- Spies in Joyce's "The Sisters"Allegorical Histories, the Irish Rebellion, and The Count of Monte Cristo
It is right to be accurate even in trifles [. . . The article in The Dublin Evening Post] contained two mistakes—it asserted that I was born in 1774, and secondly, that I was intended for the Church. I was not intended for the Church. No man respects, loves, or submits to the Church with more alacrity than I. But I was not intended for the priesthood.—Daniel O'Connell, Life and Times, July 17, 1828
People in general are totally ignorant of the crimes of the English monsters in their rule of Ireland—the facts of history are forgotten, at least in the details. [. . .] History has been so completely falsified, that not only is the truth unknown, but the foulest falsehoods have passed current as Gospel truths; the characters of the two contending parties have been quite reversed, and the horrible crimes committed by the English upon the Irish, have been quietly led to the charge of the Irish themselves, in the fictitious narratives that are popularly called histories.—Daniel O'Connell (Personal Recollections)
—Ah, there's no friends like the old friends, she said, when all is said and done, no friends that a body can trust.—James Joyce, "The Sisters" [End Page 195]
With the death of the old, paralyzed priest, Father Flynn, the unnamed boy narrator of James Joyce's "The Sisters" is conflicted. The boy had a relationship with Flynn, who is somehow connected to the idea of simony. Joyce's literary clues invite us to follow in the tracks of his young narrator, outlining the contours of the "gnomon" that remains to discover what is missing.1 Kevin J. H. Dettmar identifies "The Sisters" as a "detective story," with a boy as detective, puzzling through this unspoken history.2 While the boy's connection to the priest strikes a family friend as suspicious and unnatural, the story's title refers to something that at first appears to be peripheral, with Father Flynn's two sisters, Eliza and Nannie, who are hard put to explain why Father Flynn has been ostracized but not excommunicated from the Church. Eliza wonders if it has to do with a broken chalice that, they have been assured by Church officials, contained nothing—a possible hint that Father Flynn was spiritually bereft. Eliza admits, in an unsettled final observation, that she noticed Father Flynn had changed ever since he was discovered sitting in the confession box, smiling. I argue here that "The Sisters" constitutes Joyce's opening critique of Ireland's misleading historiography, a story told with missing pieces and parts, because it has most often been defined and biased by its relationship to Catholicism.
To be an Irishman of Joyce's era was to know something of Robert Emmet, Lord Fitzgerald (both Protestants), and the history of the failed 1798 (and related 1803) Rebellions, which had so divided Ireland, even though Protestants and Catholics alike suffered under the economic yoke imposed by the Union, and even though both had fought, and both had been religiously oppressed, on both sides of the Rebellion. But written documentation of this defining event of Irish national history3 often served to further divide an already fractured nation4 at the very moment it might have been uniting it, by offering a story of shared oppression, complicity, and mourning. Instead, the assumed interdependence between Irish colonial resistance and Catholicism was so pervasive that historians well into the twentieth century would point to Charles Stewart Parnell's political fall during the 1890s as reflecting Ireland's first division between Catholicism and Nationalism. In "The Sisters," Joyce scaffolds Dubliners with the critical imperative for his readers to learn their history—the truth of their history—even where it is not noble, or exceptionalist, or complimentary to a Catholic tradition.
Some of the stories in Dubliners have already been illuminated by such reclaimed historical backdrops. Since Kevin Whelan's thoughtful criticism, we have come to understand "The Dead" as imbricating Ireland's [End Page 196] complicated post-Famine history at the end of Dubliners, for example.5 But we...