James Joyce: down and out in Dublin

His landmark collection ‘Dubliners’ finally appeared 100 years ago. The struggle to publish it cut Joyce off from the Irish literary movement


‘The Abbey Theatre will be open and they will give plays of Yeats and Synge. You have a right to be there because you are my bride: and I am one of the writers of this generation who are perhaps creating at last a conscience in the soul of this wretched race.”

Thus James Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle, who was in Galway, from Dublin on August 22nd, 1912. This letter was written during a roller-coaster ride of emotions that he was experiencing over the planned publication in Dublin of his first major work, Dubliners, the centenary of whose eventual publication we are celebrating this month.

Joyce wrote it after an apparent sign of relenting from the publisher, George Roberts, over the many obstacles he was placing in the way of publication, and Joyce here reacts with what turns out to be vastly excessive optimism to the prospect of his book’s eventual appearance.

This passage marks perhaps the high water mark of his identification with the group of writers collectively known as the Irish (or Anglo-Irish) revival, and it is tempting to wonder, in one of the great counterfactuals, what might have happened if the publication had gone ahead. Would this identification have been to some extent cemented, and would it have led to a somewhat different approach to the country in his work?

Of course, it did not happen, and the saga of this book’s nonappearance in Dublin marks instead the moment of Joyce’s decisive break with his native country, of his complete severance from it in terms of any involvement in its literary movement, in its politics, in its development.

Joyce’s experience in Dublin over the publication of Dubliners in the fateful summer of 1912 was nerve-racking, embittering and, in a word, disastrous. Those who feel that the saga of Joyce’s “exile” from Ireland is overdone, that it does not reflect any reality, might consider what happened with Dubliners. The treatment of Joyce was appalling. Although some writers might be inclined to suggest other claimants for the honour, he had met the publisher from hell.

A vivid picture of the turmoil that Joyce went through is provided by letters that his Dublin-based brother, Charles, sent to their other brother, Stanislaus, in Trieste as the debacle reached its climax.

It would be nice to imagine that Joyce had always wanted to see Dubliners published in Dublin, but such is not the case. The book had already done the rounds of many London publishers (and been rejected, often contentiously) before Joyce submitted it, in 1909, to the Dublin firm of Maunsel & Company. Although at this stage Maunsel was still a very young firm, having been founded in 1905, it was already the leading publication outlet for writers of the revival and played a vitally important part in the revival’s development.

Having sent the Dubliners manuscript to Maunsel in April 1909, Joyce follows this up with direct contacts with Roberts, the firm’s manager, and its cofounder and chairman, Joseph Hone, on the first of his two 1909 visits to Dublin that year. They sign a contract in August that year for the publication of Dubliners in 1910.

In early 1910 the first hint of difficulties arise, when Roberts expresses doubts about a passage in Ivy Day in the Committee Room that is disrespectful, to say the least, about the British royal family. Roberts promises to forward proofs shortly, but deadlock continues over the passage, with Roberts finding Joyce’s proposed alteration insufficient. In July 1910 Dubliners is printed in its entirety by John Falconer, Maunsel’s printer, in an edition of 1,000 copies, but if ever the adage about many a slip between cup and lip were to hold true, this is the occasion.

Roberts continues to multiply objections; Joyce tries every trick in the book, from threats to cajolery, to get him to relent.

During Joyce’s Dublin visit of 1912 matters come to a head. Roberts’s concerns have now widened, to encompass a general worry about naming any existing Dublin premises, for fear of libel, and about the sexual implications of An Encounter and, possibly, The Sisters.

Finally, with negotiations on the verge of being broken off, Joyce tries to buy the proofs from the printer and publish the book himself, under the name the Liffey Press, with Charles’s assistance, in rooms he plans to hire on Jervis Street. Charles tells Stanislaus of an exchange Joyce has with a solicitor called Dixon, whom he has consulted about retrieving his manuscript:

“He regretted that he could not conscientiously see his way to assist Jim to get his MS back as he considered the book objectionable and unworthy of publication. . . Dixon then said it was a pity that Jim did not use his undoubted talents for a better purpose than writing a book like Dubliners. Why did he not use his talents for the betterment of his country and his people?”

None of this makes the slightest difference to Roberts’s attitude. Ultimately, Joyce comes up with an elaborate scheme where he will obtain the copies of the book from Roberts and spirit them away to the Liffey Press. As Charlie puts it to Stannie:

“A mysterious carrier is to go to Maunsell’s and get the parcel containing the 1,000 copies which Jim is to get on payment of fifteen pounds, and they are to be brought to me at 2 Jervis St. I am not to know who the carrier is nor whence he came. Then I am to get another mysterious carrier who will bring the books to the binder, who will ship them to their final destination. The carriers in each case are to be obscure and unknown. In case of questions I am to reply that I know nothing except that my brother sent me the books. Jim has selected the cover and lettering. Roberts wants Jim to say, in the presence of witnesses, that he intends bringing the book out in Trieste. There must be some terrible danger attached to the publication of Dubliners. For my part I do not feel at all nervous.”

It all comes to nothing: the intervention of the printer, John Falconer, ensures that the books are not handed over to Joyce at all. The printer prefers to sustain the considerable financial loss involved in pulping them than to hand over such corrupting material to anyone, even the author. Charlie narrates the sad ending of the saga in a letter to Stannie of September 11th, 1912:

“Jim then decided to go and see the printer himself and tried to induce Roberts to go with him. Roberts would not go. He went himself and saw the managing clerk of the establishment. He told Jim they could not give up the sheets under any consideration. Although the book had been in type for two-and-a-half years they knew nothing as to the kind of book it [was] until a few days ago. Had they known the character of the book they would never have touched it. Jim then suggested that the sheets be given over to him and that he bring the book out himself either in Dublin, London, Trieste, or elsewhere, with his own name as publisher and printer, relieving Faulkner completely free from all responsibility in the matter.

“Faulkner said it made no difference where the book was published nor whose name was on it; as printer they could not and would not allow it to go out of their hands to anyone. Jim then asked what they intended doing with his book and he said they would destroy it. Jim asked him how they would destroy it and he said they would burn the sheets and break up the type. They cared nothing for the loss of the fifty seven pounds, they had learnt a lesson – and would not so easily be fooled again. There was nothing else to do and this is the end of Dubliners so far as Dublin is concerned.”

A curt note from James to Stanislaus at the end of the letter says: “The 1,000 copies of Dubliners which are printed are to be destroyed by fire this morning.”

Despite all these disasters Joyce’s Dublin visit at least allowed for the renewal of family ties. Here is Charles writing to Stanislaus about Jim soon after his departure:

“After 8 years you can imagine how glad I was to see Jim and Nora again – and my niece and nephew. Jim is not much changed. I think his apology for a moustache suits him very well. Although he was short of money while here he treated me very kindly and did all in his power to get me work, going himself to see people on [my] behalf. He and Nora were also very thoughtful about May [Charlie’s wife] making her drink wine and buying her fruit etc. I was sorry when they left Dublin but perhaps we shall meet again soon.”

In fact they were not to meet again for many years, when Charlie visited Paris in 1924. They met again in London in 1931, when Charlie attended a dinner to mark his brother’s wedding in that city. Charlie’s intensely Catholic second wife disapproved of James, however, and apparently there was no further contact between the brothers.

Charlie’s life was chequered: his first marriage was contracted in a hurry, with a child on the way; he and his wife emigrated for a short period to the US, where he fared disastrously, but they were back in Dublin by 1912. They had seven children and frequently lived in much poverty. He had difficulty holding down a job for any great length of time, and after his first wife died of tuberculosis he married again and lived in England from the mid 1920s. He died five days after James, on January 18th, 1941. (No prizes for guessing which brother was accorded the honour of an obituary in the Belvederean.)

Charlie’s letters show qualities of humour, sometimes caustic wit, a sense of irony and a remarkable disrespect for the numerous sacred cows with which he was surrounded that he shared, I suspect, to a greater or lesser degree with almost all the family. (He was to change considerably under the influence of his second wife.)

His grandson, Bob Joyce, lives in Dublin; he has taken an increasing interest in the history of his family – and was instrumental in making available this complete collection of letters, which is held at Cornell University, in the state of New York. He comments that he is surprised at how involved his grandfather was in the doomed attempts to get Dubliners published in Dublin.

Grim though Joyce’s struggle with Dublin publishing was, it did not defeat him. It is appropriate to leave the last word to Charlie: writing to James in 1920, after something of a breach had arisen between them, Charlie remarks: “You are writing another book, I hear. I would like to hear about it.” Indeed Joyce was.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.