James Joyce's early work showed awareness of important Irish/Scottish connections
Writer was interested in Scottish history, culture and literature
There are a number of references to Scotland and Scottish culture in Dubliners and in Ulysses, but James Joyce’s most sustained treatment of Scottish issues appears in his final and most ambitious work, Finnegans Wake
James Joyce sang Loch Lomond at sessions in Paris, memorised long sections of Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake, and once wrote to a “Scotch cousin” to ask her for a tartan tie. But aside from these idiosyncratic antics, there are some significant connections between Joyce and Scotland.
Joyce visited Glasgow with his father in 1894. This was his first trip outside of Ireland, and it was to an area which had received a high number of Irish incomers in the years following the Great Famine. His early work demonstrates an awareness of the important Irish/Scottish connections of that era.
In The Dead, a character named Mrs Malins has moved to Scotland from Ireland. Strangely, she makes no mention of the prejudice and discrimination routinely faced by the Catholic Irish in their new Protestant home, instead she extols the virtues of Scotland’s “beautiful places”, “beautiful scenery”, and, rather suspiciously, its “lakes” instead of its ‘lochs’.
There are a number of references to Scotland and Scottish culture in Dubliners and in Ulysses, but Joyce’s most sustained treatment of Scottish issues appears in his final and most ambitious work, Finnegans Wake.
Joyce explores two crucial episodes of Irish/Scottish history in the Wake. The first is the ancient sea-crossing of the “Scoti” tribe – the original Scots – from what is now Antrim to what is now Argyle, their eventual merging with the indigenous Picts, and the subsequent formation of the Kingdom of Alba or, as Joyce puts it, “the united states of Scotia Picta”.
The second is the plantation by King James the VI of Scotland/James I of England of Presbyterian lowlanders into the North of Ireland during the early 17th century.
Joyce, rather provocatively, conflates and compares these matters in Finnegans Wake. For Joyce, modern Scotland is Ireland’s ill-fated sibling (“Poor sister Scotland! Her doom is fell;/She cannot find any more Stuarts to sell”), but also England’s accomplice in colonialism and imperialism (in Ireland and beyond).
Significantly, the Wake was composed in the years following the partition of Ireland, “a price partitional of twenty six and six” and, in Finnegans Wake, Joyce associates this division with the Scottish planters.
The split-personalities and dualities of Scottish texts such as James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are linked by Joyce to the divided psyche of HCE (the central figure of the Wake), and to the separate political and religious traditions within Ireland.
Nightmare for Joyce
If history was a nightmare for Joyce, perhaps it could be dispelled, or compensated for, by culture. Joyce’s emphasis on idealism (the mental world rather than the material world), incertitude, and scepticism in Finnegans Wake comes in large part from his reading of Scottish literature and philosophy, especially the work of the ‘‘Great Infidel” David Hume. Joyce shared Hume’s attachment to doubt (Joyce once claimed that “life is suspended in doubt like the world in the void”) and was drawn to Hume’s position that we can only know mental representations of the world, not the world itself.
Part of the reason for the techniques of Finnegans Wake – its ingenious wordplay, its massive range of references and allusions, and its purposeful obscurity – is to explore and depict the incertitude and detachment of the mind dreaming and sleeping, states in which we spend a great part of our lives.
Joyce considered Hume a “Celtic” philosopher – alongside the Irish man George Berkeley – and used Hume’s work to form a response to what he saw as the materialism of the “civiltà anglo-sassone” and the certainties of modern rationality.
Seamus Heaney claimed that Joyce attempted to “marginalise the imperium which had marginalised him by replacing the Anglocentric Protestant tradition with a newly forged apparatus of Homeric correspondences, Dantesque scholasticism and a more or less Mediterranean, European, classically endorsed worldview”. That analysis works well for Ulysses. But in the night-world of Finnegans Wake – an “Epistlemadethemology for deep dorfy doubtlings” – “Celtic” doubt and idealism dominate.
Forgery of reality
Finnegans Wake presents consciousness as a kind of forgery of reality and the text is full of allusions to shams and fakes, including James Macpherson’s famous eighteenth century “hoax” The Poems of Ossian, or “MacPerson’s Oshean”. Ossian was supposedly rediscovered ancient Scottish Gaelic poetry, the work of the prehistoric warrior-bard Ossian/Oisín, which Macpherson claimed he had miraculously recovered and then translated (these texts were also of interest to Owenson, Yeats, and Beckett). Actually, Macpherson had translated disparate fragments of real Gaelic poetry, remnants of what Joyce called “the amorphous Celtic Odyssey”, woven them together and provided his own modifications and elaborations.
Macpherson attempted to pass off his modern texts as genuine specimens of primitive genius and has gone down in literary history as a con artist, despite laying the foundations for European Romanticism.
However, Joyce was more interested in artificiality and artifice than authenticity. Furthermore, Macpherson’s method of composition is not that dissimilar to the way Joyce went about his later work, reusing and recycling previously existing textual fragments. He once referred to himself as “a scissors and paste man”. His former towermate Oliver St John Gogarty saw a parallel between the work of these two writers, denouncing Finnegans Wake as “the most colossal leg pull in literature since Macpherson’s Ossian”.
Ireland made a huge contribution to literary Modernism, especially in the work of Joyce and Beckett (as well as in the later work of Yeats). Scotland also contributed to Modernism through less celebrated writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean. But perhaps the golden era of Scottish writing was an earlier period, during the late 18th/early 19th century age of Enlightenment (Hume, Adam Smith et al) and Romanticism (Macpherson, Burns, Scott, Hogg). These Scottish cultures are reworked and recirculated in Finnegans Wake, alongside complex and ambiguous representations of Ireland’s links to her sister over the sea. Richard Barlow (@ra_barlow) received his PhD from Queen’s University Belfast. He is now an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His work has appeared in journals such as the James Joyce Quarterly and his monograph, The Celtic Unconscious: Joyce and Scottish Culture, was published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 2017