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Irish Unionism, North of Ireland Protestantism, and the Home Rule Question in Joyce’s Dubliners

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 62-94

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He is not an artist he says. He is interesting himself in politics—in which he says [he has] original ideas.

—Stanislaus Joyce, writing about his brother James in 19031

Innuendo of home rule.

—Leopold Bloom (U 7.150)

Joyce, the Politics of Unionism, and Northern Protestantism

Stanislaus Joyce’s remark in 1903 sets the tone for this essay, noting as it does Joyce’s great interest in politics at the time. So does Joseph Kelly’s contention in 1998 that “[b]etween 1904 and 1907, when he was writing Dubliners and Stephen Hero, Joyce was a political writer . . .”2 Kelly takes pains to establish Joyce’s politics in the early 1900s in order to recover him as a realist writer; I will focus on Joyce’s politics to suggest how particular fictional Protestant characters from the North of Ireland in Dubliners are analogs for their real-life counterparts (the invocation of a title from Joyce’s story collection is purposeful) who would block Home Rule in the years leading up to the Home Rule crisis in 1912–14. Understanding his work in the context of the North of Ireland, however, remains an unfinished (even barely started) endeavor for Joyce criticism. One early intervention has proven salutary for my own work of situating Joyce in the context of the North of Ireland/Northern Ireland: In a fascinating maneuver, Cheryl Herr traveled to Northern Ireland in 1989 to give a report of the political situation in the province through a Joycean perspective.3 Subsequently, Willard Potts has argued in Joyce and the Two Irelands that “a very important part of Irish Catholic culture is its relationship to Irish Protestant culture.”4 Potts cites accounts from Joyce’s contemporaries Arthur Clery and Constantine Curran to show the profound separation between Catholics and Protestants that existed both in Ireland and in the North of Ireland during Joyce’s day.5 Potts remains the only commentator to trace with any persistence the sectarian conflicts in Joyce’s fiction between Catholics and Protestants, but he often does so by eliding the differences between Anglo-Irish Protestants and Protestants from the North of Ireland. This proves an unhelpful maneuver given how Northern Protestant Unionists began to unite in their opposition to Home Rule during the time Joyce was writing Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The relative lack of interest in Joyce’s relationship to the majority-Protestant North of Ireland likely stems from and accords with historians’ and literary and cultural critics’ continuing interest in Irish liberation movements, particularly varieties of nationalism. Correspondingly, Joyce’s relationship to the foundation of modern Ireland has been analyzed from a variety of approaches, including post-colonialism.6 One of the preeminent historians of Irish Unionism, Alvin Jackson, has explained that “[a]s in other European countries which have successfully struggled for their independence, so in Ireland there remains a fascination with the processes of liberation, and (equally) an understated or embarrassed or unwritten history of collaboration, compromise and political inertia.”7 The competing narratives told by republicans and unionists and loyalists (although there are differences between these two latter designations) play into such a bias on the part of historians. As Liam O’Dowd succinctly puts it, “If the story of republicanism is about rebellion, that of unionism and loyalism is about the defense of the state, its Protestant constitution, and its civilizing role. As such, its personalities and their deeds, although part of a much broader historical canvas, appear less dramatic and magnetic.”8 Irish Unionism, later Ulster Unionism, remains a relative lacuna in Irish history, the efforts of Jackson, Patrick Buckland, and other historians of this complex movement notwithstanding. This omission is unfortunate, not least because “the strength of the Union” lay “in its capacity for reinvention.”9 The Union began on January 1, 1801, was considerably diminished with the proclamation of the Irish Free State in 1921 and its actual institution in 1922, but arguably has survived into the present day in Northern Ireland. Its fluidity and survival make a fascinating study. Early on, the Union was quickly “redefined as an instrument of Protestant ascendancy, and was used to...

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