A citizen’s defence for Bloomsday

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2008), News, Volume 16

Michael Cusack—ever since Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann pronounced that the character of the ‘Citizen’ in Ulysses was modelled on the GAA’s founder, the label ‘anti-Semite’ has tarnished Cusack’s reputation. (Multitext Project)

Michael Cusack—ever since Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann pronounced that the character of the ‘Citizen’ in Ulysses was modelled on the GAA’s founder, the label ‘anti-Semite’ has tarnished Cusack’s reputation. (Multitext Project)

Ever since James Joyce’s pioneering biographer Richard Ellmann pronounced that the character of the ‘Citizen’ in Joyce’s novel Ulysses was modelled on the Gaelic Athletic Association’s founder Michael Cusack, the label ‘anti-Semite’ has tarnished Cusack’s reputation. Two screen depictions of the ‘Citizen’ have been noteworthy—a particularly powerful performance by Geoffrey Golden in Joseph Strick’s 1967 film Ulysses, and the more recent performance by Patrick Bergin in Seán Walsh’s 2003 version Bl,.m (Bloom). It is, however, most unfortunate that, because of the prevailing ‘conventional wisdom’ regarding Cusack, far too many will have responded to such portrayals with an unthinking reflex that simply concludes: ‘GAA bigot!’
In Jewish Ireland in the age of Joyce (2006) Cormac Ó Gráda rightly declares from the outset:

‘James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom—the atheistic Everyman of Ulysses, son of a Hungarian Jewish father and an Irish Protestant mother—may have turned the world’s literary eyes on Dublin, but those who look to him for history should think again. He could hardly have been a product of the city’s bona fide Jewish community, where intermarriage with outsiders was rare and piety was pronounced.’

Yet the ‘Jewish question’ remains an essential feature of Ulysses. No accident that, since the novel is set in 1904, the year of the anti-Semitic agitation in Limerick. The contemporary writings of Arthur Griffith and Oliver St John Gogarty also provide ample evidence of an anti-Semitic strain among certain sections of Irish Catholic nationalism, which was nonetheless directly countered by both the Fenian tradition of John Daly and Michael Davitt and the socialist republican tradition of James Connolly and Fred Ryan. Furthermore, those unfamiliar with Joyce’s own text often overlook the fact that one of the most virulently anti-Semitic statements uttered on that first Bloomsday of 16 June 1904 did not emanate from any Catholic nationalist perspective whatsoever.
In an article entitled ‘When Irish eyes weren’t smiling’, for the June 2006 issue of the Journal of the Association of Jewish Refugees, an ill-informed Anthony Greenville pronounced:

‘The ninetieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, in the crucible of whose bloodstained suppression modern Irish nationalism was largely forged, raises the somewhat neglected subject of Irish attitudes to the Jews—neglected because Jews in Ireland were so few. In the most famous Irish text of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Mr Deasy asks Stephen Dedalus if he knows why Ireland has “the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews”, then answers his own question: “Because she never let them in”.’

Even in an article for the April 2007 issue of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, entitled ‘Hibernians versus Hebrews’, where Edward T. O’Donnell seeks to exonerate Irish America from the charge of anti-Semitism, that author nonetheless quotes Deasy as the prime literary example of what the author refers to as ‘Irish Catholic anti-Semitism’.

James Joyce—may have turned the world’s literary eyes on Dublin, but those who look to him for history should think again. (State University of New York, Buffalo)

James Joyce—may have turned the world’s literary eyes on Dublin, but those who look to him for history should think again. (State University of New York, Buffalo)

Those who go to the bother of actually reading Ulysses, however, will find that Deasy was the exact opposite of a Catholic nationalist. He was in fact an Orange Protestant Tory unionist, while the vibes that Joyce’s own persona, Stephen Dedalus, experienced coming from Deasy were no less chilling in their ‘Croppies lie down’ hatred of the ‘mere’ Catholic Irish than the anti-Semitic rantings to which Bloom was subjected by the ‘Citizen’. Furthermore, the Limerick anti-Semitic agitation of 1904 cannot be viewed in an isolated Irish context because the Irish self-government necessary to make a decision to either ‘let them in’ or ‘keep them out’ did not exist. Limerick must be seen against the backdrop of the wider UK anti-Semitic agitation that resulted in the Aliens Act of 1905. This was the crowning achievement of the lobbying campaign mounted by the British Brothers’ League, during which they expressed their full solidarity and support for the Redemptorist firebrand in Limerick, Fr John Creagh. But in keeping with the portrayal of Irish anti-Semitism as a purely Catholic nationalist phenomenon, it was rather disingenuous of the unionist polemicist Steven King, in the Irish Times of 14 March 2002, to contrast the Limerick ‘pogrom’ of 1904 with the election in that same year of a Jew, Sir Otto Jaffe, as lord mayor of Belfast. For King omitted to complete that particular story: how in 1916 Empire loyalist xenophobia would force Jaffe as a German-born Jew to resign from Belfast City Council and flee for his life from Ulster.
The British Brothers’ League was not the only political force to give its full support to Fr Creagh’s hate-filled sermons in Limerick. He was also backed to the hilt by Arthur Griffith’s United Irishman. And it was language characteristic of that propagandist organ that Joyce put into the mouth of the ‘Citizen’ when he stridently castigated Bloom: ‘We know these canters, says he, preaching and picking your pockets . . . By Jesus, I’ll brain that bloody Jewman.’ But who was the historical model for the ‘Citizen’? In ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in the Irish Times on 24 February 2007, where he paid well-deserved tribute to the sporting breadth of vision of the founder of the GAA, Michael Cusack, Kieran Fagan also went on to say that ‘James Joyce makes him a figure of fun, as the “Citizen” in Ulysses’. This erroneous identification of the ‘Citizen’ had its primary source in Richard Ellmann, who wrote in his James Joyce (1959) that ‘Joyce liked him [Cusack] little enough to make him the model for the narrow-minded and rhetorical Cyclops’. In his Selected letters of James Joyce (1975) Ellmann also made further reference to Cusack as ‘the militant nationalist whom Joyce called “the Citizen”’.
Ellmann’s contention was hotly contested by Cusack’s Irish-language biographer, Liam P. Ó Caithnia, in his Micheál Ciosóg (1982). As one-time superior of Coláiste Mhuire Christian Brothers’ School, an Bráthair Ó Caithnia was, of course, open to the ad hominem argument that, as a fíor Gael, ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he?’ But Ó Caithnia’s expertise in respect of both the form and the content of Cusack’s writings had led him to conclude that there was little in common with the language attributed by Joyce to the ‘Citizen’. He further argued: ‘However strong his [Cusack’s] loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church and to his ancestral heritage, there was not a trace of religious bigotry in his make-up’.
Simultaneously, an even more impressive witness had emerged to publicly defend Cusack’s reputation—the future Jewish lord mayor of Cork, Gerald Y. Goldberg. His article, ‘“Ireland is the only country”: Joyce and the Jewish dimension’, was published in The Crane Bag (1982). Goldberg correctly identifies the allegiance of one particular anti-Semitic character in Ulysses: ‘Mr Deasy, Orangeman, and Christian gentleman, mounts the back of his favourite horse and flogs it’. But Goldberg also went on to argue convincingly against the prevailing misidentification of another:

‘Those who regard Michael Cusack as the prototype of the character travel a road that leads to nowhere. “The Citizen” is a composite reconstruction by Joyce of thoughts and sentiments expressed from time to time by Griffith and Gogarty, through their respective writings. The voice may be the voice of Cusack, but the hands and the heads and the thoughts are those of Griffith and Gogarty.’

In truth, the founder of the GAA was no blooming anti-Semite! As we approach yet another Bloomsday, Michael Cusack is once more entitled to a citizen’s defence against any further Joycean slander.

Manus O’Riordan is Head of Research with SIPTU.

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