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  • Finnegans Wake and Irish Historical Memory
  • Peter A. Maguire (bio)

The history of Ireland has typically been written as the history of an occupation; it could with equal authority be written as the history of a language. In fact, this is essentially what Douglas Hyde did, in 1899, in A Literary History of Ireland. As Hyde realized, although the occupation of Ireland provided one neat strand of formal unity, the changing linguistic expression of the island’s inhabitants provided another and perhaps more appropriate device by which to record Ireland’s past. For centuries, the Irish community’s struggle to integrate its history—and to understand its identity—was inevitably woven with the complex issue of language. Much of the thrust of that occupation was centered around a struggle to determine which was to be the dominant language of Ireland, to the extent that the whole issue of language was central to the complex interaction of social, economic, and cultural conditions which formed the Irish—as well as the Anglo-Irish—experience of colonialism. The struggle continued to manifest itself in the daily life of the Irish Republic, and many historians, such as Oliver MacDonagh and Terence Brown, have demonstrated that the struggle for the language of Ireland became one of the distinguishing features of Irish politics well beyond the period of the Free State. 1 Even today, the Irish language is often seen as the only valid means of national renewal; Irish is the sacred vessel through whose mediation all the nation’s worthy objectives will one day be achieved.

Although the struggle for the Irish language has been at the center of Irish politics and Irish cultural life for over a century—and, in some respects, it has been for almost eight centuries—critics have tended to disregard this issue when approaching the works of James Joyce. Given Joyce’s own apparent indifference to the language and Stephen Dedalus’ expressed hostility to its supporters, many readers have assumed that the issue of language in Ireland provides no more than a minor footnote to his obvious immersion in European culture. [End Page 293] An assumption exists that, if Joyce and Dedalus could detach themselves from all matters rural and Gaelic, then critics could dismiss the Irish language either as another manifestation of Dublin’s cultural paralysis, or as a rural, regional issue, quite removed from Joyce’s position as a European Modernist. Stephen’s insight about home, Christ, ale, master is, therefore, often quoted, but rarely read in its appropriate cultural context: few readers explore it as a link between Joyce’s concern with language and Ireland’s concern with language (p. 189). However, a reading of Joyce’s work in the context of Ireland’s linguistic history indicates that the whole opus forms part of a search for linguistic expression which is not just European, but specifically Irish, and which arises specifically from the events of Irish history. Because of his background, Joyce must be approached as a writer working in a specific cultural tradition—one in which the most important defining feature has been an attempt to obliterate that cultural tradition. His works—in common with all the major works of that tradition—represents an attempt to repossess the right to expression with every act of expression. And insofar as Finnegans Wake subverts the patriarchal, rational value-system of bourgeois European literature, it does so from the standpoint of that most marginalized of European peoples—those whose experience of colonialism included the loss not just of land, wealth and power, but of a language, a culture and a past.

Traditionally, Ireland’s woes are traced to the year 1169, when the Anglo-Norman invasion began. Strongbow and the Norman barons, speaking Norman French, arrived on the shores of Ireland, aided by the Irish-speaking Diarmuid Mac Murchadha. In 1171, their overlord Henry II arrived, and his objective was partly—or at least ostensibly—to bring the Celtic Church, run by Irish-speaking clerics, under the control of the Latinate Church of Rome. To this effect, he carried a Bull (Laudabiliter) in Latin from history’s only English Pope, Adrian IV, and he undertook his mission partly to...

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