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James Joyce and the Irish Revolution: Richly layered, erudite chapters that repay close reading

The Easter Rising is seen as a catalyst for global processes of decolonisation, in the same way as Joyce is a catalyst for literary modernism

James Joyce and the Irish Revolution: The Easter Rising as Modern Event
Author: Luke Gibbons
ISBN-13: 978-0226824475
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Guideline Price: £28

Joyce’s phenomenal recall of Dublin’s topography – like naming every shop in a street from memory – is matched by evidence of scrupulous accuracy in plotting, detailing characters’ peregrinations across the city with the help of a stopwatch and a large map, but in one of the years devoted to writing Ulysses, parts of the city he knew so well were being systematically destroyed.

Easter week 1916 saw a gunboat in the Liffey lobbing shells into the city centre, and old photographs show lower Sackville Street (O’Connell Street) reduced to ruins. For Luke Gibbons, in a book with its own remarkable level of detail, this is more than a grim irony.

Just as some combatants in the Irish revolution and leading republicans were attracted to Joyce’s fiction, what was happening in Dublin was followed closely by the author, living in Zurich at the time. The Easter Rising, convulsively disrupting political narratives of Ireland and of the British Empire, was as avant-garde in its way as Joyce’s writing, and Luke Gibbons pursues the homology by detailing facets of a modernist sensibility in both the event and the writing. Both exceed their genesis, each becoming a reframing that writes its own conditions of possibility; in their different spheres, each uncompromisingly interrupts history.

The Easter Rising, far from being consigned to nostalgia, is seen as a catalyst for global processes of decolonisation – a British field marshal is quoted: “If we lose Ireland we have lost the Empire” – as Joyce is for literary modernism.


This is the book’s subject matter, and its tracing of connections and influences – real, virtual and suggestive – between revolution in the street and in the word results in richly layered and sometimes erudite chapters that repay close reading. There are non-fiction books where the endnotes are academic dottings of the i’s and crossings of the t’s, and there are others, like this one, that tempt the reader into seeking out writers and their work that will not always be familiar, such as Frank Gallagher’s Days of Fear, Joseph Campbell’s poetry and Kathleen Coyle’s A Flock of Birds. Not to be digested quickly, this book opens up many fascinating paths.