed history teaching in Irish schools up to about 1970. That sort of “education” was, in reality, a form of indoctrination. Tom Garvin has rightly described it as worthy of the Afghan Taliban.

The nationalist narrative of history propagated in Ireland in the first five decades of the newly-independent State derived largely from the Nation newspaper – especially in its initial phase as the organ of the Young Ireland movement, from 1842 to 1848. The Nation’s motto was: “To foster a public opinion and make it racy of the soil”. In the words of PS O’Hegarty – one of the early civil servants of the new Irish State, and a prolific writer – the newspaper was written “almost entirely with propagandistic intent, appealing to tradition” in order to make the ordinary Irishman “politically-minded out of pride in the knowledge of the historic past of his country”.

Despite the fact that its narrative of Irish history emphasised the primacy of physical force in the quest for independence, that narrative was not disavowed even by Parnell and his successors in the Irish parliamentary party up to 1918. Instead, they quite consciously embraced it as late as in the years immediately before 1916. For example, in a cartoon published in the Sunday Freeman of December 28th, 1913, the iconic figure of Erin – with the obligatory harp – celebrates the rebellions of 1798 (the United Irishmen), 1848 (Young Ireland) and 1867 (the Fenians), and these are put on an equal footing with the great parliamentary achievements of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1893, and the impending Home Rule Act of 1914. This is “harped history”, and with a sting in its tail. The Freeman, as already mentioned, was the organ of the Irish party – and by identifying with armed insurrection and thus accustoming Irish men and women “to the thought of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms” (a quote from PH Pearse), the party may have inadvertently helped to sow the seeds of its own destruction post-1916. By riding on the back of a tiger, the Irish party ended up inside its belly. Let us hope that the recent commemoration of the 1916 Rising – an unmistakable instance of “the takeover of history by politics” – will not have similar adverse consequences.

The effort to rescue Irish history from politics dates from 1938 when two great though very different Irish historians, TW Moody and R Dudley Edwards, launched Irish Historical Studies as a vehicle for a sober and objective approach to the writing of Ireland’s history. Their initiative was a “slow burner”, and it was only in the 1960s that the new historiography really began to colour the popular outlook in Ireland.

A critical influence was The Course of Irish History, an innovative series of 21 programmes broadcast by the fledgling Irish state television service in 1966. In these programmes, overseen by Moody and by FX Martin, the then foremost scholars in Irish history outlined that history from earliest times to the 1960s. A companion volume, jointly edited by Moody and Martin, was first published in 1966 and has never since been out of print. It is probably the most widely-read general survey of Irish history over the past 50 years, and it has been instrumental in getting the results of academic research in history out of the ivory tower of the universities and into the wider, everyday world.

The rigorous standards fostered by Moody and Edwards were passed on to disciples who came to dominate the history profession in Ireland – and these historians emerging from the shadow of Moody and Edwards have largely succeeded in countering the widespread acceptance of the misleading view of Irish history derived from the Nation, and embodied in the 1916 Proclamation, that had prevailed until the 1960s. A more balanced and accurate view of the Irish past has emerged: history has been elevated above memory and politics.

This achievement – the recovery of the past from the realm of mythology and patriotic oversimplification – is what is meant by “revisionism”, though in reality there was no revision involved. There was, strictly speaking, little extant history to be revised – only “collective memory”, conditioned by a nationalist agenda of indoctrination. The history of Ireland had still to be written. In his novel TransAtlantic, Colum McCann speaks of “the mildew in the room where the past is stored” – and that is an apt metaphor for the condition of Irish historiography before “revisionism”, or in Garvin’s words “true history”, took root.

The main, though by no means the only, battleground in the struggle for the recovery of “true history” in Ireland has been the 1916 Rising – and here the work of Martin in the 1960s was critical, in particular his publication of two memoranda by Eoin MacNeill, the chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers in 1916, clarifying MacNeill’s controversial role in trying to halt the Rising. These showed that there were valid narratives and interpretations of the Rising other than those that had been self-consciously fashioned by the 1916 leaders themselves and later endorsed by the Irish State.

It changed the accepted view of the Rising – as also did a seminal series of lectures edited by Martin and broadcast on Irish radio in 1966 under the general title Leaders and Men of the Easter Rising; Dublin 1916. They were subsequently published under the same title. In his foreword to the published collection, Martin claimed that the book was “the first attempt at a cool appraisal of the Easter Rising in the context of the Ireland of its time”, and he recorded that his intention in selecting topics for the lectures and picking the contributors had been for “all sides of the story to be presented fairly”. He added: “There is no party line, and each author was free to express himself as he saw fit according to the evidence available”. It was a radical manifesto – even a subversive one – at the very moment when the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising was being celebrated with much panoply by the Irish State.

In one of his two contributions to the lecture series, Martin highlighted the lack of either a democratic mandate or moral justification for the Rising. As regards a democratic mandate, he wrote that the leaders of the Rising “were not deterred by the fact that they were a small minority”, and he went on to say:

“On close examination it will be found that they were a far smaller minority than is usually supposed ... The Easter Rising was a coup d’état against the British Government, it ran flat counter to the wishes of Redmond [the leader of the Irish party at Westminster] and the majority of Irish Nationalists, it was a mutiny against MacNeill and the constitution of the Irish Volunteers, and it usurped the powers of the IRB [the Irish Republican Brotherhood, in whose name the Rising was launched].”

As regards moral justification, Martin pointed out unambiguously:

“The traditional conditions required for lawful revolt seem at first sight, and even at second, to be absent in 1916. Firstly, the government must be a tyranny, that is without a legitimate title to rule the country. And there are four further conditions - the impossibility of removing the tyranny except by armed force, a proportion between the evil caused and that to be removed by the revolt, serious probability of success, and finally the approval of the community as a whole.”

These criteria for justifying the use of force for political ends follow the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and have been generally accepted in mainstream Western philosophy ever since. Given Joyce’s knowledge of, and interest in, Aquinas – evident in the Portrait – there is little doubt that he would have appreciated this particular argument.

The claims that the Rising was undemocratic and flouted every authority under the sun, and that it was immoral, were – and still are – deeply at odds with the reverence accorded to the Rising in Ireland’s “collective memory”. Here is a classic example of the tension between “collective memory” and “real history”. It is the role and the responsibility of the historian to challenge “collective memory” with the professional tools of his trade, as Martin did in the 1960s. Indeed, the activity of being a historian is well summed up in these words of John O’Meara, one of the foremost public intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century in Ireland, taken from his autobiographical volume The Singing-masters:

“Yet one goes on, partly perhaps for reasons of history: to make known the truth, however little more, about some important figure in the past; to remove from him the imputations, favourable or unfavourable, which successful groups in bolstering their power, in good faith or confusedly or in simple bad faith, attribute to him. This, however small an achievement in itself, participates in the transcending importance of the discovery of truth, which is ultimately one.”

The approach that should characterise the work of historians is, therefore, one of interrogating the past, questioning received orthodoxies and restoring their frail and imperfect humanity to heroes – the mindset is sceptical, iconoclastic, disruptive. Bluntly, the historian should be a kind of “bullshit detector”, with zero tolerance – and that approach is true to the spirit of James Joyce, for his alter ego Stephen Dedalus is described in the Portrait by his friend Davin as a “born sneerer”. Nothing is sacred to Stephen or to Joyce, and in this regard Rieff – in his In Praise of Forgetting – quotes the French historian Pierre Nora as saying: “Memory instils remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again”. So the revisionist historian is truly following in the steps of James Joyce.

But what was Joyce’s view of the 1916 Rising? Joyce could not ignore the Rising: his contemporary and friend in UCD, the journalist and suffragist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, was killed in appalling circumstances during the Rising – and Joyce had briefly attended Gaelic language classes conducted by Pearse, for whom, according to his biographer Richard Ellmann, he “had no liking”. When the Rising occurred, Ellmann informs us that:

Joyce followed the events with pity; although he evaluated the rising as useless, he felt also out of things. His attitude towards Ireland became even more complex, so that he told friends, when the British had to give up their plans to conscript troops in Ireland, “Erin go bragh!” [the slogan, in Gaelic, of the United Irishmen of 1798] and he predicted the he and Giorgio [his son] would go back to wear the shamrock in an independent Ireland; but when this temporary fervour waned, he replied to someone who asked if he did not look forward to the emergence of an independent country “So that I might declare myself its first enemy?” Would he not die for Ireland? “I say,” he said, “let Ireland die for me.”

This sentiment echoes what Stephen tells Davin in their discussion in the Portrait quoted earlier. Moreover, during a brief sojourn in Rome, Joyce had experienced at close quarters the reality of violent revolutionary activity when three bombs were set off in the city by anarchists in separate incidents in November 1906 – and he was appalled. Any chance that he might have sympathised with the 1916 Rising was compromised by his memory of those incidents. As Peter Costello, another Joyce biographer, has written: “The political Joyce was dead, killed off by these Roman outrages, and would never be revived”.

Joyce must also have shared some of the resentment felt by the elite generation of Irish Catholic bourgeoisie with whom he had attended University College Dublin at being deprived of the power and influence that, but for the 1916 Rising, would have been theirs in a Home Rule Ireland. The economist George O’Brien – just 10 years younger than Joyce – recalled these shattered expectations. His set, members – like Joyce – of the UCD debating society, the Literary & Historical Society, had groomed themselves for political careers in a Home Rule parliament that did not materialise. O’Brien wrote:

“We all confidently expected in a short time we would be exercising our oratory, not in the dingy precincts of the old Physics Theatre in 86 [St Stephen’s Green, the location of UCD at that time], but in the Old [Irish Parliament] House in College Green. It was because of this hope that we took our debates so seriously.”

Another O’Brien – Conor Cruise O’Brien – was likewise irked by what he saw as his déclassé status in independent Ireland. He was the grandson of an Irish party MP, David Sheehy, and the son of Frank Cruise O’Brien – like Sheehy-Skeffington, one of Joyce’s friends in UCD and another of Ireland’s Home Rule rulers-in-waiting. Conor Cruise O’Brien considered that his family had been dispossessed by 1916, cheated of their rightful inheritance. Bryan Fanning reminds us, in his The Quest for Modern Ireland, that Cruise O’Brien once told his father-in-law, Sean McEntee – a long-time Irish government minister and survivor of the 1916 Rising – that “your people pushed my people aside”. Joyce, however, suffered this displacement from a distance. By 1916, he had left Ireland – in order to break free from the nets “of nationality, language and religion” that he had claimed were stifling him at home. Ironically, those nets became even tighter in the new Ireland that emerged from the 1916 Rising – and, as already suggested, maybe Ireland’s past was another constraint from which he needed to escape. In the words of Finnegans Wake:

“He ... ran away with hunself and became a farsoonerite, saying he would far sooner muddle through the hash of lentils in Europe than meddle with Irrland’s split little pea.”

As so often with Joyce, this passage is packed with a multitude of allusions: the reference to “hunself” identifies Joyce with the Asiatic people who invaded Europe in the fourth and fifth centuries – he too had “invaded” Europe – and it also reflects Germany’s increasingly powerful position in Europe in the early years of the twentieth century; “Irrland’s split little pea” sums up the history of Ireland, especially in the years immediately before and after the 1916 Rising; and “a hash of lentils in Europe” captures the mishmash of empires and kingdoms, nationalities and loyalties, which Joyce encountered when he went into exile in order “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” – as he states at the end of the Portrait. Thus, whether in Trieste, Zurich or Paris, Joyce could not escape history – whether “collective memory” or “real history”. One of his many virtues, however, is that – appropriating Rieff’s formulation – history was for him always the senior partner and memory the junior one.

This is an edited version of a lecture given at the James Joyce Centre, in Dublin, on October 3rd, 2016. Felix M Larkin, historian and writer, is a former director of the Parnell Summer School. He is the author of Terror and Discord: the Shemus cartoons in the Freeman’s Journal, 1920-1924, 2009

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