Wed, 14 Oct 2020 21:18:51 BST
‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ – James Joyce delves into the politics of early 20th century Ireland
14 October 2020
‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ is, after ‘The Dead’, the story I like best from James Joyce’s Dubliners. This is because it delves into Ireland’s contested politics in the early 20th century, a topic that has long been a special interest of mine. That period in Irish history was the focus of my book, A New Day Dawning: a portrait of Ireland in 1900 (Cork, 1999) and of a book I co-edited with Cambridge historian Eugenio Biagini, The Shaping of Modern Ireland: a centenary assessment (Dublin, 2016). The years before and after 1900 have often been viewed as the calm before the storm that erupted during the second decade of Ireland’s 20th century, but there was a lot going on that helped pave the way for future developments.
Turn-of-the-century Ireland became James Joyce’s lifelong preoccupation in that he set three major works, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, during that time. He left Ireland for Trieste in 1904 and made only a handful of return visits during the remaining 37 years of his life. His decision to focus such attention on early 20th century Ireland suggests that he acquired a fascination with the country he left, a fascination that never left him.
‘Ivy Day’ was Joyce’s favourite story from Dubliners. Why was that? In my view, part of the reason was his intense interest in the political career of Charles Stewart Parnell and its protracted aftermath. It would be a mistake to see Joyce as an artist airily remote from political concerns. Although Stephen Dedalus, armed with an acute sense of intellectual superiority, is based on Joyce’s youthful self, the mature Joyce was not like that. In fact, he took an intense, gritty interest in the life of the country of his birth and upbringing.
While living in Trieste, he wrote a series of articles in a local newspaper which showed him to have a comprehensive knowledge of Irish affairs from a broadly nationalistic point of view. If I had to position Joyce on the Irish political spectrum, I would put him somewhere between the Parnellite tradition and Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin which was founded in 1905. Griffith does not appear in Ulysses, but he is name-checked there quite a few times. For the sake of clarity, it is important to know that Griffith’s Sinn Féin had little in common with the party that was transformed into a national movement in the wake of the Easter Rising of 1916.
Joyce’s understanding of the public life of Ireland comes out in ‘Ivy Day’. That knowledge probably came through his father, John Stanislaus Joyce, who was a fervent supporter of Parnell. Known as ‘the Chief’ and as Ireland’s ‘uncrowned King’, Parnell was a political colossus. In a piece published in Trieste, Joyce, writing about Parnell, referred to the “extraordinary personality of a leader who, with no forensic gift or original political talent, forced the greatest English politician (Gladstone) to follow his orders.” He added that “the influence that Parnell exercised over the Irish people defies the critic’s analysis.” It is hard to disagree with Joyce’s assessment.
Parnell attained an unrivalled political ascendancy during the 1880s as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which represented Irish interests at the Westminster parliament. Parnell’s Party sought a form of self-government for Ireland known as Home Rule. In 1886, Parnell persuaded Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone, with whom he had forged a political alliance, to support Home Rule. Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill split his Liberal Party and then came to grief in the House of Lords.
Joyce took a cynical view of Gladstone and had an astute appraisal of Parnell. In Joyce’s estimation, “Gladstonian liberalism was an inconstant algebraic symbol whose coefficient was the political pressure of the moment and whose exponent was political advantage.” Joyce’s take on Parnell recognized his capacity to unify different strands of Irish life. As he put it: “Parnell, convinced that such a liberalism would only yield to force, united every element of national life behind him, and set out on a march along the borders of insurrection.” There is an echo of this analysis in ‘Ivy Day’ with its reference to “hillsiders and fenians”. In Henchy’s dismissive view, “half of them are in the pay of the Castle”. One “certain little nobleman with a cock-eye” is targeted as someone “that’d sell his country for fourpence .. and thank the Almighty Christ he had a country to sell.” The Fenian tradition had its day in 1916, two years after the belated publication of Dubliners in which ‘Ivy Day’ was included.
Parnell’s career came to a dramatic end when he was named in a divorce suit involving a nationalist MP, Captain O’Shea, and his wife, Katherine, with whom Parnell had conducted a clandestine affair. Parnell lost the support of a majority of his fellow Irish Party MPs who split into Parnellite and anti-Parnellite factions. That bitter divide within nationalist Ireland continued until 1900 when the Irish Party was re-united under the leadership of John Redmond.
Although Parnell died when Joyce was just 9 years old, his name and legacy reverberates through his work – the Christmas dinner scene in A Portrait, the multiple references to Parnell in Ulysses and ‘Ivy Day’ in Dubliners.
In this story, we encounter three strands of Irish political life: canvassers for the nationalist party candidate, ‘Tricky Dicky’ Tierney, a publican standing for the Irish Parliamentary Party; Colgan, a working man, who may be based on 1916 leader James Connolly and whose case is argued by Joe Hynes; and the unionist tradition represented by Crofton, who, not having a candidate from his own party, is supporting Tierney so as to help defeat the more radical option, Colgan.
Joyce gives us an insight into the decay of the recently-united Irish Party. Its candidate’s canvassers have no great enthusiasm for Tierney. Their main concern is that they be paid for their efforts on his behalf – “I wish he’d turn up with the spondulics” and “how does he expect us to work for him if he won’t stump up?” The highlight of the canvassers’ day comes with a delivery of some bottles of stout courtesy of their candidate. The Party’s Committee Room on Wicklow Street is depicted as a miserable place, cold and ‘denuded’, with bare walls.
Joe Hynes, a character who will appear again in Ulysses, where he plays a significant role in my favourite chapter, the ‘Cyclops’ episode, speaks with greater passion about the socialist candidate, Colgan, “a good honest bricklayer“ and “a plain, honest man with no hunker-sliding” someone “who is not going to drag the honour of Dublin in the mud to please a German monarch.” This brings out varying attitudes towards the British monarchy, and in particular whether the impending visit of King Edward the 7th ought to elicit an Address of Welcome from Dublin Corporation. That was a controversial issue also during Queen Victoria’s visit to Ireland in 1900 when the Corporation, which had a nationalist majority, voted 30 to 22 in favour of delivering an Address to the visiting monarch. Here, responding to Mr. Lyons (who may be ‘bantam’ Lyons who appears several times in Ulysses), Henchy takes a benign view of the King, describing him as “an ordinary knockabout like you and me. He’s fond of his glass of grog and he’s a bit of a rake perhaps”. In Ulysses, the drinkers in Barney Kiernan’s pub indulge in a more trenchant critique of King Edward – “There’s a bloody sight more pox than pax about that boyo.” Here, Hynes comments that if Parnell was alive “we’d have no talk of an address of welcome.” This brings the memory of Parnell into focus and the story concludes with an emotional rendition by Hynes of a poem he wrote on the Death of Parnell:
“He is dead. Our Uncrowned King is dead.
O, Erin, mourn with grief and woe
For he lies dead whom the fell gang
Of modern hypocrites laid low.
The day that brings us Freedom’s reign.
And on that day may Erin well
Pledge in the cup she lifts to Joy
One grief – the memory of Parnell.”
Everyone in the room can rally around the memory of Parnell who had been dead 11 years in 1902 when ‘Ivy Day’ is set. Even the unionist, Crofton, respects Parnell because he was a gentleman. Henchy sums up Parnell’s achievement more punchily – “He was the only man that could keep that bag of cats in order.”
James Joyce’s importance to Ireland: James Joyce was not always popular in his homeland and had an ambivalent relationship with the Ireland of his time. Unlike Yeats, who wanted to be buried in his beloved Sligo, Joyce’s remains lie permanently in Zurich. Modern Ireland has come to revere Joyce. Changing Irish attitudes towards Joyce reflect changes in Irish society. We now see ourselves and our country reflected intriguingly in his work.
I would trace our renewed national enthusiasm for Joyce’s work back to the centenary of Joyce’s birth in 1982, and to the fictional centenary of Ulysses in 2004, both of which were marked with great gusto. In recent decades, Bloomsday (16 June) has become a popular event on Ireland’s calendar and among Joyce enthusiasts internationally. I have \organised Bloomsday celebrations over the years in Edinburgh, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Berlin, London and Washington.
Last year, at a talk I gave on Ulysses at Georgetown University, I was asked what James Joyce would make of Brexit? My reply to this surprise question was to point out that the last three words of Ulysses are not “I will. Yes” (the famous final words of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy), but Trieste-Zurich-Paris, the three cities where the novel was written between 1916 and 1921. Joyce’s decision to specify where the novel was written tells me that it is a European novel with Dublin as its source of inspiration. Joyce wanted Ireland to become more European. I believe that he would be comfortable with today’s Ireland which is proudly and thoroughly Irish while also embracing a European identity through our membership of the European Union.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States of America
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