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Joyce, Great Wyrley and the Necessity of Judicious Doubt

From: Dublin James Joyce Journal
Number 5, 2012
pp. 1-15 | 10.1353/djj.2012.0011

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

There were attacks on livestock, but these did not even happen in Ireland, where the mob contented itself with opening the stalls and driving the livestock a few miles down the road, but in Great Wyrley in England where barbaric, insane criminals have been rampaging against livestock for six years, to such an extent that English companies will no longer insure them.

Five years ago, in order to quieten public anger, an innocent man, now freed, was condemned. But even while he was in prison, the attacks continued. Last week two horses were found dead with the usual cuts to the base of the stomach and their guts spilt out over the grass.

(OCPW ‘Ireland at the Bar’ 147)1

Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude […] if it be true that any of those recorded ever took place for many, we trow, beyessed to and denayed of, are given to us by some who use the truth but sparingly […].

(FW 57.16– 17, 61.32–5)

The first epigraph is the concluding words of Joyce’s newspaper article, which was published on 16 September 1907 in the Triestine paper, Il Piccolo della Sera. It was the third in a series of articles about Ireland commissioned by Joyce’s friend and pupil, Roberto Prezioso. Prezioso was ‘an intelligent, dapper Venetian’ (JJII 197) and the editor of Il Piccolo, a paper which favoured the Irredentist (Italian nationalist) cause and opposed the Austro Hungarian Empire’s rule in Trieste. According to Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s articles were commissioned to examine ‘the evils of empire as found in Ireland’ (JJII 255), leaving readers to supply the Austrian parallel.

The second epigraph comes from Finnegans Wake which was published more than thirty years after the Italian newspaper article. It is part of the conclusions of the four annalists who act as judges on the question of what crime, if any, was committed by HCE in the Phoenix Park: they are unable to come to any conclusion because of a lack of evidence, a conflict in evidence, the unreliability of the evidence givers, and inconsistent variations in the allegations made, all difficulties with which courts, then and now, are not unfamiliar. This major theme in the Wake illustrates the continuance of Joyce’s preoccupation with questions of knowledge, proof, and epistemology. Joyce’s view of these topics is remarkably consistent over the long period of years that elapsed between his Italian journalism and the publication of the Wake. It is also evident in his treatment of certain contemporary Irish law cases discussed or referred to by Joyce in his works, cases which took place between 1899 and 1925.

Joyce’s Triestine article is a powerful polemic, energetically expressed in the author’s usual highly compressed journalistic style. Its first theme, extending to about one-third of the total article, recalls that ‘Several years ago a sensational trial took place in Ireland’ (OCPW [145]). This was the trial of a group of peasants from the shores of Lough Mask in Connemara for a number of brutal murders. These became known as the ‘Maamtrasna Murders’; and took place in 1882, the year of Joyce’s birth. Three men, all Joyces (though unrelated to the writer) from the ‘Joyce country’ of Northern Connemara, were hanged for the murders. They were convicted on the evidence of ‘approvers’, that is people who admitted their own participation in the crime and who gave Queens Evidence to save their own lives. Several other men served long terms of penal servitude. The case was a sensation in Ireland at the time and for many years afterwards. In 1884, Timothy Harrington, the barrister and nationalist MP who was a close friend of James Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce, published a book vindicating Myles Joyce’s innocence.2 As Lord Mayor he supplied Joyce with a reference on his first departure to Paris and features in Ulysses as ‘late thrice Lord Mayor of Dublin’ (see JJII 108 and U 15.1378).

The dominant image in Joyce’s article is that of Myles Joyce, the eldest of the executed men. His helpless position as an illiterate monoglot...

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