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Catholic Emancipations: Irish Fiction from Thomas Moore to James Joyce (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 160-163 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0114

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This work is a study of a particular strand in Irish fiction in the period from Thomas Moore to James Joyce: the fiction, in effect, of the newly emancipated and rising Catholic middle class. It is a segment that has received much less attention than the work of the Protestant, Anglo-Irish writers of the era. The author, however, stops well short of calling this body of work a "tradition," still shorter of claiming that Joyce belonged to it in any meaningful way.

The term "Catholic" here is primarily a sociological marker, designating a particular class strand in a particular historical configuration. What is at issue in Emer Nolan's work is how the emergent Catholic middle-class consciousness perceived itself and its future in a "new Ireland," where it would indeed eventually achieve dominance. Central to this self-perception was the issue of violence and of this class's relation to it.

As Nolan shows, at the very threshold of the exploration stands a text—Moore's Memoirs of Captain Rock—which problematizes the possibility of an easy escape from the nightmare of history in the form of a violent past. Nolan also demonstrates, however, how Moore's work offers a way out from a cyclical pattern of recurrent violence but in a spirit that does not simply seek to repress the communal, the carnivalesque, or the instinctual. It should be mentioned here that this fascinating text, which mixes the serious and the satirical in its burlesque version of Irish history, is relevant both to the "Cyclops" episode of Ulysses and to much of Finnegans Wake. Showing a very different Moore from the writer of the Melodies, it has now been reissued, edited by Nolan herself, as noted below.

Any Joycean would be interested in Nolan's discussion of the Melodies, which meant so much to Joyce himself (he incorporated the titles of all of them into Finnegans Wake). Nolan shows how, in these poems, Moore "inaugurated a particular mode of aestheticizing Irish history that had an enormous impact on much of the prose fiction as well as on the poetry of nineteenth-century Ireland" (150-51)—and further, one might add, on early-twentieth-century Ireland, including the work of Joyce. But fiction was not Moore's specialty. When we come to novelists like Gerald Griffin, John and Michael Banim, and William Carleton, we confront once again the formal problem that bedeviled Irish fiction of this period: the Irish subject matter with which these writers dealt would just not accommodate itself to the norms of "classical" English fiction. Nor did they escape quite so easily, or with such confidence, into the Gothic as did their Protestant contemporaries.

In her chapter "The Pope's Green Island: Irish Fiction at the Fin de Siècle," Nolan shows how later Catholic novelists, who could in many ways perceive the shape of things to come, began to count the cost of the coming hegemony. There was a new emphasis, in the work of George Moore and Emily Lawless, on the fate of the individual, often a woman, confronting dominant social norms. With this motif, of course, we come very close to Joyce, and Nolan argues cogently that George Moore's The Lake (much disparaged by Joyce himself—SL 81, 99, 101, 102, 106) does offer a different and more complex model of individual emancipation and its implications than that provided by Stephen Dedalus.

When it comes to Joyce, Nolan is concerned, as she was in her previous work on this author, to deconstruct the notion that Joyce is simply "the prophet of a transnational or cosmopolitan modernity" in Ireland and that contemporary Ireland may represent "the fulfilment of all his dreams for the country" (154). She stresses the continuities between Joyce and his nineteenth-century background, not merely in the familiar tropes of paralysis and defeat but also in the survival of earlier communal activities as exemplified in the Halloween games at the end of "Clay." (One could also cite the children's games chapter of Finnegans Wake, not to mention the overall "wake" setting of the book itself.)

For Nolan, the dream of modernity is just as illusory in Joyce as...



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