Frank Callanan, ‘Why Joyce, the “bohemian aesthete”, was also a political controversialist’, in The Irish Times (22 Jan. 2011), Weekend Sect.

[ Bibliographical note: available online - accessed 03.02.2010; based on an essay in Dublin James Joyce Journal, 3, ed. Luca Crispi & Anne Fogarty, No. 1 (James Joyce Research Centre at UCD in association with the National Library of Ireland Jan. 2011).]

Almost a decade ago the National Library of Ireland acquired, as part of the Joyce Papers 2002, James Joyce’s Paris-Pola commonplace book. This had disappeared since it was cited by Herbert Gorman in his James Joyce: A Definitive Biography  (1941).

It had also been erroneously supposed to comprise two distinct notebooks. Visitors to the magnificent exhibition James Joyce and Ulysses  at the National Library of Ireland, which ran from June 2004 to May 2006, could view a touch-screen image of the notebook (which is currently again on electronic display). The most mysterious and evocative entries are two lists of books on Irish subjects written out in Joyce’s hand.

Some time later, for a study of Joyce’s relationship to nationalism, I came upon two lists of books in Arthur Griffith’s United Irishman  for suggested use in Irish rural libraries: the issue of March 7th, 1903, contained a list of books in English; there followed a list of Irish-language texts in that of April 4th, 1903. On the off chance that these might bear some relation to Joyce’s lists, I photocopied them and folded them away. I made my way some months ago to the manuscript room of the National Library to compare the photocopies with the digital scans of the lists in the Paris-Pola notebook. Joyce had transcribed virtually all of the first United Irishman list and selected some of the titles from the second.

James Joyce had graduated from University College Dublin in September 1902 and was in Paris from December 3rd to 22nd that year, on the risible pretext of studying medicine at the Sorbonne. After an extended Christmas in Dublin, Joyce was back in Paris from January 17th to April 10th, 1903, impecunious and undernourished, at the Hôtel Corneille, a now-vanished Irish lieu de mémoire  in Paris, on Rue Corneille, flanking the Théâtre de l’Odéon. His sudden return to Dublin was brought about by the last illness of his mother. May Joyce lingered, dying on August 13th, 1903. Joyce thereafter remained in Dublin until he left on October 8th, 1904, with Nora Barnacle to commence what transpired to be a lifelong exile from Ireland.

The intrinsic significance of Joyce’s transcription of the two United Irishman  lists will be a subject of debate. Its extrinsic significance is the proof it affords that Joyce was reading the United Irishman  at the time he was in Paris and that he was not drawn to the paper solely by reason of its political content. It bears out the recollection of Joyce’s brother Stanislaus that Joyce had declared that “the United Irishman  was the only paper in Dublin worth reading, and in fact he read it every week”.

The United Irishman, published 1899-1906, was a brilliant journalistic venture with a tiny circulation. In politics it anticipated the programme of Sinn Féin, and was implacably opposed to John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party. What was distinctive in the conception of the United Irishman  was that its content was not exclusively political. It engaged with the literary revival (though Griffith fell out with W. B. Yeats early on), and the paper was crammed with literary, mythological, antiquarian and historical material relating to Ireland.

The paper was a collaborative venture between Griffith, who edited it, and his contemporary William Rooney. Rooney was persuaded that political nationalism without the revival of the Irish language was meaningless, if not pernicious, and wrote prolifically on the subject in the United Irishman. Griffith loved and deferred to Rooney, without sharing his insistence on the revival of Irish. Going back to his support of Parnell in the split of 1890-91, Griffith had a serious political head. The United Irishman was a skilful composite of the divergent thinking of Griffith and Rooney. It is unlikely that Joyce, who was drawn to Griffith’s political nationalism but highly suspicious of the ideology of the language revival, failed to discern the latent fault line in the paper.

Rooney died on May 6th, 1901, at the age of 28. Griffith, so distraught he was hospitalised himself, presided at a meeting convened in the waiting room of Glasnevin Cemetery after Rooney’s interment at which it was resolved to raise a memorial over his grave and to publish his writings. The publication the following year of Rooney’s Poems and Ballads could scarcely have stood in a more proximate relationship to the funerary.

The first book review that Joyce published was of Rooney’s poems. Dispatched from Paris at the start of Joyce’s first sojourn, it was published in the Daily Express, a Dublin unionist paper, on December 11th, 1902. “An Irish Poet” was exquisitely scathing. Although the review is generally considered a self-consciously aesthetic exercise, there are overt traces of the political: the opening statement is that these verses by a writer “lately dead” are “issued from headquarters”. Joyce’s brilliant situating of Rooney’s lame and derivative verse within the canon of 19th-century Irish verse enacts an argument that is political as well as artistic.

It is a single phrase that affords a fleeting glimpse of Joyce as a nationalist intellectual as well as an artist: “Even Mr. T. D. Sullivan and Mr. Rolleston have done something in the making of this book.” Sullivan was a kinsman of T. M. Healy, a writer of nationalistic verse, and an anti-Parnellite parliamentarian. The reference to Sullivan was likely to have irked Griffith, but that to Rolleston was of a quite different order. Thomas William Hazen Rolleston (1857-1920) was an intellectual and minor poet. He had published a pro-empire pamphlet in 1901, and came thereby to be reviled by Griffith as an apostate. Griffith’s denunciations of Rolleston in the contemporary United Irishman  were unceasing. The equation of Rooney with Rolleston was a stunning affront to Griffith. Contextualising the hugely provocative reference to Rolleston reinstates a lost Joyce, between University College and exile, casually expert in, and engaged with, contemporary Irish political and cultural controversy, and shifts the conventional biographical paradigm of the Joyce of 1902-04 as a somewhat dissolute bohemian aesthete.

Griffith’s initial response to a seemingly vicious review of the verse of his friend Rooney, “lately dead”, published in a unionist paper, can only have been apoplectic. What must have struck Griffith as odd was the connoisseurship of contemporary nationalism and cultural politics it evinced. The review was anonymous. Griffith’s inquiries would have quickly established that its author was James Joyce; that he was a brilliant disaffected graduate of University College, of Catholic nationalist stock, the son of a colourful Dublin character; that he was anti-clerical but ostensibly politically disengaged, and certainly not a unionist. Griffith in fact probably knew Joyce by sight, but not by name, from the National Library, which they both frequented.

This was a markedly different face to that which Joyce had presented at University College, but one that was still masked. The only person whom Joyce intended to see completely through the mask was Griffith, the principal addressee of the review. It stands as a calling card by which he was bringing himself to Griffith’s attention. In this respect it is the last in a suite of introductions to Dublin literary figures on which Joyce had remarked as his time at University College drew to its close, commencing with George Russell in August and proceeding to its celebrated culmination with Yeats in early October. Joyce knew the review was wounding but saw no reason why Griffith should not on reflection have been impressed; if not, tant pis. All of the Joyce of 1902-04 is present in this: fierce independence, intellectual grace and lucidity, pride and playfulness, and a heart-breaking fortitude that seemed to many of his contemporaries indistinguishable from fecklessness.


Griffith’s published response to Joyce’s review was adroitly measured. The United Irishman  of December 20th, 1902, which Joyce would have seen on his return to Dublin for Christmas, carried an advertisement for Rooney’s book that collated all of Joyce’s strictures on Rooney that Griffith deemed anti-national. There was a single editorial interpolation in parentheses in the last sentence of Joyce’s review that was cited: “And yet he might have written well if he had not suffered from one of those big words [patriotism] which make us so unhappy.”

Griffith was mortally offended. Although he was to assist Joyce in the struggle with George Roberts over the publication of Dubliners, he never forgave him the attack on Rooney. As Padraic Colum wrote, “the young man who had belittled his poems in a Unionist journal was, to Arthur Griffith, a man of sinister mind and intention.”

Joyce’s rendering down of the second United Irishman list makes clear that, although he had no interest in revivalism or contemporary writing in Irish, he had a considerable interest in the older works in the Irish language, principally the Irish myths, lives of saints and poetry, together with Geoffrey Keating’s History of Ireland, the Annals of the Four Masters and The Ancient Laws of Ireland. The lists written out laboriously in the notebook in Paris reflect a scoping exercise on Joyce’s part, a sizing-up and textual mapping of the subject of Ireland. / Griffith’s United Irishman was extremely important for Joyce, and left its mark on Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. His reading of the paper in Paris set the practice for the first decade of exile from October 1904, when the paper and its successor from 1906, Sinn Féin, sent from Dublin, became his main continuous journalistic source of intelligence on contemporary Ireland.

The engagement with Irish controversy 1902-04 that the Rooney review evidences is significant not just for our construction of Joyce but for his own later conceptualisation of his relationship to the Ireland he had left. His memories of Dublin were not topographically abstract but reflected a life fully lived, characterised by a preternatural sentience that extended to contemporary political and cultural controversy.

In the transcriptions from the United Irishman  Joyce stands on a cusp. He was patiently setting co-ordinates for the modernistic revolution in the treatment of the subject of Ireland in literature that he distantly contemplated. As of early 1903 he had no clear idea of what he was going to write. The first story of the collection that was to make up Dubliners, “The Sisters”, was not to be written until July 1904. Ulysses  and Finnegans Wake  lay far in the future.

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