Edwardian Dublin was an occupied city under imposed and foreign institutions. Eight hundred years previously, Stirruped Strongbow took the Dark City. Beyond the Pale, Norman strongholds pockmarked the fortifiable positions. Eventually, most Normans succumbed to Ireland’s charm, but one result was the dilution of old Irish ways. The new masters denuded forests. Farms turned to pastures for invaders’ livestock. Norman and English law plowed under Brehon Law over the next 500 years. An English pope turned Rome against Celtic Catholicism. Education was outlawed, and Irish marriage weakened under economic pressure and protestant prudery. Irish language and culture were outlawed. Even family names were made unfamiliar, and all this resulted from inviting a Stranger into a family dispute. Conquest was born of a betrayal as unnatural as Cain’s murder of Abel. Betrayal in Ireland became a way of survival, institutionalized by the “soupers” who sold Protestantism in exchange for a bowl of famine porridge. Meanwhile, the Castle made snitchery a route to the middle class, and Catholic clergy were sometimes more interested in preserving permission to exist from the conquerors than in shepherding a flock.
A Dublin municipal election could be held in October but probably only after the death of an officeholder. Generally, the short interval between October and January would simply delay the election for sixty days until the customary date in January (Hodgart 115). This fictitious October election does occur after the death of an incumbent. It was eleven years since Parnell’s passing, allowing emotions to soothe and betrayals to fade into memory. Tindall observes that since then, like John Donne’s world, Joyce’s Dublin has gone “all in pieces all coherence gone,… lacking that moral cement” that once “did faithfully compact and glue all virtues” ( 34). Everything became unglued after the betrayal of the man who had Home Rule within his grasp. In 1903 it was as unlikely that Home Rule would advance as that the sun might rise over the former Irish Parliament building, as shown on the Freeman’s Journal’s masthead. Gifford and Seidman report among radicals, the Freeman’s was considered “compromised by the quasi-conservative interests” (292. 37-38), and the sun could never rise over the old Parliament (in 1903 the Bank of Ireland) since the building faces Northwest (Gifford and Seidman N: 57: 33-35).
The Home Rule movement built upon ancient Celtic traditions, a history of rebellion, and the unfairness of English law and economic policy. Yeats’ Twilight, Irish Athletics linked arm in arm with the threat of rebellion, and a delicate balance between Tories and Labour in the halls of Parliament had favored the Home Rule cause. Since Parnell’s fall, there was little need for the Empire to compromise. International events and the willingness within some quarters of the Catholic hierarchy to trade Irish freedoms to secure Church wealth made political disinterest possible.
The attempt to resurrect the old heroes, culture, and law had scuttled. After more than a decade, the Committee Room collected representatives from all strata of Irish society. Facts became clouded, and political power realigned; time erased Parnel’s “betrayal” from history’s memory. The canvassers assembled to drink to the “Pok-ing” of Parnell’s tattoo.
Jack is an unlettered keeper of the flame. Others’ devotion has faded, but he remains dedicated to old ways. He fiercely but ineptly defends against the passing of tradition but remains susceptible to the influence of his “betters.” When Old Jack rakes the ashes, he casts a shadow distorted and overblown like the ones in Plato’s cave. His counterpart in the assemblage is the delivery boy, who is the vehicle of shabby patronage. He shares the drink, like Jack’s son, who brutalizes the old man when the opportunity presents. The delivery boy and Jack’s son are too young to remember the events that led to the abandonment of Home Rule; Jack is too old to forget the uncomfortable but stable Ascendancy.
A tainted member of the clergy scuttles quickly into and then out of the group. Fr. Keon is looking for the man who buys the drinks and is happy to meet him in the pub where the rounds are likelier to flow. Lyons stands in for the observant Catholics who followed clerical advice and condemned Parnell. Mr. Lyons can’t grasp why Dublin should welcome the British playboy sovereign if Parnell must fall, “Why, now, would we welcome a man like that? Do you think now after what he did Parnell was a fit man to lead us? And why, then, would we do it for Edward the Seventh?”
Crofton championed self-assured but unexpressed support for the status quo. The well-fed Orangeman undermines anything but Ascendancy in circumspect ways. He only supports Tierney as an ineffectual foil to Labour’s opposition (“Mr. Crofton…. was silent for two reasons. The first reason, sufficient in itself, was that he had nothing to say; the second reason was that he considered his companions beneath him”). This reluctant canvasser, whether from a lack of artistic taste or as a way of insult, gives thin praise to Hynes’ paean. Hugh Kenner offers a truer analysis of the poem: “the pathos genuine, the rhetoric frigid and ludicrous, falsity exposed in the very grief it expresses” (82). If the Protestant is unmovable and passive-aggressive, then frail, uncertain O’Connor is his opposite number. He has just enough insight to question the faulty logic proposed but without the conviction to oppose it. The betrayal could not have succeeded without his cadre of the indifferent.
The final pairing consists of compromised, caustic, self-serving Henchy and blindly staunch Hynes. Henchy is Joyce’s fictionalized treatment of Healy, whose betrayal of his longtime friend was chiseled in “Et Tu Healy.” Henchy navigates ethical sholes by the star of his own advantage and argues that Ireland needs English “sovereigns” more than freedom or dignity:
Listen to me, – said Mr. Henchy.-What we want in this country, as I said to old Ward, is capital. The King’s coming here will mean an influx of money into this country. The citizens of Dublin will benefit by it. Look at all the factories down by the quays there, idle!…Parnell, -said Mr. Henchy, -is dead. Now, here’s the way I look at it. Here’s this chap come to the throne after his old mother keeping him out of it till the man was grey. He’s a man of the world, and he means well by us. He’s a jolly fine decent fellow, if you ask me,…Damn it, can’t we Irish play fair? (James Joyce)
Hynes, though unaccomplished as a journalist or a poet, remained loyal to Parnell. Hodgart calls him a “waster whose political idealism is spilled out in bad verse” (118), but the name Hynes derives from the Irish for ivy, the symbol of Parnell’s memory (Torchiana 179). Crafty Henchy, henchman of the Castle, whispers the accusation that Hynes spies for the Labour Party, the loyal few now called disloyal themselves.
Old Jack, in an intuitive but also mindless ritual, holds off the darkness. The firelight is flickering. Fuel is scarce, and the old porter brings candelabra for the requiem. O’Connor lights tentative cigarettes by burning canvassing cards. These flimsy cards exist to kindle fires in the hearts of indifferent voters. Jack warns of the treachery of the dark stairs. They could lead the men out into the gray light but have kept them down in the darkness, where tardy corks “POK!” on the fire’s hob. Jackson and McGinley observe that the hob or iron side of the grate where stout bottles heat is also called the “devil or goblin” (116). Joyce indicted Irish politics to Grant Richards, noting “the special odour of corruption which, I hope floats over my stories.” In this story, corruption maneuvers through the relationship of politico and priest and the falling away of personal loyalties. The old institutions have expired.
At nine years old, James Joyce wrote his poem honoring the dead Parnell. Disappointed by politics as a child, when a young man, Joyce composed the anthem that placed “the artist” beyond the authority of human institutions. Nietzsche thought similarly. Pre-dating Joyce, he is called a proto-modernist but is best known for nihilism. This philosophy proposes that there are no universal truths and therefore no meaning in institutions, political, religious, or social. By 1903, there had been a societal shift toward situational politics and loyalties favored by Henchy. Old institutions buckled under the weight of corruption. By the time Joyce wrote Dubliners, he had turned away from human institutions, leaving Ireland, abandoning the Church, and keeping a stiff arm between himself and his old Irish loyalties.
Adams, Robert Martin. Surface and Symbol: The Consistency of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Oxford University Press, 1962, pp. 4-12.
Burgess, Anthony. ReJoyce. Second ed., W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 1965, pp. 41-42.
Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce, Oxford University Press, New York. 1983, pp. 207-223, 252-253, 310-311.
Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Univ. of California Press, pp. 57: 33-35, 292: 37-38.
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Joyce, Stanislaus. My Brother’s Keeper: James Joyce’s Early Years, edited by Richard Ellmann, Da Capo Press, 1958, p. 206.
Hodgart, M.J.C. “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” James Joyce’s Dubliners: Critical Essays, edited by Clive Hart, Viking Press, 1969, pp. 115–121.
Kenner, Hugh. Joyce’s Voices, Dalkey Archive Press, 2007.
Scholes, Robert and A. Walton Litz, editors. James Joyce’s Dubliners: Text and Criticism. Penguin Books, 1996, pp. 477-481.
Tindall, William York. “Dubliners.” A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959, pp. 33-36.
Torchiana, Donald T.” ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’: Fanning the Phoenix Flame, or the Lament of the Fianna,” Backgrounds for Joyce’s Dubliners, Allen & Unwin, 1986, pp. 176-187.