Poison Ivy: Frank McNally on how the deaths of two English monarchs caused legal issues for Joyce

‘Vulgar expressions’ in Ivy Day in the Committee Room made publishers nervous

To offend the memory of one recently dead English monarch may be regarded as unfortunate. Offending two looks like carelessness. Or so the ghost of Oscar Wilde might have told his fellow Irishman James Joyce, circa 1911, while reading the short story Ivy Day in the Committee Room.

Like the rest of Joyce’s Dubliners, that was written earlier the decade, a few years after Queen Victoria had been succeeded by her son, Edward VII: who in the words of one Joycean character, like a more recent Prince of Wales, has had to wait for the honour “until the man is grey”.

As the title suggests, the story is set on an October 6th, the anniversary of Charles Stewart Parnell’s death, in a year (1904) when Dublin is preparing for a first state visit from the new king. The prospect divides opinion.

Even Edward’s defenders had little good to say about the “Famine Queen”, as she was known to Irish nationalists. In early drafts of Ivy Day, according to biographer Richard Ellmann, Joyce wanted a character to refer to the king’s “bloody old bitch of a mother”.


The second ‘b’ word there was soon dropped. So, eventually, was the first, under pressure from nervous publishers and printers. But even while sympathising with “Bertie” (the king’s popular name), the cast of Ivy Day were also alluding to his reputation as a hard-drinking, overeating philanderer.

“King Edward’s life, you know, is not very…” begins Mr Lyons at one point, before being interrupted by Mr Henchy, who concedes that the new man is “fond of his glass of grog and he’s a bit of a rake, perhaps” but that this makes him “just an ordinary knockabout like you and me”.

By 1910, however, Bertie was dead too. And the denigration of his memory was added to the long list of excuses Dublin printers and publishers were finding to avoid bringing Joyce’s book out.

In an unusual step — although typical of his belief that you should always negotiate with the “top dog” in any organisation — Joyce went so far as writing to the next monarch, George V, to ask if he thought the quoted references unreasonable. The king, through his secretary, declined judgment.

The author also sought a sympathetic legal opinion on that and other objections to Dubliners from the publishers and secured one from his solicitor George Lidwell.

Lidwell wrote of Ivy Day “that beyond the questionable taste of language […] in referring to the memory of the last two reigning Sovereigns of these Realms, the vulgar expressions put into the mouths of the characters in the dialogue are not likely to be taken very serious notice of by the Advisers of the Crown”.

But the solicitor was more concerned about another story, An Encounter, with its homosexual references. Advised by a friend that the legal letter did not help his case for publication, Joyce had to go back to Lidwell, seeking, à la Groucho Marx, a better opinion.

The solicitor obliged, stating in a new letter that the passages referred to would be unlikely to result in successful prosecution.

On September 11th, 1912, a Dublin printer took the matter into his own hands, destroying the proofs of Dubliners... Joyce’s 9/11 was his last day in Ireland. He left for the Continent that night, never to return

But he addressed that letter to Joyce, and the would-be publisher, George Roberts, now suggested that to carry any weight, it needed to be addressed to him instead. So once again, Joyce returned to the solicitor, whose feet grew suddenly cold and he declined to write another letter.

When, after securing changes in the text, Roberts still declined publication unless the author indemnified him with two sureties of £500, Joyce sat in Lidwell’s office and considered a more drastic option: buying a revolver to “put some daylight into my publisher”.

Then, on September 11th, 1912, a Dublin printer took the matter into his own hands, destroying the proofs of Dubliners, which the author by then hoped to bring out himself. Joyce’s 9/11 was his last day in Ireland. He left for the Continent that night, never to return.

It would not be until three years later that Dubliners was finally published, while Joyce was exiled in Trieste. The book finally rolled off the presses in June 1914, an ominous month, after a saga that lasted longer than the war would.

Ivy Day 2022 passed on Thursday, officially. But it’s a movable feast these days and the main event this year, the Parnell Society’s Ivy Day Symposium, begins on Friday 7th and runs all day Saturday at the Woodenbridge Hotel, Co Wicklow.

In keeping with recent tradition, the wreath-laying and oration at Parnell’s grave takes place on the nearest Sunday to Ivy Day — this coming one, at noon. Taoiseach Micheál Martin will do the honours in Glasnevin.