Diasporational Part Five – James Joyce: Poster Boy for Irish Emigration

By Niall McArdle
This is an extended version of an article which first appeared on Bloomsday at Generation Emigration

James Joyce, one of the controversial omission...

Of all the things that James Joyce epitomises – modernist genius, gifted tenor, lapsed Catholic – one thing is apt to remember as we celebrate Bloomsday: Joyce is the Poster Boy for Modern Irish Emigration. Feeling constrained by the paralysis of Dublin, he told Nora Barnacle that he felt he was fighting a battle with every social and religious force in the country, and begged her to escape with him to the continent. They left in 1904 … but Joyce always looked back.

He felt that Ireland was “the most belated place in Europe”, so he lived in self-imposed exile, finding an artistic freedom in Europe that he could never find in Dublin.  But he also froze Dublin in amber. June 16th, 1904 is not just Bloomsday, it is the mental image of the city that Joyce carried with him for the rest of his life. It is ironic that although he strove to escape the city’s paralysis, he had the paralysing view of the emigrant.Just as any emigrant who remembers “home” with a mixture of love, contempt and regret, Joyce was obsessed with Dublin after he left. He pestered his relatives as to the exact location of houses and were there trees behind the Star of the Sea church in Sandymount, and if so, what kind.  He often said that if the city was destroyed, that it could be rebuilt using Ulysses as a guide. If that fails, we could always use Dubliners

Every emigrant fixes a notion of home on the day they first left. Patrick McKenna’s view of Belfast in 1975. Clar Ni Chonghaile’s memories of Galway fixed when she was nineteen.  I feel the same. I remember the awful shock on a return trip to Dublin when I discovered that my beloved Greene’s Bookshop was no more. I want to go back. I want to be able to walk to eternity on Sandymount strand once more. But I want the city to go back with me.
It isn’t a coincidence that the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom never feels fully accepted in Dublin. The son of an immigrant Jew, he can identify with outsiders. He observes what many a returning emigrant feels, that “the coming back was the worst thing you ever did because it went without saying you would feel out of place as things always moved with the times.”
Many emigrants carry a mental image of Ireland, but Joyce carried a physical emblem of his home: his ashplant cane that he swung as he strolled the streets of Paris. He insisted to friends that it was made of a wood that only grew in Ireland and clutched it as a symbol of his eternal Irishness.
Joyce’s one-time friend, Oliver St. John Gogarty (Buck Mulligan in Ulysses) wanted to “Hellenise” the island, to make over its Celtic identity. In time it happened. The city was Hellenised (or Euro-ised anyway). It embraced a certain continental chic and, though it took decades, Joyce would have been happy to find that there was finally decent coffee available in the place. He often said the country would only be truly free when you could get good coffee in Ireland.
The question, of course, facing Joyce’s legacy of exile, is what would have happened to him had he stayed?  Could he have written his masterwork had he stayed in Ireland “where Christ and Caesar are hand in glove”?
The answer as to what would happen to Joyce is provided by the author himself. Stephen Dedalus, genius youth, visionary artist and literary princeling, would have become Gabriel Conroy, man of letters, respectable and respected in Dublin literary circles. Conroy is a self-satisfied academic, perhaps a little pompous. By staying in Ireland he could never be an artist of the measure of Ibsen, who Joyce famously admired.
It is Joyce’s genius that allowed him to see exile as the only way to escape but also to see exile as itself a form of artistic expression. Thankfully, Irish writers and artists need not flee the place anymore. If anything, Irish writing is enjoying a golden age, as writers as diverse as Kevin Barry, John Banville, Anne Enright and Jennifer Johnston are enjoying critical acclaim. More importantly, Joyce would be pleased at the country’s public washing of its old sins.
So on Bloomsday as we don our bowlers and bonnets and clutch our ashplants and perambulate the city, quaffing burgundy in Davy Byrnes or kidneys at Sandycove, let us reflect that while Ireland is in a new economic paralysis, but it may no longer be “the old sow that eats her farrow.”

The conscience of his race has finally been created.

5 thoughts on “Diasporational Part Five – James Joyce: Poster Boy for Irish Emigration

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