James Joyce's "Ulysses" and Bloom's Utopian Vision of Ireland

By Kelley S. Kent
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 1/3 |

James Joyce's Ulysses is first and foremost a political novel, a "real Irish nationalist epic in its most . . . politically figurative form" (Bowen vii). Joyce himself stated that Ulysses "is the epic of two races," Israel and Ireland ("To Carlo Linati" 273). An analysis of the political views of Joyce’s famous protagonist, Leopold Bloom, can therefore only elucidate his uncertain position in the novel as an Irish, Hungarian Jew. Because of his multi-faceted identity, but mostly his Jewishness, Bloom is an outsider. His Irish nationalist acquaintances (they cannot be called friends) are unable to take Bloom at face value because they are uncertain of his political allegiances. Is Bloom an Irish nationalist? In the minds of his fellow Dubliners, is he even Irish?

Neil Davison recognizes Bloom's conflicting identity "as a Jew and an Irishman" (257), but he never answers the question of Bloom's political allegiances. Gregory Castle places Bloom "at the center of Irish political resistance," but still insists that Bloom's "spurious Irishness" hinders him from joining the nationalist circle (319). Emer Nolan goes even further, calling Bloom an "anti-nationalist," and arguing that Bloom's politics do not coincide with other nationalist Dubliners (67). Andras Ungar, however, thinks Bloom is a nationalist, in the tradition of Arthur Griffith and the Sinn Fein movement. Bloom, like Griffith and Joyce, realizes that the Irish nationalist movement must "look . . . toward Europe" and modern society (Joyce 49).

Ulysses by James Joyce

An original press release announcing the publication of Ulysses.

In reality, Bloom is unlike the violent Fenians or the Irish literary and cultural revivalists. His politics, admittedly, are closest to those of Charles Parnell and Arthur Griffith. Even then, he rejects their versions of nationalism for internationalism, while still advocating home rule for Ireland. Bloom is an Irish nationalist, but one unlike any of the other Dubliners he meets in the novel. Bloom accepts none of the traditional, or even non-traditional, avenues for Irish nationalism in 1904 Ireland because none fit his peculiar situation as an Irish, Hungarian Jew. Bloom, as a Jewish supporter of Ireland, must look elsewhere.

To address the problem of Bloom's political allegiances, we must determine what a nation is, in the context of 1904 Ireland. John Wyse Nolan's conversation with Bloom in Barney Kiernan's pub is enlightening. He asks Bloom, "What is [a nation]?" (U 12.1421). Bloom answers, "A nation is the same people living in the same place" (12.1422-23, 1428). When asked to give his nation, Bloom confidently replies, "Ireland. I was born here" (12.1431). In Bloom's mind, Ireland is a nation, and he can claim nationality by birth; "he contends that he is Irish because he is himself" (Ungar, Joyce, 55).

The American Heritage Dictionary, however, defines a "nation" as a "large group of people organized under a single . . . independent government"; this was not true of Ireland in 1904. A nation is also "a people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language: a nationality" (American Heritage Dictionary); this did not apply to everyone in 1904 Ireland either. Many Irish men and women could not speak Gaelic; not all were of Celtic origin. Even if Ireland was not a nation then, Irish nationalists could still exist; as adherents of nationalism, they "aspir[ed] for national independence in a country under foreign domination," namely Ireland (American Heritage Dictionary).

Who, then, is Irish? Although Bloom was born in Ireland, his father was a Hungarian Jew; his mother, however, was an Irish Catholic. Bloom considers himself Irish, but he removes the status of Irishness from another Irishman, the Italian Joseph Nannetti: "Strange he never saw his real country. Ireland my country" (U 7.87). Wolfe Tone, an "eighteenth-century Irish patriot" (Gifford 267), believed "anyone who lived in Ireland, irrespective of creed or origin," could claim Irish nationality (Hachey 8). Joyce agreed: "What race or language . . . can nowadays claim to be pure? No race has less right to make such a boast than the one presently inhabiting Ireland. Nationality ... must find its basic reason for being in something that surpasses . . . changeable entities such as blood or human speech" ("Ireland" 118).

In the early 1900s, some nationalists insisted that only "Gaels," those descended from the ancient Celts, were Irish (Gifford 130). However, Joyce argued that "to deny the name of patriot to all those not of Irish stock would be to deny it to almost all the heroes of the modern movement," including Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone, and Charles Stewart Parnell, "in whose veins not a single drop of Celtic blood ran" ("Ireland" 115). Bloom, born in Ireland, is just "as Irish as the Citizen" or Parnell: "He lives in the United Kingdom, has the right to vote for a Member of Parliament, is subject to British law, and would carry a British passport if he traveled abroad" (Fairhall 170). As an Irishman who claims Ireland as his home, Bloom has just as much right to consider himself an Irish nationalist.

But is he? The Irish nationalist movement assumed many forms, both violent and non-violent, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Charles Stewart Parnell believed in home rule for Ireland via Parliament; the violent Fenians, however, believed in complete separation from Britain. Separate in ideals but similar in tactics was the Ulster Orange movement, the Irish Protestants' support for British rule. Many other nationalist movements existed between the two extremes. After Parnell's death, home rule advocacy faded into the background of the Irish cultural revival, with its apolitical aspirations and extremely political reality. Proponents of the cultural revival believed that "to be truly free, Ireland would have to be de-anglicized and restore her own language, culture, and traditions" (Hachey 38).

Many nationalists measured their friends and neighbors' nationalist tendencies by their support, or lack of support, for the Irish cultural revival. The tri-fold method of the Irish revival included "the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League, and the literary revival" (Hachey 38). Although the Gaelic Athletic Association revived hurling and Gaelic football, two ostensibly Irish sports, it also "generated an uncomprising hostility toward foreign games" (39). The literary revival likewise appeared to fan the flames of anglophobia (41). These facets of the cultural revival in Ireland only served to divide Irish and English; Ireland desired nothing other than separation from English traditions.

The Gaelic League, purportedly apolitical and nonsectarian, was "concerned with the nurturing and expansion of the Irish language"; its founder, Douglas Hyde, the first President of the Irish Free State, promoted the Irish language, Irish literature, and Irish music (Hachey 40). The Gaelic League "was a central feature of Irish cultural nationalism, and study of Irish became a test of an individual's nationalism" (Tymoczko 279). However, the League "actually helped foster separatism and, instead of binding Irishmen of all creeds and opinions together, it drove the wedge between . . . unionist and nationalist deeper than ever" (Hachey 40). The Gaelic League was also responsible for the religious sectarianism of Irish nationalism in the late nineteenth century; before its inception, Irish nationalism was ecumenical.

Joyce's model for the Citizen in "Cyclops" was "Michael Cusack . . . founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association" (Gifford 316). The Citizen is the most vocal proponent of the Irish cultural revival. He insists that every Irishman speak Irish, and labels those "that can't speak their own language" as "shoneens" (U 12.680-81), an Irish term for "would-be gentleman" (Gifford 337). The Citizen and his cronies cannot accept that Bloom may be an Irish nationalist; all they see is a Jew. Wandering the streets of Dublin, Bloom thinks it absurd "that the language question should take precedence of the economic question" (8.466-67). Bloom does not think too highly of the Citizen either. In "Circe," he imagines a mysterious man asking him for a password in Gaelic. Bloom responds with "Slan leath," but considers the stranger a "Gaelic league spy, sent by that fireeater," the Citizen (15.220-21).

Joyce never supported the Gaelic League, specifically the language movement, either. In a letter to his brother Stanislaus, Joyce explained, "If the Irish programme did not insist on the Irish language I suppose I could call myself a nationalist" (Letter 125). Joyce realized what the members of the Gaelic League did not; if they succeeded in bringing Gaelic to the forefront of Irish culture and politics, "they would be more cut off than before from the English-speaking world" (Cixous 165). According to Joyce, the literary revival "only revived a culture which was not viable" because it centered on romanticism and idealism, a culture that could not exist in the modern world because it was stuck in the past (165).

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