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  • The Parnellism of James Joyce‘‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’’
  • Frank Callanan (bio)

Whenever Joyce spoke of Parnell, he did so with a smile.

—Louis Gillet1

On September 1, 1905, Joyce sent from Trieste a manuscript copy of ‘‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’’ to his brother Stanislaus, who was still in Dublin.2 It is a story that enlarges the scope of Dubliners to embrace the political and initiates a conceptual shift in the collection as a whole. It is also Joyce’s first major treatment of the Parnell theme and the politics of the Parnell split.

Joyce’s identification with Charles Stewart Parnell, and his treatment of Parnell and the Parnell myth in his work, has received neither sustained critical analysis nor close historical consideration. Even Richard Ellmann came to feel a certain weariness with the subject. In a section of The Consciousness of Joyce, which bore the impatient title ‘‘Beyond Parnell,’’ he wrote: ‘‘Joyce is sometimes said to have no politics except regret for Parnell, yet he was not a man to worship the dead. For a long time now he had his eye on a living leader, Arthur Griffith."3 Ellmann had evidently concluded that whatever sentimental interest it might attract in Ireland, there was not much that Joyce’s relation to Parnell could reveal about his own politics or his art. In this he was wrong.

Alone among the stories in Dubliners, ‘‘Ivy Day’’ has a specific political setting familiar to its potential contemporary readership in Ireland and, at least as it related to the death of Parnell, in Britain. The fall of Parnell was the great cataclysm of Irish nationalism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. A Wicklow Protestant landlord, Parnell had revolutionized the fortunes of nationalism in Ireland, carrying the momentum of [End Page 73] the Irish land war of the late 1870s through his marshalling of the Irish parliamentary party in the Westminster parliament. In 1886, W. E. Gladstone, the Liberal prime minister, introduced a home rule bill. Even though the bill was defeated, Parnell’s position as Ireland’s ‘‘uncrowned king’’ seemed unassailable. At the end of 1889, Captain W. H. O’Shea, a former member of the Irish party and the husband of Katharine O’Shea, with whom Parnell had been cohabiting for years, instituted divorce proceedings. After an uncontested hearing which caused a public sensation, O’Shea was granted a conditional decree of divorce on November 17, 1890. Impelled by the ‘‘nonconformist conscience’’ and electoral considerations in Britain, Gladstone published a letter asserting that Parnell’s continued leadership of the Irish party would render his own leadership of the Liberal party almost a nullity. Parnell retaliated with a defiantly inflammatory ‘‘Manifesto to the Irish People."

The ensuing controversy sundered the party Parnell had created, which broke apart on December 6, 1890 when a substantial majority repudiated Parnell. This was ‘‘the split,’’ a term that came also to designate the division of the Irish party, which continued until 1900, and sometimes to mean in context the contest of Parnellite and anti-Parnellite factions in Parnell’s lifetime. Parnell found himself confronted by an overwhelming combination of the majority of his former colleagues, the Liberal party, and the Irish clergy and hierarchy. ‘‘Strong to the verge of weakness,’’ in the narrator’s unforgettable phrase in ‘‘Eumaeus’’ (U 16.1832), Parnell fought on. He lost three tumultuous by-elections in Ireland. Before the last of these he had, on June 25, 1891, married Katharine O’Shea, attracting further moralistic opprobrium from his adversaries. Worn out, and of hereditarily fragile health, Parnell died in Brighton at the age of forty-five on October 6, 1891, less than a year after the split had opened up.4

The perspective that frames ‘‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’’ is the debacle of 1890–91, retrospectively perceived from the eleventh anniversary of Parnell’s death on ‘‘Ivy Day,’’ the term that came to designate the date of his death. The split had endured in Irish politics for almost a decade, until the Irish parliamentary party was reunited in January 1900. The prolongation of the split beyond Parnell’s...


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