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Bloomsday in the nationalist dogdays: 
James Joyce’s "Ulysses"  as  a political nove

by   D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

17th June 2004

Exactly one hundred years and one day ago, on 16th June 1904, a young university graduate called James Joyce dated a young chambermaid called Nora Barnacle, beginning a lifetime and eventually a marital relationship. Ten years later, Joyce began to commemorate this day in a work that would become perhaps the most famous, although not so well read, novel of the last century. This work has been analysed frequently; Joyce provided plenty of material in linking his chapters not only to themes of his original inspiration, Homer’s Odyssey, but to a timetable (less rigorous or all-encompassing than that in the current television series, 24, but still central to the work), to different bodily organs, to colours, to literary styles and to even more esoteric themes. These have obscured less obvious overall aspect of the work: its function as truthful historical fable 

This is the stranger in that Joyce claimed more specific truths. He asserted that the Dublin of 1904 could be rebuilt from his narrative. This is palpably untrue; the coherent city of Ulysses is restricted to the northside and the south-east as far as Sandymount (itself, then, not within the city boundaries).  There are too, glaring omissions even in that geography. In the ‘Wandering Rocks’ chapter, for example, Ballybough is airbrushed out of Fr. Conmee’s itinerary.

More serious is Joyce’ claim to include an accurate account of the public events of the day with which he deals. Obviously a work of fiction can invent individuals and their private lives, but Joyce’ protagonists move on a day that departs frequently from the historic 16th June 1904. ‘William Humble, Earl of Dudley’ did not pass through Dublin then to inaugurate the Mirus bazaar in aid of funds for Mercer’s hospital or, it seems, for any other reason. Councillor J.P.Nannetti, M.P. was not working in the Freeman’s Journal prior to crossing to Westminster that evening; he was already in his Westminster seat questioning the Chief Secretary. The Cattletraders’ Association did not meet at the City Arms Hotel, or anywhere else on 16th June 1904. These fabrications serve to emphasise the political theme of the greater fiction: national identity and aspirations..

In reality, for Dublin, the day in question was amongst the least eventful of an uneventful year, making James’ and Nora’s date a major occurrence for more than the pair involved.

What should be noted is that this very lack of incident reflects an overall historic reality. Joyce had other reasons for choosing this day for starting his courtship, yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in retrospect, he came to see the general dullness of Bloomsday as reflecting a political reality. Had the date occurred ten years previously (after the defeat of the second Home Rule Bill and the collapse of the organisations of unskilled Irish workers) it must have inspired a very different narrative. It would have differed even more, after the Dublin lock-out and at the height of the third Home Rule Bill controversy, ten years later. The non-events of Ulysses impart a political message such as could not be given by the chronicle of a more hectic day.

To understand this, it helps to know something of the background. It was a fallow time in Ireland’s political development. The promise of the Home Rule movement’s reunification in the United Irish League had been dissipated on the one hand by new divisions and, on the other, (and magnifying such schisms) by the 1903 Land Act, with its provisions for greater tenant purchase. The tiny Socialist movement had split after years of stagnation. On the other side, the Unionist government was trying to postpone looming election defeat by encouraging anti-semitism, which had found very recent support in non-Unionist Limerick, with the aid of a Redemptorist Gruppenfuhrer.  Nor was there much hope that a change of government would result in a new offer of Home Rule, since the Liberal opposition was divided on the issue, with a large minority under its former leader, the Earl of Roseberry, being opposed. Over all the political stagnation, there was the stagnation of the Irish economy, which maintained a rate of emigration higher than that even under the partial independence that would be established under the 1921 Articles of Agreement. 

At the same time, there were signs of movement. Some of these were mentioned by Joyce. However, he saw most of them as representing rural, inwardlooking attitudes. This applied to the promise of increased tenant land purchase and the development of the rural co-operative movement.  In particular, Joyce disparages the co-operatives and their “pig’s paper’, the Irish Homestead, partly because he disliked the ultra-idealism of the paper’s Theosophist editor, George Russell (It did not help, either, that Russell had stopped the serialisation of Joyce’s Dubliners, but this was a symptom of their essential incompatibility). The same archaism is a factor in the movement that would found the Abbey Theatre in December 1904, and which Joyce expressed similar scepticism. In fact, the only green shoot of which the author of Ulysses shows approval is the United Irishman through which Arthur Griffith was preparing the way for Sinn Fein.

This emphasis on the overall dullness of Bloomsday is the more significant in that Joyce began planning his novel from 1907, when matters were starting to become more interesting and that he wrote it between 1914 and 1922 when the green shoots had become sturdy plants. From 1907, James Larkin led the expansion of the militant organisation of the Irish working class. In the same year, Sinn Fein fought its first national parliamentary election, and, although it declined subsequently, it re-established itself more effectively and, of course, decisively in the years after 1916.

Joyce’ refusal to acknowledge fully the possibilities for such changes puts into question his political consciousness. For Edna O’Brien ‘he believed that politics and government were for specialists and he was a specialist only in one thing’.  Does that mean he had no politics? If he had an interest, did his politics represent a determined rejection of those prevalent in the twentieth century? Rather, could it be that Ulysses provides a deeper critique of the Irish scene both at the time of writing and at the time of its setting than is immediately apparent?

Now it is certainly possible to argue that the novel is anti-political. The level of the characters’ political discussion is banal to the point of philistinism. This applies not merely to the boozers in Barny Kernan’s, but to the relatively elite intellectuals in the Freeman’s Journal office. Against this, and as if lighting the way forward, there stands the isolated figure of Leopold Bloom, and, behind him, the shadow of Arthur Griffith, unable to do more than point the future, because, in 1904, that was all they could do, but, nonetheless, there to do it.

It is instructive to compare Joyce’ work with that of his older contemporary, George Moore, whose career, if not background, seems to anticipate that of the author of Ulysses. Like Joyce, Moore went to Paris rather than London, like Wilde and Shaw. Not only did he adhere to the school of literary realism, but he took it beyond Joyce in studying the lives of the workers. Subsequently, he can be said to have showed a practical patriotism greater then the younger man by returning to Dublin to help create the Abbey Theatre. 

What this summary misses is the extent that Moore’s experience affects his writing. To him, realism, his self-proclaimed Socialism and his patriotism were, in a real sense, aids to his artistic endeavour. The social concern that powered his inspirer Zola is missing from his rather clinical approach. Towards the end of his realist phase, he wrote a play, The Strike at Arlingford.  It is theatrically neither a Germinal nor a Strumpet City. The entire action takes place in the mine owner’s drawing room, in which the actual strikers appear only briefly in the first act. This would not matter except that, to quote Moore’s words: ‘In my own conception of my play the labour dispute is an externality to which I attach little importance. What I applied myself to in the composition of The Strike at Arlingford was the development of a moral idea.’ Moore concentrates on the dilemma of the labour agitator, John Reid, a de-classed bourgeois impelled purely by what Yeats would term later ‘ignorant good will.’ At the climax Reid admits his isolation from both bourgeois and worker and takes strychnine. Though Moore could identify with the de-classing, he had his art: a projection of himself from which he could not be alienated.

Joyce had his art, too, but his self-projection involved a commitment to a bigger entity. As he expressed it through his alter ego Stephen Dedalus, he is forging ‘the unfettered consciousness of his race’. Moore separates public commitment from artistic production; Joyce uses his art as his public commitment, necessitating, because of this, complete abstention from more obvious interventions.

 But what was the social vision behind Joyce’ politics? In 1931, Edmund Wilson grouped him with a number of other contemporary writers in Axel’s Castle.  With W.B.Yeats, Paul Valery, T.S.Eliot,  Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein, Wilson placed Joyce as part of a general movement away from the modern world. The writers he named were held to be the Symbolists, escaping to pure aestheticism and opposing the escapism of the Primitives, D.H.Lawrence, Blaise Cendras, Andre Gide and Sherwood Anderson. Eight years later, in ‘Inside the Whale’, George Orwell placed Joyce in similar, but purely anglophone company. Besides Joyce and Eliot, Orwell adds ‘Pound, Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Lytton Strachey’; he excludes Yeats (and, indeed, Virginia Woolf: a touch of sexism here, perhaps?) but adds Somerset Maugham. These selections can be considered one of idealists, but not idealists who ignore reality: rather those who recognise but reject it. Wilson accuses his Symbolists of ‘being preoccupied with introspection sometimes almost to the point of insanity…they have endeavoured to discourage their readers, not only with politics, but with action of any kind’. Orwell’s examples  ‘are temperamentally hostile to the notion of “progress”, it is felt that progress not only doesn’t happen, but ought not to happen’.

Now it is certainly probable that, after Ulysses, Joyce felt that progress ‘doesn’t happen’. His subsequent, and last, work, Finnegan’s Wake, is inspired by the writings of Giannbatista Vico, the prime exponent of the cyclic theory of history. Vico’s views were natural to one in his position, living in eighteenth century Italy, a political slum, albeit a slum with a great cultural tradition (a bit like one of O’Casey’s tenements, in fact). With the promise of Republicanism destroyed or preserved, like Venice and Genoa, as if in aspic, it was easy for him to rationalise that failure and draw parallels from previous ages, ignoring the real differences between the societies he cited.

In fact, as he wrote, his theories were already under practical attack. The bourgeois revolutions in Britain and the Netherlands had moved history into a new sphere that events in America and France would insure at the end of his century.

There are obvious resemblances between Vico’s Italy and the Ireland of Ulysses. Like Italy, Ireland was oppressed by foreign states and its economy was stagnant. The prospects for national resistance seemed to have died in Italy since the middle of the seventeenth century and seemed to Joyce to have died in Ireland with Parnell. On the other hand, Joyce’ fatalism seems to have a different inspiration and one that does not appear obviously to be in his favour. Vico had no stimulus to imagine the positive possibilities in working class militancy. Joyce was a self-proclaimed Socialist (one of his unfulfilled schemes was to translate into Italian Oscar Wilde’s Soul of Man Under Socialism) as well as an Irish nationalist, yet, in Ulysses, the mass of Irish workers are marginalised. Of course, there are the ‘Sirens’, there are Skin-the-Goat and the sailor in his shelter and there are assorted waiters, barmen and shop assistants. Against this is the fact that Leopold Bloom can walk along Sir John Rogerson’s Quay without ever meeting a dockworker. J.P.Nannetti was recognised as a labour as well as an Home Rule representative, but this is not apparent from Joyce. The only Socialists mentioned (apart, perhaps from Bloom) are the exiled Patrice Egan and (and he may be someone else of the same name) Fred Ryan. Dublin of 1904 was under-developed economically, but it was not under-developed that much.

The excuse for this would seem to be that, unlike Vico, Joyce was reflecting rather than analysing reality. His picture of the possibilities for change was justified pragmatically by the withdrawal of the workers’ movement from the national struggle after 1916. It is unlikely that he anticipated this either on Bloomsday itself or when he was planning to immortalise it. More probably, as he wrote Ulysses he saw this failure from afar and was affected by it. The real criticism of his treatment of it is that it is one of omission, through avoiding, rather than revealing the class issue. The result is to confirm Vico’s concept of a circular unchanging history.

Actually, Joyce is enough of a Socialist and Irish nationalist not to accept this. the apparently negative attitudes displayed by himself directly or through his characters are quite reconcilable with this.  Stephen Dedalus’ refusal to sign McCann’s (Skeffington’s) petition supporting the Tsar’s appeal for world peace in Portrait of the Artist is arguably either ultra-left or just irresponsible, since the greater the demand for world peace the better.  It should be said too, however, that McCann’s initiative was utopian; the Tsar is himself a major disrupter of world peace just by being Tsar. Bloom’s horrified vision of communal eating places shows a repulsion against the pseudo-Socialism that would be attempted in Ceausescu’s Romania and North Korea; his horror would have been shared by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Connolly. Finally, Joyce’ hostility to Russell and the ‘pig’s paper’ can be justified politically by the fact that Russell’s co-operatives had little immediate relevance beyond the medium farmers.

Joyce is neither neutral nor hostile to humanity’s attempt to progress. As Stephen, he proclaims his mission to forge his race’ consciousness. His critique, ‘Ireland my own dear native land where God and Caesar go hand in hand’ describes the future twenty-six county state so accurately that it tends to be forgotten that the Caesar concerned was King Edward VII. In Trieste, self-exiled from the British empire, he praised that of Austria. (Perhaps had he lived more than five months in Pula in the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary, he would have been less appreciative.

Unlike Yeats, too, his nationalism does not look backward to any Golden Age that never was nor ever could have been. If the windbag Unionist Garrett Deasy and ‘William Humble, Earl of Dudley’, the Lord Lieutenant are portrayed satirically, so, too, are the nationalist intelligentsia in the Freeman’s Journal and the boozers in Barney Kernan’s. All look backwards in their politics and, in Lord Dudley’s case simply in his position. The two obsoletes are brought together in ‘Wandering Rocks’ when Tom Kernan breaks off his rendition of ‘The Croppy Boy’ in order to make a futile attempt to catch the eye of the Lord Lieutenant.

 Joyce believes that it is possible to escape from Vico’s cycle, but his time, place and class prevent him discovering it for himself. He can only observe the failures of others and try, for his own part, to forge his race’s consciousness undiverted by his contemporaries. Instead of using history for his purpose, he rails against it. Stephen tells Deasy: ’History is an illusion from which I am trying to awaken’. He has to conclude that contemporary life is as good as it gets, whilst hoping against hope that he can help make it better. In Finnegan’s Wake he might be considered reconciled to Vico, but he will never quite abandon the present.

So, what does Joyce think of Dublin in 1904, and how does his vision cast light on the politics of his time? His approach is not Socialist. His style, or various styles are not always realistic. The content is another matter. Behind the styles and, indeed, beneath the apparent realism, Joyce presents a penetrating critique of the Irish revolution that occurred as he wrote, and, in particular of its failure to achieve its aims. 

He develops this through five characters; the Blooms and Stephen, of course but, also, Buck Mulligan and the Citizen. The four men represent realities antithetical to different aspects of each other. Molly may be described as the potential synthesis.

Her husband, Leopold Bloom is the novel’s hero. He is a social reasonable being, an  Irish nationalist, the nearest thing to a Socialist of any of the participants, the only man amongst them who is shown to be looking to the political future (In fact, of course, Russell did, too, but that side of him is not shown here.). At the same time, he is isolated. His very reasonableness and foresight are held against him by his contemporaries who are happy to sail in the shadows of the past. His outspokenness for truth and efficiency has led to him losing several jobs and, in the timescale of the novel to his being the victim of a bungled assault. That he is not quite accepted is explained away by the fact of his Jewish (and Jewish-Hungarian, at that) background, though he is himself assimilated. His crowning weakness is that he is unable to make love to his wife and has to leave her to seek satisfaction from Blazes Boylan. In the end, he gets satisfaction only from minor achievements (most notably his retort to the Citizen) and anticipates the rather dubious prospect of another (the Keyes advert). 

Joyce sees this situation as the best that Ireland can offer, which was certainly close to the reality in 1904. There is a cloud in the political sky in the shape of the off-stage presence of Arthur Griffith but that cloud is no bigger than a man’s hand. In any case, it is clear that Joyce expects little from it, even as he observed the Irish revolution while he wrote. He was correct, too; Bloom’s dream of a tramline from the cattle market down North Circular Road to the docks would never see the light of day.

The other major character is, of course, Joyce himself masquerading as Stephen Dedalus. It is recognised generally that Stephen is not very likeable. He retains the disagreeable qualities of adolescence. He is under pressure, it is true, from Mulligan and Haines, even if Bloom’s suspicion that they drugged him is discounted (Clearly Stephen’s mixture of alcoholic drinks on an empty stomach explains adequately his acts and experiences in Nighttown.). Nonetheless he reacts to this with a mixture of acquiescence and resentment which does not benefit him in the slightest, but which does allow Mulligan to justify his sponging off him. He shows off his learning to no purpose. He throws away the chances of using his talents profitably. He drinks like fish. Unlike Bloom’s, his wanderings are purposeless and can be compared only peripherally to those of the classical Telemachus, son of Ulysses. There is a suggestion that, like Telemachus, he is searching for his parent, or, at least, a substitute, yet this theme is overshadowed by his actions and by the fact that, when he meets a father-figure far superior to the original, in Bloom, he rejects him. All in all, it is quite understandable that Mulligan’s aunt should fear his influence on her dear Malachi.

Stephen’s saving grace is that he knows himself. He recognises his weaknesses as much as everyone else, but shares only with Bloom and the Englishman, Haines,  a recognition of his greater potential. Though he is sinking into the pub culture of 1904 Dublin, he is determined to escape. The only means he can see is by escaping from the city once again, not to London, like so many genii of the generation before him, but  (like Joyce himself) to Paris or places further east. This justifies his rejection of Bloom’s offer of lodging and surrogate paternity.

The amicable but decisive inability of Stephen and Bloom to come together is more than just a matter of personal choice. It represents Stephen/Joyce’ recognition of the inadequate prospects for the political struggle of his nation. Only literature, his literature can save it. Again, it is notable that this analysis seems to involve an ignorance of working class politics. This can be explained by reference to ’Ivy Day in the Committee Room’, with Nationalist and Unionist uniting to do down the Socialist. It points, too, once again to the historic structural inability of a Labour movement much strengthened since 1904 to advance beyond Connolly and take over Ireland’s independence struggle.

If Bloom and Dedalus have antithetic positions, each can be said to have another antithesis on his other side. Buck Mulligan and the Citizen have been identified respectively as Oliver St John Gogarty and the founder of the G.A.A., Michael Cusack, neither are named as such. This contrasts with the treatment of such peripheral figures as J.P.Nannetti, Russell, Fr.Conmee, George Lidwell and Skin-the-Goat. Of course, Buck and Citizen are more important to the story than those others, yet that would not seem to justify their fictionalisation. One reason for it may be the libel laws. This argument would seem to be negated by two facts. On the one hand, some of those named were still alive when Ulysses was published. On the other, Cusack had died before it was started, whilst it was not long after its publication that literate Dublin had identified Mulligan, author of ‘The Ballad of Jesting Jesus’ with the new Saorstat Senator. The reason for the pseudonyms would seem to go deeper. Mulligan and the Citizen are caricatures: personifications of the negative aspects of the positions taken by Stephen and Leopold.  They are the actual Scylla and Charybdis that the pair must avoid.

Certainly, Oliver Gogarty would have had a case had he sued Joyce for libel. That he did not do so may reflect his generous spirit or, more likely a shortage of resources; he must have suspected that, even if successful, he would have to foot the bill. Nonetheless, it is not necessary to admire him too greatly to admit that he was defamed. Only a single sentence each is given Malachi Mulligan’s surgical talents and his social consciousness.. Two sentences mention his courage in saving potential drowning victims. All thes well-known characteristics of Gogarty are played down to emphasise a diabolic characterisation. Though charming, Mulligan is callous, conceited, psychophantic, envious of Stephen’s talents, ready to belittle him, indeed framing him for fouling J.M.Synge’s doorstep, while pretending friendship the better to sponge off him. His undoubted talent is used to show off his own cleverness rather than to advance a serious goal like Stephen’s. He is, in fact, what Stephen might become if he sacrifices his vocation for material gain, popular applause and invitations to George Russell’s At Homes.

 In the same way, the Citizen caricatures Michael Cusack. Cusack liked to be called ‘Citizen’ and he did draught the Rules of the G.A.A., but it is not recorded that he grabbed a farm at Shanagolden, Co.Tipperary (He was a Co.Clare man.), nor that he was more than notably anti-semitic. (Admittedly, anti-semitism was then more widespread than today.) Indeed, as Gerald Goldberg noted some years ago, Bloom’s hero, Arthur Griffith, was far more bigoted, as was Mulligan’ s alter ego, Gogarty. However, just as Mulligan is Stephen’s materialist tempter, so the Citizen reflects what Leopold Bloom might become, from what, indeed, he is saved, in part, by his alienness: a negative, backward-looking, xenophobic chauvinist, ready to proclaim ‘Sinn Fein Amhann’ only to denounce as foreign the strategy of Sinn Fein without offering any alternative. Probably, Joyce gave this creation features that could be associated with Michael Cusack  because in 1904 Cusack was leading the struggle to ban players of non-Irish games from the G.A.A., which Joyce (and Bloom) would have seen as narrow and stupid.

There remains one more symbolic figure central to this novel. Molly Bloom is a relatively minor figure until the last chapter. It has made her, for more than a quarter-century, something of a feminist icon. Certainly she goes further than most women of her time in getting her way without reference to her husband. On the other hand, her conduct would not be applauded by such feminist contemporaries as Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington or Constance Markievicz. This is not so much because of her sexual adventurousness as because she has no public spirit and tends to dislike her sisters more than her brothers. If she lives to get the vote (there are hints that she won’t.), she is unlikely to use it. Her liaison with Boylan is inspired less by personal affection she seem to like her lover less than her husband does), than by the need for a substitute for Poldie’s abandoned sex and hopes of gifts.

Joyce’ achievement is to turn this rather unhappy wife of a personally inadequate if progressive Irish nationalist into a metaphor. Molly is contemporary Irelandunsatisfied by those who should be defending her and surrendering to the pressures of an usurping power. Her dark colouring and her background in Gibraltar on the Iberian peninsular identify her with Mangan’s dark Rosaleen. At the end of her soliloquy, she plans to seduce her husband, in a parallel to the events of the twentieth century’s second decade that created the chance to break from the Bloomsday torpor.

Joyce recognises that this chance will be stifled. Stephen will have turned his back on it. Though Joyce recognises that the nationalists alone cannot liberate their country, he concludes that their work can be completed only by a literature equivalent to the modern work of contemporary Europe. A more class-conscious author might see matters differently, but Joyce can see only the labour movement’s failure to fill the breach.

For all that this formally anti-political writer produced a negative fictional analysis of the Irish national revolution with greater understanding than most of his more openly committed contemporaries.



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