- Philatelic Ulysses
February 1922 was to be a momentous month for Ireland's philatelic and literary history.1 On February 1, the day before the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses, a press notice appeared from J. J. Walsh, the new Postmaster General of the Irish Free State and former 1916 fighter, calling for designs "of a symbolic character" for the Free State's first postage stamps.2 On the 11th, a Dublin correspondent reported that armed guards were watching over the stamps that would serve in the interim, British stamps featuring King George V overprinted with the inscription Rialtas Sealadac na hÉireann 1922 (Provisional Government of Ireland 1922) (Cooke 38). That same day, James Joyce wrote to Sylvia Beach about his concerns that Ireland's postal transition would impact mailing copies and notices of Ulysses: "I think all Irish notices ought to be sent out as with a new Irish postmaster general and a vigilance committee in clerical hands you never know from one day to the next what may occur."3 On the 17th, following their escort by armed guards to the GPO, the first overprinted Free State stamps "denoting drastic political changes" and "of great interest to philatelists" were issued to the public and to collectors worldwide (see Figure 1).4 As a columnist for the Irish Times would later ask rhetorically,
. . . who does not remember the 17th February, 1922, when in exchange for a penny, one received an English stamp bearing words in the Irish language indicating that the Provisional Government was operating, and had taken over control of the State services. The dread hum and noise of civil war was in the air, buildings were going up in flames, when the words "Rialtas Sealadac na hEireann" scattered themselves over the brow of the King, and virtually obliterated his beard on the stamp.5 [End Page 51]
The coincidence of the February 1922 publication of Ulysses and the events surrounding Ireland's postal transition is a fitting one because stamps form a critically ignored trope in the novel, one linked not only to standardization and uniformity but also to changes in empire and power structures. In its capacity to encode an alternative value system that privileges the very specimens that signal disruptions and errors in otherwise highly regulated systems, philately offers a means to revalue the seemingly useless and imperfect.
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Joyce's notes and letters would seem to suggest that his interest in philately came toward the end of his work on Ulysses as he considered its late references to "Major" Brian Cooper Tweedy, Molly Bloom's stamp-collecting father. Joyce's notesheets for Penelope begin with the word "Stamps" struck out in green in the left vertical margin.6 In his genetic study of Joyce's development of characters in Ulysses, Luca Crispi writes that this note likely served as a reminder to Joyce to associate Tweedy with his collection in the episode. A single paragraph in Crispi's 2015 [End Page 52] study offers the most sustained discussion of stamp collecting in Ulysses, identifying it as one of three recurring stories about Tweedy that helped to unify his character as Joyce reviewed it from spring 1921 to January 1922. Crispi acknowledges that "Although it is the most lucrative and presumably the only accurate instance of his father-in-law's notable feats that the Blooms recall, Tweedy's foresight in buying stamps is the least-often mentioned motif related to him in Ulysses" before dismissing it as a "late and tangential mention of Molly's father [that] does not add much information" but "does help to bind together the stories that are told."7 Yet the representation of stamps in key moments throughout Ulysses suggests a motif that far exceeds its connection with Tweedy. A consideration of philately in the period when Joyce writes and sets...