Gently does it, now! Careful with those white corpuscles! The repossession of Joyce by Irish writing and Irish nationalism has been going on nicely for decades past. Probably wrapped up by now – though there has been a quietude over Easter. Perhaps the annual James Joyce Symposium will return different news. But, at any rate, it’s not all that simple. And now, in the age of Brexit when Irish people are cordially bemoaning the British flight from the European Union, their own historic flight from the other union might well invite interrogation. I personally regard it as a very mixed blessing in the century-long view. Joyce had a view too. He greatly resented the fact, for instance, that the new State adopted the Irish island on its stamp. He thought that, having broken the island in two – “split little pea” – it was deficient in authority to do so. Hard to quarrel with that. In fact, it took seventy years for the Irish Government to accept the point that its territorial claim was … impractical, at the least. So where did Joyce stand on Irish separatism? His journalism shows him partisan to a Sinn Fein nationalism minus the Gaelic-Catholic dimension (which, frankly, never could happen).
Recently Colm Toibin has pointed out that the “Cyclops” episode ought be read as his response to 1916 – and this seems right. In earlier days, Emer Nolan laboured to show that the chapter isn’t the unambiguous satire of Michael Cusack and the GAA that American critics supposed. (Richard Ellmann & Co. were utterly dismissive of nationalist Ireland in a relatively unreflective way.) But to an unacknowledged extent Stephen Dedalus is much more of a cultural unionist that we often suppose – and so, of course, is Bloom. Item. Bloom has a Union Jack behind his parlour door. Item. In Stephen Hero, Stephen Dedalus (aka Joyce) prates about the difference between the language of the market-place and the language of the literary tradition. And when he colloquises with the Dean of Arts about the famous “tundish” scene in A Portrait, he notes the difference in the reception of English words in Ireland but does not bemoan “our own dear Irish” has Mrs Rooney does in Beckett’s facetious “All that Fall”. (“Baaa!”)