James Joyce: It is way past time for Ireland to have done once and all with failure. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
James Joyce became a convert to Arthur Griffith’s brand of Irish nationalism through reading Griffith’s United Irishman while living in self-imposed exile in Trieste. He wrote to his brother Stanislaus that it is the only paper worth reading.When the prospect of Home Rule came on the political horizon, most Irish people, including Arthur Griffith, believed that the Irish Parliamentary Party [IPP] should be given the chance to deliver on the promise.
Not so James Joyce! He even dubbed William Gladstone a hypocrite, who pretended an interest in Home Rule knowing full well that the House of Lords would veto any such Bill coming from the House of Commons. Joyce held that the Liberals and Tory Catholics were as unreliable as the IPP. He wrote in 1907, “The IPP has gone broke. For 27 years it has talked and agitated politically. In that time it has collected 37 million Francs from its followers, and the fruit of its agitation is that Irish taxes have gone up 88 million Francs and the Irish population has lessened a million. They have given proof of their compassion only in 1891 when they sold their leader, Parnell, to the pharasical conscience of the English Dissenters without extracting the thirty pieces of silver.”
After the General Election of 1910 Joyce remained sceptical that the Parliament Law would make any immediate groundbreaking difference to Ireland, so diverse was the composition of the government. He was cynical enough to foresee parliament reduce Irish representation by half to avoid granting Home Rule. Joyce predicted that the British Conservatives would conspire to incite the Ulster Unionists to rebel against any settlement with the leadership in Dublin. Declan Kiberd has deemed this one of the most accurate predictions of partition. Joyce held that despite Ireland becoming part of the British democratic life, she had never been faithful to England nor to herself, as she had discarded her own language for English, betrayed her stars and served only the Catholic Church.
Even in 1912 when the Home Rule Bill was passed, Joyce saw it as the viewpoint of the bourgeois that he was, noting that despite nationalist effusion, Britain would control taxes.
Kiberd has said that Joyce wrote from the viewpoint of a staunch republican. He saw Britain as a coloniser acting like Belgium in the Congo Free State. He said, “If a victorious country terrorises over another, it cannot reasonably take it amiss if the latter responds. Men are made that way and no-one, unless he is deluded by self-interest or cunning, can still believe that a colonizing country is driven by purely Christian motives when it takes over foreign shores. If the Irish have not been able to do what their American cousins did, this does not mean that they will never do so – a moral separation already exists between the two countries.”
Joyce went on to forecast an insurrection but did not visualise it occurring during his lifetime. He continued, “one thing seems obvious to me. It is way past time for Ireland to have done once and all with failure. If she is truly capable of revitalising, let her rouse, or let her cover her head and lie down graciously in her grave forever…But though the Irish are articulate, an insurrection is not made of human breath and negotiations…If she wants to put on the show for which we have delayed for so long, this time, let it be comprehensive, and conclusive. But telling these Irish actors to hurry up, as our forefathers before us told them not so long ago, is hopeless. I, for one, am certain not to see that curtain rise as I shall have already taken the last tram home.”
The Easter Rising and its aftermath shocked Joyce and he shied away from violence. When his partner Nora and their son Georgio were caught in crossfire in Galway during the Civil War, Joyce was convinced that he himself was the target, even though he was not there. The one time he felt emotionally involved was when Terence MacSweeney, whom he believed to be a distant family relation, died on hunger strike in London. Joyce wrote a bitter poem drawing on his belief that a colonising country wreaks havoc on a colonised country:
The Right Heart in the Wrong Place
Of spinach and gammon
Bull’s full to the crupper
White lice and black famine
Are the Mayor of Cork’s supper
But the pride of old Ireland.
Must be damnably humbled
If a Joyce is found cleaning
The boots of a Rumbold.
Anthony J Jordan’s new biography is called James Joyce Unplugged