An Irishman's Diary

 

EARLY last year there was a flurry of discussion – evident in a series of letters to the Editor of The Irish Times– as to whether or not Joyce’s remains should be reinterred in Ireland. Implicit in the exchanges was the question of official Ireland’s attitude to Joyce.

That, in turn, provokes the further question as to Joyce’s attitude to Ireland. It might be fair to say at the outset that there was no love lost on either side; though the evidence needs to be scrutinised and carefully handled.

There is a remarkable letter of October 27th, 1909, in which Joyce delivers in the most unqualified terms this thoroughly negative assessment:“I loathe Ireland and the Irish.” The rest of his damaging judgment is just as explicit: “They themselves stare at me in the street though I was born among them. Perhaps they read my hatred of them in my eyes”.

Even if we allow for any frustrations or adverse circumstances Joyce may have been experiencing at the time, many readers will be startled by Joyce’s Swiftian recoil from Ireland; and it has always been difficult for our sometimes self-regarding nationalism to accept that Joyce did not after all remain in thrall to our collective charm. And we are not dealing here with the views of some ambiguously Irish figure (such as the first Duke of Wellington, who, notoriously, is said to have denied his Irish origins with “Being born in a stable does not make one a horse”), but with the candid remarks of a true son of Dublin, who, thanks to his writings, has remained forever associated with the city of his birth.

To those familiar with the facts regarding Joyce’s early formation, however, Joyce’s adverse judgment should come as no surprise. Joyce had the misfortune to be born in an Ireland still under the pervasive influence of the 19th-century Catholic Church revival instigated by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Paul Cullen, suffering as an adolescent under the repressive tendencies of that church. His rejection of Irish Catholicism, definitively expressed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is summed up in the anti-authoritarian slogan of the Joycean hero, Stephen Dedalus: non serviam, the cry of Lucifer, “I will not serve”.

The devastating cultural effects of the Ireland in which he had come to adult consciousness are amply dramatised in many of the short stories in Dubliners. These deal with unfulfilled lives and frustrated impulses, and the anger, dependency and demeaning parasitism of those trapped in an impoverished post-Parnellite culture. True, of course,that the last and finest story in Dubliners, ’The Dead’, can be read as a celebration of Dublin’s hospitality, musical culture and conviviality; but it is nonetheless significant that the comment from the letter above was written some two years after the completion of that story.

As far as Ireland was concerned, particularly in the early decades of its independence, the feeling was, arguably, mutual. Ulysses, for example, may never have been banned under the censorship board established in 1929, but only because people were afraid to import it lest they found themselves embroiled in an expensive legal battle. And as late as 1958, in a notorious episode, An Tostal were obliged to cancel a proposed dramatisation of Ulyssesat the behest of Archbishop JC McQuaid.

It is easy to argue that Ireland, having looked askance at Joyce in his lifetime, was rather less than generous after his death. It is still shocking to learn that apparently our then government under De Valera instructed the Irish chargé d’affaires in Zurich not to attend Joyce’s funeral. And when his wife Nora expressed a willingness to permit the repatriation of his remains, the offer was turned down by that same government. There was at least one major consequence: an unforgiving Nora insisted Harriet

Weaver donate the the manuscripts of Finnegans Wake,not to the National Library in Dublin, but to the British Museum.

On the other side, even after Ireland had gained its independence, and a mature Joyce had left behind the repressive experiences of his youth, the extent of his allegiance to Ireland remained questionable. Gordon Bowker, in his recent biography, notes that in 1940, when Joyce in France was faced with imminent German invasion, the official at the Irish legation repeatedly “offered him and [son] Georgio Irish passports”, which would have allowed them to leave occupied France when they wished. The offers were declined, and Joyce “clung doggedly to his British passport”.

We should not here jump to conclusions; but we know that Joyce was not enthused by the new Irish Free State (or as he preferred to call it, the “Irish Free Fight”), finding its nationalism regressive. He was particularly unimpressed by the ambition to restore the Irish language – a response that need not surprise us, given that Joyce, through his brilliant mastery of the English language, had engaged with a worldwide readership for his depictions of Irish experience.

How then do we reconcile Joyce’s antipathy with a lifelong fascination with Ireland and especially with Dublin? There is no ready answer, and in this as elsewhere Joyce’s attitudes were complex or ambivalent.

Perhaps his nostalgia for Ireland, sometimes expressed in his fondness for music, including the songs of Thomas Moore, arose from that sentimentalism to which he was prone. Yet sentimentalism, especially a sentimentalised nationalism, was an indulgence that Joyce permitted himself only with substantial qualification. We should not in our turn foist upon him a sentimental distortion of his views of the nation (or the body, or romantic love or many other things), thereby obscuring his sometimes ruthless realism.

Given that character trait, it seems unlikely that he would have had much time for the annual Edwardian charade we witness every June 16th; for Joyce, certainly as literary artist, was anything but Edwardian. Yet with the recent expiry of the seventy-year copyright on Joyce’s works, Bloomsday itself may change – possibly for the better. One would hope that, given the easier access to the works, the actual text of Ulysseswould from now on take precedence over the ritual breakfasts of “inner organs”, or the superficial Edwardian posturing. As fans of Bloomsday grow more familiar with that text, they will have the opportunity to assess for themselves just how challenging – and radically unEdwardian – Joyce can be.