The age of Ulysses

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), Volume 12

The very first edition of Ulysses, Paris, 1922. (National Library of Ireland)

The very first edition of Ulysses, Paris, 1922. (National Library of Ireland)

Daniel Mulhall delves into Joyce’s classic novel and finds it teeming with figures from Irish history


History and literature are often intertwined. With the passage of time, all contemporary writing eventually becomes part of the historical record, although it must be read with care if it is to provide a helpful window on the past. Creative writers frequently delve into the past for inspiration. Their insights can enhance our appreciation of historical events. Irish examples include James Plunkett’s 1969 novel Strumpet city, which throws light on Dublin’s 1913 lock-out, and Liam O’Flaherty’s Famine, a fine fictionalised account of the Great Hunger of the 1840s, which was published in 1937.
Irish writers have helped us to put a shape on our past. Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’, especially its crucial couplet


‘All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born’,

has conditioned the way in which the Rising is viewed.

‘Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said’

Charles Stewart Parnell-in A portrait of the artist as a young man, the debate around the Christmas dinner table offers a memorable appreciation of the importance of the fall of Parnell in the fin de sií¨cle Irish political imagination. (Vanity Fair)

Charles Stewart Parnell-in A portrait of the artist as a young man, the debate around the Christmas dinner table offers a memorable appreciation of the importance of the fall of Parnell in the fin de sií¨cle Irish political imagination. (Vanity Fair)

posed a key question about the Rising decades before revisionist historians challenged the legacy of 1916. In A portrait of the artist as a young man, the debate around the Christmas dinner table about the competing claims of religion and nationalism offers a memorable appreciation of the importance of the fall of Parnell in the fin de siècle Irish political imagination.

In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus describes history as a nightmare. This observation derives from Joyce’s caustic response to the Ireland of his youth, whose Gaelic, Catholic and nationalist values he could not share. Joyce’s innate scepticism notwithstanding, the pages of Ulysses contain a compelling portrait of early twentieth-century Ireland, a time of innovation and intellectual energy that would help to shape Ireland’s subsequent history.

Many of Joyce’s characters have a strong sense of history. In the first chapter it is asserted that ‘history is to blame’ for England’s difficult relations with Ireland. Later, Stephen Dedalus gives a history lesson to his pupils and receives one from his unionist headmaster, Mr Deasy, who claims descent from a parliamentarian who voted for the Act of Union in 1800. Thanks to Joyce’s fondness for lists, Ulysses teems with Irish historical figures, from Brian Boru and Niall of the Nine Hostages to Captain Boycott and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.


Elsewhere, as the novel’s characters roam the streets of Dublin, there are references, in the space of a handful of pages, to a statue of Henry Grattan, to the absence at that time of a monument to Wolfe Tone, to the place where the sixteenth-century rebellion of Silken Thomas began, and to the site of Robert Emmett’s execution. The ‘age of Ulysses’ was a time when Irish history was a field of contention, but also a rich source of political and literary inspiration.


The Boer War



Major John McBride's stand with the Boers in combat reflected the sympathies of nationalist Ireland. Leopold Bloom predicted that protesting pro-Boer ‘silly billies' would be magistrates and civil servants within a few years. (George Morrison)

Major John McBride’s stand with the Boers in combat reflected the sympathies of nationalist Ireland. Leopold Bloom predicted that protesting pro-Boer ‘silly billies’ would be magistrates and civil servants within a few years. (George Morrison)

The first act of Ireland’s ‘age of Ulysses’ was played out in the unlikely setting of South Africa, where the Boer War was in full stride as the century turned. In the final months of 1899 Britain went to war with two South African republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and suffered a series of surprising and embarrassing military setbacks. The Boer War was an event of some significance in the history of the British Empire and of Irish nationalism. The spectacle of two small but determined states successfully challenging the might of empire had inevitable resonance in Ireland. Although some 30,000 Irishmen served in the British Army—led by an Irish general, Lord Frederick Roberts, who had been commander-in-chief of British forces in Ireland prior to his transfer to South Africa—the sympathies of many of their compatriots lay firmly with the Boers. Nationalist-controlled local authorities passed pro-Boer resolutions and there were proposals to confer civic honours on Boer leader Paul Kruger.

The pro-Boer movement in Ireland served to galvanise nationalist opinion. As one source puts it, the Boer War ‘was a catalyst in modern Irish history’ that ‘helped extend Irish horizons from narrow provincial nationalism to a mature, more developed national awareness’. The Boer cause was championed by Arthur Griffith and James Connolly, both of whom went on to play central roles in the evolution of nationalist politics. Major John McBride, who fought in the Transvaal, was executed for his part in the 1916 Rising. W. B. Yeats became involved with Maud Gonne in a scheme to secure Boer funding for a bombing campaign against British troop ships which, had it succeeded, would inevitably have killed and maimed many Irish-born soldiers.

The Boer War duly makes its appearance in Ulysses. Leopold Bloom’s recollection of the ructions that occurred when British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain visited Dublin in 1900 to receive an honorary degree from Trinity College reminds him of the inconstancy of youthful radicalism. Bloom remembers the marchers’ cheers for the Boers and their leaders and their condemnation of Chamberlain. He predicts that these protesting ‘silly billies’ will be magistrates and civil servants within a few years. Towards the close of the novel, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus have a conversation in the cab man’s shelter at Butt Bridge with ‘Skin-the-Goat’, who is reputed to have been a member of the Invincibles, responsible for assassinating the chief secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, in the Phoenix Park in 1882. The former Invincible views the war in South Africa as the beginning of the end for imperial England and expects that Ireland would bring about the Empire’s ultimate downfall. Such sentiments suggest that, while the war was a sort of apogée of the age of empire, considering the depth of imperial enthusiasm unleashed, for example, by the relief of Mafeking in 1900, it also exposed chinks in the armour of imperialism.

Despite the smallness of the Boer republics, the British had to employ draconian methods against them, including the internment of Boer families in specially constructed camps, a strategy devised by the Kerry-born general Herbert Kitchener.


Contemporary Dublin boasts a handsome Boer War memorial in the shape of the triumphal arch at the entrance to St Stephen’s Green opposite Grafton Street. It is doubtful if the many who daily pass under it appreciate its historical provenance.


Arthur Griffith and Sinn Féin

Portrait of the artist as a young man. (National Library of Ireland)

Portrait of the artist as a young man. (National Library of Ireland)

Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith is referred to several times in Ulysses. Joyce once observed that Griffith’s journal, The United Irishman (1899–1906), was ‘the only newspaper of any pretensions in Ireland’. Leopold Bloom notes with amused approval Griffith’s description of the insignia of The Freeman’s Journal, which supported the Irish Parliamentary Party, as a home rule sun rising up from a laneway behind the Bank of Ireland.


Following his return from South Africa, Griffith set up Cumann na nGaedhael in 1900 and developed the influential ideas he published in 1904 under the title The resurrection of Hungary. Griffith proposed that Ireland should emulate Hungary by having Irish parliamentarians withdraw from Westminster and orchestrate passive resistance to British rule in Ireland. Bloom’s Hungarian background enables Joyce to give his main character an intriguing role in the evolution of Irish nationalist politics. In a lively scene in Barney Kiernan’s pub in Little Britain Street, John Wyse Nolan asserts that Bloom gave Griffith the idea that inspired Sinn Féin. By the time Joyce completed Ulysses, Sinn Féin, which was founded in 1905, had become synonymous with Ireland’s struggle for independence in the years between 1916 and 1921. In a final, if backhanded, tribute to Griffith, Joyce inserts him into Molly Bloom’s meandering thoughts in the closing pages of the novel, where he is referred to as someone who is supposed to be the coming man but does not look it. Molly goes on to bemoan the waste of fine manhood occasioned by the Boer War!


The Irish Parliamentary Party

While advanced nationalism began to make an impact in the early years of the twentieth century, the Irish political scene continued to be dominated by the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had split over Parnell and was reunited under the leadership of John Redmond in 1900. Parnell’s brother, John Howard, then Dublin’s city marshall, is spotted by Bloom on his way to a Corporation meeting, which prompts him to reflect on the oddness of the Parnell family. The reunification of the Irish Party was inspired by the United Irish League, a rural grassroots movement founded by William O’Brien, a former close ally of Parnell, who had turned against him in 1890. The League injected new dynamism into popular politics and helped to boost the fortunes of parliamentary nationalism after its decade in the doldrums. Irish Party MPs William Field and J. P. Nannetti feature in Ulysses, where they are described as making their way to Westminster to ask questions about foot-and-mouth disease and the status of the Irish language. This gives Joyce an opportunity to launch into a hilarious parody of the language of parliamentary debates.


The land question


Arthur Griffith-Joyce inserted him into Molly Bloom's meandering thoughts in the closing pages of the novel. (George Morrison)

Arthur Griffith-Joyce inserted him into Molly Bloom’s meandering thoughts in the closing pages of the novel. (George Morrison)

The ‘age of Ulysses’ was a time when the land question, which had vexed Irish politics for at least half a century, began to be resolved with the passage of the Wyndham Land Act of 1903. It stemmed from discussions between reform-minded landlords and tenants’ representatives, including William O’Brien, John Redmond and the radical unionist T.W. Russell. These consultations devised a scheme whereby support from the British government made it possible for tenants to purchase their land in return for repayments to the exchequer staggered over an extended period. It enabled more than a quarter of a million tenants to buy out their holdings, a move that transformed the face of rural Ireland.


The Wyndham Act was the main achievement of an era of constructive unionism which spanned the decade around the turn of the century. The ‘age of Ulysses’ coincided with the tenure of George Wyndham as chief secretary for Ireland. Wyndham, who claimed descent from the United Irishman Lord Edward Fitzgerald, came to Ireland with a determination to pursue an ambitious reform agenda. He believed that Ireland was ‘in a plastic state’ and could readily be remoulded through the application of reformist policies.

In a lively scene in Barney Kiernan's pub in Little Britain Street, John Wyse Nolan asserts that it was Leopold Bloom who gave Arthur Griffith the idea that inspired Sinn Féin and The resurrection of Hungary. (National Library of Ireland)

In a lively scene in Barney Kiernan’s pub in Little Britain Street, John Wyse Nolan asserts that it was Leopold Bloom who gave Arthur Griffith the idea that inspired Sinn Féin and The resurrection of Hungary. (National Library of Ireland)

Sir Horace Plunkett

This period was also the heyday of Sir Horace Plunkett, who, aided by the poet George Russell (Æ, who makes several appearances in Ulysses), promoted agricultural cooperation as a recipe for the economic advancement of rural Ireland. Plunkett headed the newly established Department of Agricultural and Technical Instruction, which had an interventionist mandate with regard to rural development. In 1904 he published Ireland in the new century. This book set forth the case for constructive unionism which Plunkett’s career epitomised. He maintained that Ireland had been damaged by its obsession with politics and required an injection of constructive thinking and policies of self-reliance so as to reform the Irish character and secure the country’s future. Plunkett’s plea for the prioritisation of economic development was overshadowed by a politically unwise critique of Irish Catholicism which met with predictable and sustained condemnation.


The devolution crisis

The year 1904 witnessed a brave attempt at political reconciliation between nationalism and unionism. Success in tackling the land question emboldened reform-minded landlords, led by Lord Dunraven, to press for a form of political devolution. Aided by Wyndham’s most senior adviser, Anthony MacDonnell, a Catholic Irishman with a distinguished record in British India, the Irish Reform Association crafted a scheme under which a partially elected Irish Representative Council would be imbued with a modest range of powers. As it turned out, this effort did not please either political tradition. Most nationalists saw it as an unacceptably feeble form of self-government, another ploy aimed at ‘killing Home Rule with kindness’. For unionists, on the other hand, and especially for those in Ulster, it was ‘Home Rule on the sly’ and an act of betrayal by the British administration in Ireland. The ‘devolution crisis’ of 1904 forced the resignation of George Wyndham as chief secretary. On the nationalist side, William O’Brien, disenchanted with the Irish Party’s resistance to centrist initiatives, resigned from parliament and retreated to Cork, where his All-for-Ireland League remained politically significant for years to come. The local loyalties O’Brien inspired in Cork are beautifully captured in Frank O’Connor’s short story The cornet player who betrayed Ireland. The events of 1904 also brought into being the Ulster Unionist Council, which remains a political force in Northern Ireland to this day.

It has been argued that a great historical opportunity was lost in 1903–4 to foster centrist initiatives and, perhaps, forge a truly inclusive nationalism. Thus the ‘age of Ulysses’ was a time of political ferment and unrealised hopes for a resolution of the Irish question. For all its promise, the political crisis of 1904 only served to exacerbate divisions in Ireland. Home Rule’s final ascent was stalled until the second decade of the twentieth century, by which time the Ulster crisis and the outbreak of the First World War had altered the political landscape.


Irish Ireland lampooned

An Claidheamh Soluis, newspaper of the Gaelic League-Joyce took Irish lessons for a time. (National Library of Ireland)

An Claidheamh Soluis, newspaper of the Gaelic League-Joyce took Irish lessons for a time. (National Library of Ireland)

This was also a time of intellectual ferment, with a multiplicity of books, journals and newspapers debating Irish identity and the country’s political future. These debates are evoked in the vivid dialogue of the ‘Cyclops’ episode in Ulysses. As the ‘one-eyed’ reference implies, the depiction of ‘the Citizen’, GAA founder Michael Cusack, is classic caricature and is not meant to be fair-minded.


Cusack, though reputedly a difficult personality, deserves credit for initiating the GAA, which has been one of Ireland’s most influential and durable social movements of the last 100 years. Joyce’s writing about ‘the Citizen’ is full of fantastic verbal hyperbole. Everything Irish is presented in exaggerated terms. The list of Irish heroes is voluminous and includes such unlikely figures as Julius Caesar, Christopher Columbus, Michelangelo, Gautama Buddha and Mohammed. This is Joyce’s humorous riposte to the Irish-Ireland ideas put forward by such people as D.P. Moran, whose crusading journal, The Leader, which first appeared in September 1900, took aim in all directions in its battle to insulate Irishness from external contamination. He freely criticised the Irish Party, Yeats’s literary movement (which was not sufficiently Irish for his liking) and the emerging Sinn Féin movement, which he styled as ‘the green Hungarian band’.

Moran’s style of journalism has been described by one historian as ‘ingenious scurrility’. Moran expressed himself in favour of Ireland as ‘a self-governing land, moving and having its being in its own language, self-reliant, intellectually as well as politically independent . . . developing its own manner and customs, creating its own literature out of its own consciousness’. Moran’s book The philosophy of Irish Ireland, which analyses Ireland’s failings and their best remedy, appeared in 1905. While he opposed much of what Yeats stood for, Moran had also contributed to the Lady Gregory-edited Ideals in Ireland (1901), in which the aspirations of the literary revival were set out. Many passages from the ‘Cyclops’ chapter of Ulysses might almost be a direct riposte to Moran’s ideas. For example, Joyce offers a comical rendition of the virtues of Irish produce, claiming that Irish potteries and textiles are the best in the world and that Irish wool was to be found in Rome at the time of Juvenal!


The Gaelic League

The movement to revive the Irish language was an outstanding feature of early twentieth-century Ireland. At this remove, it is difficult to recapture the enthusiasm it generated. Many of Joyce’s contemporaries were language revivalists and Joyce himself took Irish lessons for a time. In Ulysses he provides an insight into the emotional appeal of the Gaelic Revival. Professor McHugh recalls a debate about the Irish language in which a patriotic barrister, John F. Taylor, had compared the Irish and Jewish experience. Taylor intoned that, had the Jews accepted the extirpation of their own language and culture as the Irish were being asked to do, Moses would never have come down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments written in ‘the language of the outlaw’. The Gaelic League, founded by Douglas Hyde in 1893, came into its own during the ‘age of Ulysses’. League branches mushroomed all over Ireland. Whereas there had been just 43 branches in 1897, by 1904 this number had risen to 600, with a combined membership of 50,000. Many of those who subsequently led the Easter Rising of 1916 began their public lives as ardent Gaelic Leaguers. Patrick Pearse edited the League’s journal, An Claidheamh Soluis, from 1903 until 1909.


W. B. Yeats
In literature this period was dominated by Yeats rather than Joyce. In the years around the turn of the century Yeats published two significant collections, The wind among the reeds and In the seven woods. Yeats took up advanced nationalist positions, publicly opposing the visits to Ireland by Queen Victoria in 1900 and Edward VII in 1903. This prompted Percy French to pen a humorous retort for Queen Victoria:

‘And I think there’s a slate, sez she
Off Willie Yeats, sez she
He should be at home, sez she
French polishin’ a pome, sez she
An’ not writin’ letters, sez she
About his betters, sez she
Paradin’ me crimes, sez she
In the Irish Times, sez she’.

Yeats’s criticism of the Irish Catholic bishops for decorating Maynooth in King Edward’s racing colours is taken up in Ulysses, where one character asks why the bishops had not pinned up pictures of the king’s lovers, only to be told that considerations of space had shaped their decision.

In 1902 Yeats’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan made its appearance, with Maud Gonne in the title role. This was a play that might, in Yeats’s later opinion, have sent out ‘certain men the English shot’. Lines spoken by the ‘old woman’ who personifies Ireland—‘they that have red cheeks will have pale cheeks for my sake, and for all that, they will think they are well paid’—are known to have inspired many early twentieth-century nationalists. The writer Stephen Gwynn memorably asked whether such plays should be staged ‘unless one was prepared for people to go out to shoot and be shot’. These were years when Yeats kept himself frantically busy with ‘theatre business and the management of men’, which resulted in the establishment of the Abbey Theatre in December 1904, representing a lasting legacy of this period.

In the early years of the twentieth century the tenor of Yeats’s work began to shift from its early romanticism to the more hard-nosed style of his later poems. Part of this change was due to Yeats’s growing disenchantment with nationalist Ireland. In ‘Adam’s Curse’ he takes aim at


‘. . . the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world’.

Political disenchantment, which became a profound source of inspiration for the mature poet, had its roots in the early years of the century.


The emerging ‘loveliness’ of the modern world

Michael Cusack, founder of the GAA-his depiction in the ‘Cyclops' episode of Ulysses as ‘the Citizen' is classic caricature and not meant to be fair-minded. (Pat O'Connell)

Michael Cusack, founder of the GAA-his depiction in the ‘Cyclops’ episode of Ulysses as ‘the Citizen’ is classic caricature and not meant to be fair-minded. (Pat O’Connell)

The subject of Irishness in literature is explored in Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan desire to open up Ireland to European influences. Mulligan wants to return to ancient Greece for artistic inspiration and thus ‘Hellenise’ Ireland. In 1901 Joyce published an essay entitled ‘The Day of the Rabblement’ which attacked Yeats for pandering excessively to popular taste and for idealising Ireland’s backward rural population. In A portrait of the artist as a young man, which Joyce began in Dublin in 1904, he contrasts his own artistic ambitions with those of Yeats. While he sees Yeats as specialising in faded, ancient beauty, Joyce expresses his preference for the emerging ‘loveliness’ of the modern world.


Ulysses offers the historian more than just an insight into the politics of nationalist Ireland or the aesthetics of the literary revival. It includes more humble material. For example, Bloom’s account of his day’s expenditure reveals that a tram fare cost one penny, a pork kidney threepence and a coffee and bun fourpence. The repeated reference to trams recalls the fact that early twentieth-century Dublin had a well-developed public transport network, with services run by the Dublin United Tramway Company to, among other places, Dalkey, Terenure, Rathmines, Sandymount and Harold’s Cross. We also learn that the city had such things as temperance hotels!
Ulysses manages to avoid the introspection that might have been bred by its immersion in the daily life of Dublin. In one passage Bloom, who is returning from his early morning visit to the butcher’s, imagines himself travelling around the world and encountering different peoples and cultures. Elsewhere Joyce’s characters show surprising interest in international issues, as when publican Larry O’Rourke is quoted as saying that the Russians would only be ‘an eight o’clock breakfast’ for the Japanese. This reminds us that on the original ‘Bloomsday’ the Russo-Japanese War, the first major international conflict of the twentieth century, was raging in the Far East.
One way of approaching Ulysses is to see it as an appeal for an inclusive, European-oriented nationalism which could encompass someone of Leopold Bloom’s European Jewish background. Amidst the wild verbal excesses of the drinkers in Barney Kiernan’s pub, Joyce presents Bloom as a rational and moderate, if somewhat awkward, figure who scorns the more inveterate brands of nationalism. When Bloom is asked to give his definition of a nation, he avoids the romantic version so prevalent in the early twentieth century, which set national roots deep in a country’s history, language and culture, and chooses the more prosaic concept of the same people living in the same place. Bloom responds to a question about the identity of his own nation with a devastatingly simple but effective formula. He insists that his nation is Ireland because he was born there. Application of this liberal philosophy could have resolved many a conflict, in Ireland and elsewhere, during the ‘age of Ulysses’ or at other moments in history.


Daniel Mulhall is the author of A new day dawning: a portrait of Ireland in 1900 (Collins Press, 1999).

Further reading:
D.P. McCracken, The Irish pro-Boers, 1877–1902 (Johannesburg, 1989).
D. Pierce, James Joyce’s Ireland (London, 1992).
P. Maume, The long gestation: Irish nationalist life, 1891–1918 (Dublin, 1999).


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