In the summer of 2004—the centenary of Bloomsday—the James Joyce International Symposium will once again convene in Dublin, the city of the writers birth and the scene of all his fiction. In this article I want to consider the Irish response to the first such meeting back in 1967, a central index to which was the tone and substance of a volume entitled A Bash in the Tunnel: James Joyce by the Irish (1970), edited by the literary publican John Ryan and incorporating articles that Brian Nolan (aka—and henceforth—Flann OBrien), Patrick Kavanagh, Denis Johnston and others had contributed to a James Joyce Special Issue of Envoy which Ryan had earlier published in April 1951. Thrown together in a frankly derisory manner by OBrien in his capacity as guest-editor, that issue had consisted of seven pieces starting with an openly contemptuous Editorial Note which was directly followed by Kavanaghs well-known squib Who Killed James Joyce?: I, said the commentator, / I killed James Joyce […] The weapon that was used / Was a Harvard thesis. For the rest, the issue gathered essays by John Garvin (Andrew Cass) and Niall Montgomery together with a memoir by Joseph Hone and a note on the classical sources of Ulysses by W. B. Stanford before closing with Kavanaghs fugitive thoughts about the novelist in a little Diary—though hardly that very thing itself. In 1970 (four years after OBrians death), the number was greatly augmented by additions from Eoin OMahony, Monk Gibbon, Benedict Kiely, John Jordan, Aidan Higgins, Bernard Share, Francis Harvey, Ulick OConnor, J. B. Lyons, Patrick Boyle, Edna OBrien and John Montague (a poem) as well as reprinted passages from writings on Joyce by Samuel Beckett, Thomas McGreevy, Stanislaus Joyce, Arthur Power and J. F. Byrne along with a selection of obituary notices.
The pervasive temper of the Special Issue is exemplified by Denis Johnstons Short View of the Progress of Joyceanity which centrally takes the form of a defence of Oliver St. John Gogartys notorious tirades against Joyce in 1939 and 1941. In it Johnston draws upon his own period of academic bondage to pour scorn on [t]he intensity with which Joyces work is being studied in these United States before launching into an account of the earlier fracas: Gogarty [struck] an assassins blow at an important industry […]. Need I say that the reaction was catastrophic! It was as if [he] had deliberately belched at Mass. While Johnston was the son of a Presbyterian judge and Gogarty a Catholic both were upper-middle and there is more than a trace of complicity in the formers defence of what Edna OBrien has recently called the loathsome revenge of the model for Buck Mulligan in Ulysses. Not stopping there, Johnston advances a full-blown critique of Joyce himself —an early hanger-on whom Gogarty had never liked anyway—arguing that [t]here is actually no reason why the legacy of Dedalism to the world should be of very great weight once it has been discovered since it is only a coincidence when those who have the supreme gift of self-expression in any of the arts have got anything startling to express. Moreover, Joyce says little or nothing about himself, and seems to have directed all his contemporary biographers away from the real facts of his life to a lot of dreary rows with Maunsell & Co. He even goes so far as to delete the chapter headings from his work, so as to make us find them out for ourselves. A low trick.
Johnston is ultimately less concerned with the character of Joyces writings than with the fact that American students are being taught to regard him as a literary evangel: They are being told that Mr. Bloom is a Scapegoat, bearing on his shoulders the sins of the human race, and they are well out now on a limb of the Golden Bough, looking for anything else that can be found with whiskers and horns. He is equally scornful of symbolic discoveries associated with Finnegans Wake, to wit that Liffey is female, while Howth Head is definitely male and that in the world of dreams, all time happens at once. Brushing aside the forced parallels from history or mythology that formed the staple of Joyces art as the world understood it in the 1950s, he finally identifies his greatest sin as an unabashed confusion of the subjective with the objective that makes it impossible to distinguish between the authors observation of his hero, the heros observation of his past, or the readers observation of any of them. This comes oddly from the author of The Old Lady Says No!, a play founded on precisely such a confusion—a sort of lower-case Walpurgisnacht in the pattern of Joyces Nighttown. There is a discernible air of disappointment at the antics of Protestant America in his final objection to the exalted place that Ulysses has assumed in the post-war Anglo-American canon: there is an air of unreality about all the explanations that reminds me irresistibly of a commentary on the liturgy, and not of literary criticism at all.
What incensed the Envoy writers as a class was Joyces success in gulling the commentators in regard to his own character as an escapee from the spiritual paralysis of life in Ireland. Clearly he had sold Herbert Gorman a pup in priming him for the first biography of 1944. Richard Ellmanns far more circumspect study would not appear for almost a decade after the date when the Irish made their retaliatory strike; yet, though it effectively demolished the excesses of biographical credulity and symbol-hunting, the anti-nationalist convictions attributed to the novelist remained essentially the same. The peculiar irony was that Ellmanns book had been maliciously infected by distortions arising from a practical joke that the Dublin clique played on Maria Jolas shortly before the appearance of the EnvoysSpecial Issue. This took the form of a spurious interview with John Stanislaus Joyce that OBrien had magicked into the Joyce Papers which she published in the Joyce Yearbook for 1949, later boasting to John Kelleher that he himself was the author of such sentences as: The Turkish bath came into my mind and there I went after having any Gods quantity of champagne. Oh dear, dear God, those were great times.
In 1983 Hugh Kenner placed a chapter of caveats in front of A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, observing that the interview is cited in four footnotes to Ellmanns standard biography of Joyce. More pertinently perhaps, he himself had substantially reproduced the phoney monologue in his own groundbreaking Dublins Joyce (1955), where he called it the stenographic report of an unidentified interviewer, citing Jolass Yearbook as his immediate source. No wonder that he calls OBrien the greatest virtuoso of the Irish Fact, in support of which he quoted an interview with Time Magazine for August 1943 where OBrien professes to have made a quick visit to Germany in 1933, married the violin-playing daughter of a basket-weaver who died shortly afterwards (the daughter, that is) before immersing himself in matters of state back in Éire, where he never talks about his tragic loss excepting only in colloquy with the Time reporter. For better or worse, the interview coincided with the period when OBrien was reeling from the blow struck to his literary pride by the rejection of The Third Policeman. Clearly was more than usually disposed to pull the legs of visiting Joyceans—albeit in 1939 he had displayed a form of pathetic self-abasement in his correspondence with the American writer William Saroyan: I guess it [At Swim-Two-Birds] is a bum book anyhow. I am writing a very funny book now about bicycles and policemen and I think it will be perhaps good and early a little money quietly.
Kenners Warning against the falsity of Irish literary witness raised critical hackles to a considerable height in Ireland, arriving as it did at a moment when the intellectual climate had undergone a sea-change since his last significant intervention. These were due to the operation of several factors of historical moment: the advent of television, the inauguration of the Economic Development Programme of 1958, membership of the European Union and the arrival of the Northern Ireland Crisis—all tending to raise consciousness in different if related ways. The world from which the Envoy Special Issue sprang now seemed very remote from contemporary Irish experience (remoter, at least, than its America after-image) and the ambiguous homage that Kenner had earlier lavished on the Irish mind was less acceptable than before:
The sternest rebuke to all of this came from Seamus Deane in his Field Day pamphlet of 1984:
That is, indeed, what Kenner argued in several places, and also what the Envoy contributors implied when they asserted that they alone were capable of understanding Joyce. At the same time, the majority of their essays are clearly inspired by uneasiness at the long shadow that he had cast over the cultural landscape they inhabited. In addition there was the anxiety of influence that Seamus Deane has justly discerned in Flann OBriens relation to the older writer, calling it one of the most astonishing examples of the syndrome originally identified by Harold Bloom. If, on one occasion, this took shape in The Dalkey Archive (1964) where Joyce appears as a publicans curate, on another it took the form of the remark with which OBrien shocked Samuel Beckett: What was Joyce but a refurbisher of skivvies stories? It was Niall Montgomery, according to Anthony Cronin, who worked out the solution to the Joyce-problem which OBrien adopted. Montgomery, Cronin tells us, was a quick-eyed and quick-witted architectural student who[se] attitude to Joyce was obsessive but ambiguous in as much as he regarded Joyces works as an intellectual playground: esoteric, cabbalistic, logomachic while leaving out in so far as it can be left out, the human content and the compassionate purpose. It followed that Joyce and his challenge could be defused by making him a mere logomachic wordsmith, a great but demented genius who finally went mad in his ivory tower.
In his Editorial Note to the Envoy Special Issue, OBrien attempted a serious critique of Joyce in a few sentences only, sadly without arriving at anything worthy of the subject:
The rest of his contribution is given over the a bash in the tunnel—of which more in just a moment. In An Cruiskeen Lawn he returned to the offensive with a characteristic piece of pseudo-philological derision: James Joyce was illiterate […] his every foreign language quotation was incorrect while his few sallies at Greek are wrong, and his few attempts at a Gaelic phrase absolutely monstrous. Nowhere, in fact, did he praise Joyce: hence it is the novel At Swim-Two-Birds that constitutes his only tribute to the older writer.
Looking back at the Envoy Special Issue in 1970, John Ryan recounts the reason why he appointed OBrien guest editor with an unavoidable comparison that requires some wriggling out in view of: His own genius closely matched, without in any way resembling or attempting to counterfeit, Joyces. That said, if the mantle (or should we say the waistcoat?) were ever to be passed on, nobody would be half so deserving of it as the man who, under his other guises as Flan [sic] OBrien and Myles na gCopaleen, proved himself intestably [sic] to be the most creative writer and mordant wit that Ireland has given us since Shem the Penman himself. In augmenting the Envoy with commissioned and reprinted pieces, Ryan takes his title from the specimen of literary guff that OBrien had proffered as prefatory remarks to the Special Issue. Therein he tells of a man, the son of a catering-supplier to Coras Iompair Éireann (as it then was) who locks himself in a dining-car that gets shunted into a tunnel adjacent to Kingsbridge (now Heuston) Station where obscurity and the lack of a wristwatch causes him to lose track of time with dire consequences for the state of his liver. OBrien asks us to consider: Funny? But surely there you have the Irish artist? Sitting fully dressed, innerly locked in the toilet of a locked coach […] drinking somebody elses whiskey, being whisked hither and thither by anonymous shunters, keeping fastidiously the while on the outer face of his door the simple word ENGAGED! And he concludes: I think the image fits Joyce, but particularly in his manifestation of a most Irish characteristic—the transgressors resentment of the nongressor. The least that can be said about this preface is that the editor is unsure whether to play the part of ringmaster or clown.
Next up was Patrick Kavanagh with his spiteful poem. Particularly witty are the sectarian remarks about W. R. Rodgers, poet and BBC-man whose baptism certificate evidently disqualifies him from uttering the nunc dimittis: Who said the burial prayers? - / Please do not hurt me - / Joyce was no Protestant, / Surely not Bertie? Kavanaghs earnest opinion of Joyce is inscribed more largely in his Diary at the end of the issue—the two pieces acting like book-ends suggesting an editorial consistency that OBriens introduction notably fails to convey on its own account. Kavanagh first establishes his credentials (or the lack of them) as a Joyce-reader:
The remainder of his essay—barely more than jottings—combines antipathy to transatlantic critics (There is nothing wrong with Joyce … it is his commentators who are mad) with an attempt to enlist the Joyce to his own banner of literary parochialism. This leads, somewhat oddly, to the eccentric estimate of Ulysses based on a misunderstanding of the relation between realism and expression in his developing art: Ulysses […] is almost entirely a transcription of life. Joyce added nothing—except possibly Stephen, and he gave us Stephen completely in the Portrait. […]. The Portrait of the Artist is Joyces testament. In this scheme of things, Finnegans Wake represents the reductio ad absurdum of its authors always-limited genius: What I am trying to say is that Joyce has little, or none, of that ethereal commodity known as inspiration. He is the very clever cynical man who has found a formula. […] Finnegans Wake is the delirium of a man with no more to say. He has melted down the matrix.
There being nothing more to add in the way of literary criticism, Kavanagh now turns to a more material aspect of the question: I am constantly reminded of the number of writers who achieve the depths of hells despair simply because they happened to get a woman without spondulecs. If Joyce had had a thousand a year would he have written Ulysses as he did? (The fact is that he did have a thousand a year during much of the composition of Ulysses.) Kavanaghs visitation of the question of Catholic influence is remarkable for its counter-reformational ardour: Almost the most outstanding quality in Joyce is his Catholicism or rather his anti-Protestantism. Joyce, through Stephen, in the Portrait, must have done more damage to Protestantism than any modern apologist. The argument is not, of course, without its problems since, as everybody knows, Joyce abandoned Catholic orthodoxy—yet, if reason made him a bad Catholic […] whatever the defects of Catholicism, he saw that Protestantism was a compendium of all those defects, Kavanagh tells us. It is probable that what he intended by these remarks was little more than a snub to the predominantly Protestant critical consensus that embraced James Joyce as a literary modernist.
At the centre of the Envoy Special Issue in point of scholarly weight stands a pseudonymic essay entitled Childe Horrids Pigrimace by John Garvin, the Wexford-born Dublin City Commissioner who had earlier established a reputation for expertise in matters Joycean with an article concerning which Hugh Kenner had this to say in the acknowledgements to his own Dublins Joyce (1955): The material on De Valera in Finnegans Wake owes its inception to the work of Mr. Andrew Cass who staked a modest claim on this lode in The Irish Times for April 26, 1947. The view of A Portrait of the Artist offered here only differs from that of contemporary reviewers in the Irish press by virtue of the popular psychology with which Garvin colours his disapprobation:
A verdict follows: As Joyce himself said, all this stuff was boiling inside him and he had to get it out of his system, but it is a pity that he did not rid himself of it quickly. About Ulysses Garvin has no better opinion: […] its interminable trimmings and its stuffed Odysseus promoted from a short story to balance the pretentious epic of Telemachus, enabled Joyce to get off his chest a great deal of juvenile resentments and self-pity. Harsh things are likewise said about the formal technique of Penelope: The omission of punctuation marks is a mere trick designed to hide the fact that a great deal of the alleged run-on thinking is in fact nothing more than a characteristic piece of pungent Joyce prose. Like Patrick Kavanagh and Gogarty before him, Garvin is not one to be gulled by the experimentalism of Finnegans Wake, for which he finds this explanation: Ulysses demonstrated the authors inability to give forthright expression to his own mature personality. […] He, therefore, wanted a medium of expression in which he could give vent to his Irish memories, be obliquely autobiographical and at the same time epitomise himself as the all-wisest [sic] Stagyrite [Aristotle].
Yet, after all these damning judgements have been made, Garvin is still intent on demonstrating that Ireland is the real Joyce country, the primary scene and source of inspiration for Finnegans Wake, and no other work in the English language has the Irish accent ever been so authentically reproduced.
That lyrical outburst, with its unintentional resemblance to the Citizens effusions in the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses, is indicative of an implacable desire to reduce the Joycean text to the conventional order of nationalist enthusiasm: pro patria and possibly pro deo. From such a standpoint the inspiration of Joyces mature writings is plain: He could play with the idea of an alternative lifes history for himself had he stayed at home in 1904 and participated in the developments which by the time Ulysses was published had crystallised in a new Ireland and a new concept of national identity. If crystal-gazing is still in vogue, one might suggest that over-activity of the patriotic thyroid is responsible for that counterfactual assertion.
There is much unconscious comedy in A Bash in the Tunnel such as, for instance, Bernard Shares insistence that it would be useless for the tourist boys to hope to interest the visiting Joyceman in the current beauties of the capital, the concrete boxes, the OConnell Street ice-cream parlours, the parking meters. They have no need to look at Dublin: They know it from Dubliners and Ulysses, and they know that nothing can possibly change it. Other contributors include Monk Gibbon who has angry things to say on behalf of an unnamed collectivity: [Joyce] excites in some of us a fundamental antipathy, like that of a man who cannot stop telling us about the dog-dirt on his boots. The reason for this reaction is not hard to find: platonic attachment was a state of mind peculiarly close to Gibbons heart. Elsewhere he complained: We have passed onto an age when only the primal urge is acceptable as a valid explanation of even the most sublimated personal attachment. But there are good things here also, notably Benedict Kielys warm-hearted celebration of Joyce as a national treasure and Edna OBriens rhapsodic answer to the spiritual call of his art: Towards the end of his life there came a thaw, a burstingness. He was famous then. […] He had achieved monumence both in his work and in his being [...] It is hard not to want to believe in immortality, considering the death of Mr. Joyce.
What might be said of the Envoy Special Issue and its sequel, excepting isolated enthusiasms like those above, is that they represent a moment when the expropriation of Joyces Dublin triggered apoplectic irritation on the part of its living literary denizens. In 1950 it might have seemed sufficient to inveigh against gullible foreigners. In 1970 the position had been transformed by the comprehensive verdict on moral life in Ireland that Richard Ellmanns great biography had bestowed on Joyce studies in 1959. In The Consciousness of James Joyce (1977) he summarised that verdict:
While neither Ryan nor any other contributor to A Bash in the Tunnel attempted to defend the Irish nationalist tradition so described in any systematic way, none saw fit to desist from critic-bashing in the belligerent style of the Envoy writers either. To call this a lost opportunity is to underestimate the predicament facing the Irish writers. Lacking a distinctive intellectual discourse with which to challenge the liberal-humanist consensus—as later Irish critics have so successfully done with the aid of postcolonial theory—they simply carped (the gadfly in barflys clothing). It remains a pity that they did seek in Joyces works an explanation for their own confusions at the same time as they berated transatlantic Joyceans for their inevitable failings.