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Nostalgia and Rancor in Dubliners

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 15, Number 2, Samhradh/Summer 2011
pp. 17-32 | 10.1353/nhr.2011.0019

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For hundreds of years, political repression and economic disintegration have served as the driving forces that compelled Irish literary figures and myriad others to leave their country. Around the turn of the last century, however, creative stagnation—perpetrated by indigenous groups and, paradoxically, informed by a renewed interest in artistic expression—stood as a danger just as perilous to the imaginative lives of Irish writers as famine and war had been to the physical well-being of their predecessors. As the Literary Revival gained force, the prescriptive aesthetic principles laid down primarily by George Russell, W.B. Yeats, and Lady Augusta Gregory set rigid standards for what would be considered “art.” Becoming a successful author in Ireland meant adhering to these views, and authors like John Millington Synge, Padraic Colum, James Stephens, and numerous others through preference or pragmatism toed the Revivalist line.

Not all fell into line so quickly. James Joyce, at that time just beginning his career, already possessed a fierce creative independence and an abiding self-confidence in his imaginative abilities. Like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw before him and Sean O’Casey and Samuel Beckett afterward, his departure from Ireland became inevitable.1 Of course, being Joyce, he did not go gentle into that good night. Shortly before leaving, he composed a satirical poem, “The Holy Office,” which excoriated the Dublin literati for creating and perpetuating an atmosphere that precluded independent creativity. Once he had made his way to the continent, he had the poem printed and distributed to the targets of his opprobrium.2

Years later, the memories of the artistic tyranny he faced remained in the foreground of Joyce’s recollections. In the Telemachus chapter of Ulysses, he has Buck Mulligan sardonically sum up the format of Revival writing as “Five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum. Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind.” 3 That jab, of course, was not enough for Joyce. Later in the novel, he singles out the doyens of the movement for more satire when Mulligan chides Stephen Dedalus for writing a harsh review of a Lady Gregory book.

—Longworth is awfully sick, [Mulligan] said, after what you wrote about that old hake Gregory. O you inquisitional drunken jewjesuit! She gives you a job on the paper and then you go and slate her drivel to Jaysus. Couldn’t you do the Yeats touch?

(U 177–78)

Despite the mockery and levity of these passages, Joyce’s decision to stand against the leading figures in Irish literature must have been daunting. Leaving Dublin was neither easy nor pleasant for Joyce, as his early letters from Pola and Trieste to his family in Ireland confirm.4 More than just creative pressures impelled Joyce’s departure. He also sought escape from a variety of features of the cultural, social, and political ambiance. One motive for leaving, for instance, came directly from his relations with Nora Barnacle. Though he loved her deeply, Joyce did not wish to submit to a marriage ceremony, knowing that they could never have lived openly in Ireland without that formalization of their relationship. (In fact, they finally married in 1931 only to protect the inheritance rights of their children.) In this and in a dozen other matters, Joyce understood that remaining in Ireland would have left him fighting his entire life against the parochial discipline imposed by Irish society.5

But one should not equate Joyce’s disagreement with features of Irish life with an antipathy for everything Irish. The complex and even contradictory attitudes that he held toward his native country, and which he inculcated into his writing, remain to be fully explored. In a 1905 letter to his brother Stanislaus, Joyce articulated his awareness of his expatriate status and its impact on his writing:

I have come to accept my present situation as a voluntary exile—is it not so? This seems to be important both because I am likely to generate out of it a sufficiently personal future to satisfy Curran’s heart and also because it supplies me with the note on which I propose to bring...



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