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Myopic Beauty: The Map, the Photograph, the Palimpsest, and Joyce

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 45:1&2, Earrach/Samhradh / Spring/Summer 2010
pp. 266-276 | 10.1353/eir.2010.0010

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Gabriel pointed to the statue, on which lay patches of snow.

Then he nodded familiarly to it and waved his hand.

—Good night, Dan, he said gaily.

(Joyce, Dubliners 216)

James Joyce, too, was familiar with it, and familiar with the family of Daniel O'Connell, the man it honored. He had particular reason to be. Two generations before, his grandfather had married into the prosperous O'Connells of South Kerry. Dan, the Joyces claimed, was one of their own. Of course, the family connection was difficult to prove, but the Liberator himself, Richard Ellmann tells us, was happy to indulge the notion (11). That would have been enough for James Joyce, who knew that history was more than a paper trail.

History, Joyce understood, was a lived condition, its traces all around. In Dublin it underlay the fabric of the city, was written in its very stones, confronted the citizen at every turn, was omnipresent, ghostly, nightmarish. And in 1882, the year that James Augustine Joyce was born, even as the metropolis turned its eyes to the future, with the much-heralded Irish Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, it marked the centenary of the Irish Volunteers and, Janus-like, looked backwards too. Dublin was a place of retrospective aspiration, its eyes set firmly on a past it did not want the citizen to forget.

Since 1808 the hero of Trafalgar had presided over Sackville, not yet O'Connell, Street from the great Doric column that was the Nelson Pillar. Victorians knew the value of the great man as aspirational device and of emulation as ideological tool. As the cult of the fallen hero spread across the nation-states of Europe, boulevard and thoroughfare were colonnaded with warriors and leaders, reifications in bronze and stone of the glory of the race. Surmounted by the great and good, idealized types, these monuments were rubrics of the national narrative, assertions of a seamless continuity between glorious past and certain future. A newly confident Irish people, too, set out to ossify the exemplary qualities of its dead for the edification of its youth.

On August 15th, 1882, the Freeman's Journal reported, "Hundreds of thousands, young and old, hopeful in heart for a great and glorious day," braved a dismal downpour to converge on O'Connell Bridge. They had come to celebrate the opening of the Exhibition and to witness the unveiling of what was to be the most imposing piece of public sculpture to grace the city yet. It had been conceived barely a decade after the Great Famine. On this, the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, John Henry Foley's magnificent memorial was finally ready to be unveiled.

The proceedings of the much-anticipated day would proclaim the breadth of Dublin's industry displayed by its menfolk marshalled in grand procession. From all corners of the city came its tradesmen: the city's horseshoers, then its nail makers, its printers, cork cutters, butchers, basket makers, its skinners, plumbers, bottle-makers, brush makers, saddle makers. "At one o'clock … the veil fell to the Lord Mayor's signal, and the O'Connell Bronze stood revealed," wrote the Freeman's; then "a mighty roar went up from ten thousand throats." At that very moment "the sun suddenly opened its beams through the drenching rain, and gloriously lighted up the monument and the crowded platform" (O'Hanlon lxxiii). The gods were smiling.

Four Winged Victories surround the monument's base. Here are Patriotism and Fidelity, resplendent, massive, in resounding bronze. Courage and Eloquence, two more embodiments of the qualities the Irish people revered O'Connell for, sit out of sight. Between them are mounted the four great shields of Ireland's provinces. For years James Joyce carted his own coat of arms from dingy flat to other flat, a step ahead of the landlord, proud, like his father, of his ancestry. Strange, then, that in the pantheon of Irish heroes it was not to his reputed kinsman but to Parnell he always looked. Joyce was patriotic, but his patriotism was not of the wanted sort; the fidelity demanded of him was to Mother Church, and that was not to be. He...

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