Cusack's creation is a blooming legacy

 

So it is upon us. The centenary of Bloomsday. And yes, the GAA have a place in all of this. No, the Management Committee will not be planning to slip on stripey blazers and hire a vintage car to chug around Sandycove. But the association's founder notoriously features in James Joyce's Ulysses and, as is equally well known, it is not a flattering portrait, writes Seán Moran.

In his definitive biography of Michael Cusack, Marcus de Búrca makes the point that due to the scarce attention the Clare man was paid for decades after his death, Joyce's caricature in Ulysses remained the dominant representation of Cusack for a long time.

Chapter 12 of the book, the Cyclops episode, is set in a pub in Little Britain Street, Barney Kiernan's and narrated by an anonymous member of the company. A group gathers at the bar where a character referred to only as "the citizen" sits in the company of his dog, Garryowen. That the citizen is Cusack is beyond doubt. The name is assumed to derive from his habit of referring to everyone as "citizen" (much like Larry O'Gorman calls everyone "brother").

De Búrca points out that by the original Bloomsday, Cusack was in his final years. Although he would die at the relatively young age of 59 in 1906, he looked much older and was cantankerous and argumentative. The citizen exhibits all the cod mysticism of early Irish nationalism and a strong touch of xenophobia. In his declining years, Cusack has become the sort of Dublin character that people normally hop into litterbins to avoid.

Bloom, the Jewish Ulysses of the title, drops into the pub on his wanderings around Dublin. He is prone to offering his views on every subject that arises and gradually earns the incandescent irritation of the citizen, who quickly slips into racist abuse.

" - What is your nation if I may ask, says the citizen. - "Ireland, says Bloom, I was born here. Ireland." (Ehhh . . . news for you there, Leopold.) In reply the citizen spits a ball of phlegm, "a Red bank oyster out of him right in the corner". The episode ends with Bloom being attacked by the citizen after pointing out that Jesus was a Jew.

Joyce lampoons the citizen's nationalist orthodoxies. "So off they started about Irish sport and shoneen games the like of the lawn tennis and about hurley and putting the stone and racy of the soil and building up a nation once again and all of that . . .

"A most interesting discussion took place in the ancient hall of Brian O'Ciarnain's in Sraid na Breataine Bheag, under the auspices of Sluagh na h-Eireann, on the revival of the ancient Gaelic sports and the importance of physical culture, as understood in ancient Greece and ancient Rome and ancient Ireland, for the development of the race. The venerable president of this noble order was in the chair and the attendance was of large dimensions. After an instructive discourse by the chairman, a magnificent oration eloquently and forcibly expressed, a most interesting and instructive discussion of the usual high standard of excellence ensued as to the desirability of the revivability of the ancient games and sports of our ancient panceltic forefathers . . .

"Resuscitation of the ancient Gaelic sports and pastimes, practised morning and evening by Finn MacCool, as calculated to revive the best traditions of manly strength and power handed down to us from ancient ages."

Yet there is evidence Joyce knew or was aware of the earlier Cusack, as he features in both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Stephen Hero (an earlier draft discovered later) in more conventional references.

A college friend of Joyce, Davin in A Portrait or Madden in Stephen Hero, both based on a Limerick acquaintance of the author) is presented as an earnest follower of nationalist pastimes. Slagged off by Stephen as "Davin the peasant", the friend tells a bizarre story of walking home from a hurling match. Briefly it involves him stopping at a house on a lonely road to ask for a drink and getting not only his cup of milk but also an invitation from a young woman to stay the night, as her husband is away. He is flustered by this, makes his excuses and leaves. (The place seems to be near Kilmallock, so maybe he was wise to exercise restraint).

Stephen ruminates: " . . . the rude Firbolg mind of his listener had drawn his mind towards it and flung it back again, drawing it by a quaint turn of old English or by the force of its delight in rude bodily skill - for Davin had sat at the feet of Michael Cusack, the Gael . . .".

There is also strong correlation between one of the citizen's speeches and a passage that appeared in Cusack's short-lived newspaper the Celtic Times. "We'll put force against force, says the citizen. We have our greater Ireland beyond the sea. They were driven out of house and home in the black 47. Their mudcabins and their shielings by the roadside were laid low by the batteringram and the Times [London, I hope] rubbed its hands and told the whitelivered Saxons there would soon be as few Irish in Ireland as redskins in America. Even the Grand Turk sent us his piastres. But the Sassenach tried to starve the nation at home while the land was full of crops that the British hyenas bought and sold in Rio de Janeiro."

The Celtic Times dated 23rd April 1887 includes the following passage: "The system of those days drove 600,000 people flying from plague-stricken Ireland, to make food for fishes, to fill the hospitals prepared for their reception in New York, and to crowd the nameless graves in the land they had hoped to prosper in. The Times, when all was over, said that now the Irish difficulty was at last solved, and that an Irish celt would soon be as great a rarity in Ireland as a red Indian in the shores of Manhattan."

Joyce would probably have been too young at the age of five to be reading Cusack's paper but the Times piece, another of that publication's sensitive interventions on Ireland, presumably stirred an outrage that lasted a while. It's hard to know whether the citizen arose principally from Cusack's decline or from Joyce's evident distaste for the excesses of the national reawakening.

But it's worth a thought today that just as Joyce has been rehabilitated in those Irish institutions that disowned him, so too Cusack should be remembered for the dynamism that brought the GAA into existence rather than the difficult personality that eventually alienated the association and, in his final days, set him up for immortal satire.

e-mail: smoran@irish-times.ie