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  • “Thought-Tormented Music”: Joyce and the Music of the Irish Revival
  • Martin Dowling (bio)

“A Mother,” one of three “stories of public life” in Dubliners, draws richly from and reflects the situation of music in the Irish literary revival at the beginning of the last century.1 Joyce’s entry into the musical and literary public life of Dublin followed closely on the post-Parnellite “cultural turn” in Irish politics. This created a milieu in which, as Terry Eagleton writes, “[c]ulture in Ireland may occasionally displace politics, but it is just as much its continuation by other means.”2 When Joyce finished his formal education and began to explore his options in life, the political field was so oriented that the pursuit of the cultural practices of writing and performing music might be considered political careers. For many of the post-Parnellite generation, the slow work of “improving, by re-nationalizing, artistic life” had supplanted the need for “decisive campaigns” in the political field, as one commentator wrote in 1900.3 Though this cultural moment of politics was short-lived,4 it was intensely productive. Its apex occurred in the, for Joyce, auspicious year of 1904. Though he had already begun to intervene in public literary and musical life in Dublin, 1904 was also the year following the death of his mother and decline of the Joyce household, of listless dissipation, of meeting and falling in love with Nora Barnacle, of flirtation with careers as a singer and as a literary critic, ending with the decision to leave Ireland for Trieste. The departure marked a significant transition in Joyce’s engagement with the public performance of music, both as a performer and a storyteller. My argument is that, in fiction and in life, Joyce articulated a distinctive approach to musical performance that resonates with a positive notion of authenticity deriving from practices of “traditional” music, song, and dance that were themselves being developed in Ireland after the Famine.

Musical Culture and the Desire for Nationhood

A full contextualization of the musical scene in “A Mother” would take account of developments in the wake of the Great Famine within [End Page 437] Irish musical culture,5 themselves reflected in the musical lives of Joyce’s parents and occurring during Joyce’s adolescence.6 The musical aspect of the cultural turn of the 1890s was there from its inaugural moment. In his speech “The Necessity of De-Anglicizing Ireland” delivered to the National Literary Society in Dublin in 1892, Douglas Hyde said,

Our music, too, has become Anglicised to an alarming extent. Not only has the national instrument, the harp . . . become extinct, but even the Irish pipes are threatened with the same fate. In the place of the pipers and fiddlers, who even twenty years ago, were comparatively common, we are now in many places menaced by the German band and the barrel organ. . . . For the present, then, I must be content with hoping that the revival of our Irish music must go hand in hand with the revival of Irish ideas and Celtic modes of thought which our Society is seeking to bring about, and that people may be brought to love the purity of Siúbhail, Siúbhail or the fun of Moddereen Ruadh in preference to “Get Your Hair Cut,” or “Over the Garden Wall,” or, even if it is not asking too much, of “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.”7

The most significant response to this appeal came three years later, in the home of the indefatigable musician, composer, and critic Annie Patterson. A group of music promoters and Gaelic Leaguers founded the Feis Ceoil Association whose first annual event took place in 1897. The coordinates of the musical culture in which Joyce came of age were transformed in the following decade. Between them, the Gaelic League and the Feis Ceoil Association dominated the musical life of Dublin.

Drawing on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu,8 I diagram the coordinates of this cultural field below. [End Page 438]

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The low-high spectrum distinguishes between the heteronymous, vernacular music traditions of the towns and countryside and the autonomous art...


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