James Joyce and Easter 1916

In the April of 1916, as rebellion raged on the streets of Dublin, James Joyce was living in Zurich where he had sought refuge from the conflagration of war on the Continent. Though undoubtedly invested in the fate of his native country, Joyce lived most of his life at a significant remove and remained aloof from the dramatic series of events that eventually led to the formation of the Free State.

James Joyce in Zurich, c. 1918

James Joyce in Zurich, c. 1918

Joyce's last visit to Ireland had been in 1912, a trip that proved bitterly disappointing for the author whose career seemed to be languishing before it had even begun in earnest. In 1909, Joyce had arranged for the publication of his short story collection Dubliners with publishing house Maunsel & Co., but the deal was called off at the eleventh hour. He returned to Dublin with the intention of picking up 1000 copies that had already been printed and publishing the book under his own imprint. When he arrived, he found that all but one copy had been destroyed; Joyce left Dublin in the September of that year and never returned to its shores again. As he left, he wrote the poem 'Gas from a Burner', a bitter invective against George Roberts of Maunsel & Co. that goes part of the way towards illustrating the author's aloof and critical view of his native country. Joyce writes, in the voice of Roberts,


    Ladies and gents you are here assembled

    To hear why earth and heaven trembled

    Because of the black and sinister arts

    of an Irish writer in foreign parts.


    I printed it all to the very last word

    but by the mercy of the lord,

    The darkness of my mind was rent

    And I saw the writer's foul intent.


    But I owe a duty to Ireland,

    I hold her honour in my hand,

    This lovely land that always sent

    Her writers and artists to banishment.


Joyce's treatment at the hands of Maunsel & Co. seems to have bolstered his self-image as an artist exiled by a land of philistines and ideologues more interested in maintaining Ireland's 'honour' than in promoting works of art. From this point on, though Joyce would embrace the Dublin that he held in his memory and immortalise in his novel Ulysses, he cut his ties with the city as it existed in reality just as it was on the cusp of changing utterly. 

Given Joyce's complicated love affair with Dublin, it seems odd that we know relatively little about his reaction to the 1916 Rising, an event that altered both the fabric and consciousness of the city; Joyce even turned down the offer to write an article on the topic for a newspaper at the time.

There is some anecdotal evidence that Joyce was briefly enthused by the Rising, but his biographer Richard Ellmann suggests that the enthusiasm wore off quite quickly when he writes that later that year, when asked if he looked forward to the establishment of an Irish republic, Joyce pithily responded, 'why? So that I might declare myself its first enemy?'.

Joyce doesn't react directly to the rising in his work, but we do seem to get an oblique response to physical-force nationalism generally in Ulysses, a novel set in 1904 but written in the tumultuous period between 1914 and 1922. The book's most comprehensive treatment of Irish nationalism is to be found in the Cyclops episode, which sees Leopold Bloom enter Barney Kiernan's pub on Little Britain Street where he encounters one of the novel's most reprehensible characters, the Citizen.

Based on GAA founder Michael Cusack, the Citizen represents all that is wrong with Irish nationalism in Joyce's eyes. The ideology he embodies is not starry-eyed romanticism but atavistic aggression that reveals a vehement xenophobia and anti-Semitism barely concealed beneath the surface. Bloom, the son of a Jewish immigrant, is slighted as an outsider and a foreigner despite being born in Ireland of an Irish Catholic mother. One of the episode's most arresting scenes, however, is Bloom's outspoken reaction against the suggestion of violent upheaval against the empire. Bloom, like his author, abhors violence and speaks up in the name of an altogether different doctrine:

    —But it's no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That's not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it's the very opposite of that that is really life.

    —What? says Alf.

    —Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.

This critique against violence appears to hint strongly at the events unfolding in Ireland as Joyce was writing, providing at least a hint of what Joyce's views on the Rising and subsequent War of Independence may have been.