The wrongful execution that inspired James Joyce’s writing

Watching notorious court cases influenced the writer's thinking and fiction

A bust of James Joyce in St Stephen's Green, Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller

A bust of James Joyce in St Stephen's Green, Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller


Election after election in the late 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrated the desire of the great majority of the Irish population for Home Rule. But that wish was constantly frustrated by the unionist bastions of the House of Lords and the Tory Party, together with the large section of English liberal opinion which formed the Liberal Unionist Party after the defeat of the First Home Rule Bill of 1886.

The long-term result of this blockage was the hollowing-out of Irish commitment to an apparently futile parliamentary politics and the early stirrings of revolutionary nationalism, which was making itself felt in 1904.

A byproduct of this painfully long, slow process was that past events had a personal, social and political resonance in Ireland which time would have eroded anywhere else. The execution in 1803 of the impossibly romantic revolutionary Robert Emmet features surprisingly often in conversations and in the protagonists’ thoughts in Joyce’s version of June 1904. Emmet’s famous speech from the dock resonates in Ulysses a hundred years and more after it was delivered.

Equally, the Maamtrasna murders of 1882, which led to the execution of a peasant called Myles Joyce, universally believed (and now proven) to have been innocent, is a significant theme in Finnegans Wake.

Cultural awareness

The historical hinterland, then, forms a larger part of the cultural awareness of the Dubliners of 1904 than it would have done for similar people in most European or American cities at that time.

Moreover, because so many of the Irish historical protagonists died on the scaffold, or were imprisoned or transported for long periods, the Irish attitude to the law was generally sceptical, even when individual practitioners were admired.

Very strikingly, the dubious nature of many of the convictions of Irish convicts, like Myles Joyce, tended to undermine faith in the process of the law in criminal trials, even when it was impartially applied. When Joyce saw a similarly flawed process played out in England, in a case with no Irish connection, it raised epistemological concerns for him that loom large in his writing.

The English case was the so-called “Great Wyrley Outrage”, where a half-Indian solicitor, George Edalji, son of a vicar, was jailed for seven years for cattle-maiming, on the basis of flawed evidence and a huge fund of prejudice. This led Joyce to a firm conviction of the moral necessity of doubt.

In this sense, the 17-year-old Joyce’s attendance at the Samuel Childs murder trial in September 1899 marked the beginning of a lifelong preoccupation with guilt, innocence, proof, framings and officials who were “unscrupulous in the service of the Crown”.

No smoke without fire

Over the next few years the young James Joyce was exposed to several other cases, English as well as Irish, which strengthened these impressions. Many people, the man in the street as well as officials, seemed all too willing to jump to conclusions, to despise doubt, even reasonable doubt, as weakness, and to work on the basis that there could be no smoke without fire.

These issues became major themes in his writing. His legal concerns are in part an oblique but persistent assertion of the need for philosophical and judicial doubt as a proper, moral and humane reaction to the inadequacy of evidence. Joyce’s epistemological concern was centred on how the law resolved the uncertainties of a case.

Although these legal preoccupations are a significant theme in Ulysses (and offer an illuminating approach to the understanding of Joyce’s literary technique), they are little explored by critics.

Finnegans Wake embraces, as a major theme, the question of what crime, if any, can be laid by his enemies at the door of its main protagonist, HCE, a crime that has been committed by him (so rumour alleges) in the Phoenix Park; there is the question, too, of what evidence, real or contrived, can make the charge stick.

It also contains, as an archetype of the trials and framings of the violent west of Ireland of Joyce’s childhood years, the trial of Festy King (“of a family long and honourably associated with the tar and feather industries”) on an “incompatibly framed indictment”, and several asides, with varying degrees of obliquity, on the false accusations against Captain Dreyfus, and the 1925 Dublin murder of Honor Bright.

There is also the case of Bywaters and Thompson, an English case of the 1920s which preoccupied Joyce for a long while, in which a respectable married woman had induced her younger lover to dispose of her husband, who had become surplus to her requirements. Both were hanged.

That other married woman no longer attracted to her husband, Mrs Florence Maybrick of Liverpool, escaped hanging by her reprieve in 1889 and went on to earn her place in Ulysses, and to help break down the resistance of English jurists to the innovation of a Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907.

Significant role

These cases came to have a very significant role in Joyce’s literary practice and in his thinking. They led him to evolve an elaborate sense of the need not to jump to conclusions and of the necessity of philosophical and judicial doubt. They led him to reflect deeply on epistemology, on how one can know the truth of any past event. But he never carried doubt so far as to doubt the existence of the originating event, merely the (often self-interested) narratives and versions of it.

Joyce’s sense of the moral necessity of doubt arose from personal experiences between his 18th and his 26th years. The Childs trial was the earliest of the four criminal trials that made an impression on Joyce, three in Ireland and one in England in the years between 1899 and 1904. He was also affected by a civil action tried in Ireland in 1904, and by his own arrest and brief detention in Trieste, then part of Austro-Hungary, in 1905.

These events left him with a sense of personal vulnerability, of the fallibility of human reasoning, most especially in a political or forensic context where passion, prejudice and the felt political need to find someone to blame for outrageous crimes risk grotesque miscarriages. Once Joyce was sensitised to these possibilities, he saw examples of them everywhere and alluded to them in all of his works. And indeed, examples were not wanting.

This is an extract from Joyce in Court (Head of Zeus) by the late Adrian Hardiman

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