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“Erin go bragh”: “Banal Nationalism” and the Joycean Performance of Irish Nationhood

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2009
pp. 29-56 | 10.1353/jnt.0.0020

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

What with your name and ideas . . . Are you Irish at all?

—James Joyce

When boyhood’s fire was in my blood,
I read of ancient freemen,
For Greece and Rome who bravely stood,
Three hundred men and three men.
And then I prayed I might see
Our fetters rent in twain,
And Ireland, long a province, be
A nation once again.

—Thomas Osborne Davis

Between parodic interruptions, burlesques of Irish Revivalist poetics, and send-ups of nationalistic rhetoric, the caustic narrator of “Cyclops,” the twelfth episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, inexorably persists, sardonically recollecting the verbal bar-room brawl between the aggressive “Citizen” and the hapless everyman, Leopold Bloom. “So off they started,” he quips, “about Irish sports and shoneen games the like of lawn tennis and about hurley and putting the stone and racy of the soil and building up a nation once again and all to that” (Joyce, Ulysses 12: 889–891, emphasis added).1 Reiterating the high points of the Citizen’s growling, increasingly inebriated monologue—Gaelic sport versus English games, the “racy of the soil” as the key to Irish national revival—the narrator echoes an entire discourse of hackneyed, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cultural nationalism, and, with the ironically nonchalant “and all,” subtly alludes to one of its most famous popular manifestations, the “evergreen verses” of the Irish patriot and poet Thomas Osborne Davis (12: 916). Aligning Ireland and the Irish with ancient Greek and Roman heroism, Davis’s early nineteenth-century poem “A Nation Once Again,” construes an ancient pedigree for the Irish nation and the nationalism that accompanies it, granting both the legitimacy of historical continuity, the authority of the Western tradition, and the sanction of Providence itself. With the aid of “God’s right hand” and “righteous men,” Ireland will, the speaker imagines, finally, cast off its English fetters and reassert its ancient but inoperative nationhood. Yet, while both Davis’s poem and the Citizen conceive of the Irish nation as a dormant, primordial entity, the nationhood to which they allude, a nationhood whose contours are inscribed by a modern discourse of Irish nationalism, is much less solid than they are willing to admit. Astutely locating this discourse of national revival within the bombastic exaltations of the Citizen, mediating it through the ironic voice of the narrator of the “Cyclops,” Joyce institutes what is an apparently irresolvable breech, at once dissociating his work from and discrediting the dominant tradition of Irish nationalism. Yet, while “Cyclops” exposes this nationalism as no more than hyperbolic posturing, the labor that Joyce’s work carries out stands in sharp contrast to its explicit critique. For, not unlike the very discourse that it derides, Joyce’s fiction serves as a nationalist artifact which attends to the modern, discursive production of Ireland as a culturally autonomous, historically legitimate nation.

Although scholars have often preferred to emphasize Joyce’s opposition to Irish nationalism, the author’s work never strays far from the discourse that it putatively negates, unceasingly obliging the reader to contemplate what Ireland is and what it means to be Irish in the early twentieth century. When, therefore, the young nationalist Davin petulantly questions whether Stephen Dedalus is “Irish at all” in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his interrogation manifests more than the parochial nationalist tradition which criticism has long declared Stephen and Joyce to repudiate (219). It underscores the central concern of an entire career spent navigating what Eric Hobsbawm has identified as the early twentieth- century “apogee of nationalism” and an attempt to situate Ireland and Irishness in a world in which nationality has solidified as the indispensable, universally accepted constituent of individual and group identity (131). Yet, while readers have been quick to denounce Davin and the Citizen as nationalists, dogmatic and fundamentally dangerous followers of an essentialist doctrine, Joyce, along with Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, has evaded this label entirely. For, though sociologists, historians, and literary scholars have frequently examined the phenomenon of Irish nationalism, “James Joyce,” the international signifier of High Modernism, European cosmopolitanism, and modernity, resides so comfortably at the center of Western culture that it has become almost impossible to associate him with...

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