Caught between a rock and a hard place.

The Irish possessed an interesting position within the British empire. On one hand, they had been annexed by the British and had functioned as part of the empire for some time. On the other, they themselves were colonized by the British. Jackson argues that Ireland represented the problems and struggles of the colonial empire. This crisis of identity is evident in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as Stephen Dedalus constantly thinks about the Irish, the Irish identity and their relation to the world. The colours green and maroon are associated with Dante and the Irish resistance leaders, reinforcing Dedalus’ need to reclaim his Irish identity.

While Jackson posits that the complexities of the relationship between the Irish and the British are most evident in the economy, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man this complexity is manifested by through the language that Stephen Dedalus chooses to use. Here, we see language as a symbol and by extension, an agent for colonization. Stephen Dedalus wants to “forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race”- he uses his art (language) in order to subvert the hegemony of the British and thus reclaim his Irish identity.

However, I am quite certain that the Irish would not consider their colonial counterparts in the other colonies (India, Africa, South East Asia etc) their equals. Perhaps the best evidence of this can be seen during the California Gold Rush in the USA, where despite being immigrants themselves, the Irish began resenting the other influx of immigrants (the Chinese, Latin Americans, Africans).

History, Statues, and Representation

Jackson mentions the “ever-impinging presence of official buildings and symbolism” in Ireland, and the kind of  “architectural response” (129) that followed the threat of self-government. This suggestion of an “architectural response” led me to think about statues and monuments, which are symbolic, larger-than-life representations of figures that have made important contributions to a country, and are erected officially for the remembrance and celebration of their achievements. In light of this, I found it particularly interesting when Stephen reflects on Thomas Moore’s statue and the commemorative slab in memory of Woolfe Tone that he passes by in Part V:

While he was striving this way and that to free his feet from the fetters of the reformed conscience he came upon the droll statue of the national poet of Ireland [Thomas Moore]. He looked at it without anger: for, though sloth of the body and of the soul crept over it like unseen vermin, over the shuffling feet and up the folds of the cloak and around the servile head, it seemed humbly conscious of its indignity. (Joyce 193)

And a few pages later…

In the roadway at the head of the street a slab was set to the memory of Wolfe Tone and he remembered having been present with his father at its laying. He remembered with bitterness that scene of tawdry tribute. There were four French delegates in a brake and one, a plump smiling young man, held, wedged on a tick, a card on which were printed the words: Vive I’Irlande! (Joyce 199)

(According to the novel’s footnotes: Wolfe Tone was the leader of the United Irishmen; the slab was laid to commemorate the centenary of the Rebellion of 1798)

What particularly intrigued me was Stephen’s withering sarcasm (“droll statue”, “servile head”, “tawdry tribute”, just to name a few examples) towards these supposedly celebrated figures in Irish history and culture. While these statues can be seen to represent the official national history of Ireland, Stephen’s expression of his attitude towards these figures (and by extension, what they represent), is then his personal interpretation of history. In doing so, the official national history of the public sphere is now conflated with personal history/experiences of the private sphere. Here, we are cleverly introduced to another representation of history; a different perspective that Modernism so champions!

 (On a side note, I do think that it was an interesting choice to represent Joyce/Stephen’s general disdain towards the Irish condition via his contempt towards statues of supposedly representative figures of Irish history and culture, considering that statues are after all another form of art and representation, just as novels are).

Ego credo Joyce’s work est simpliciter atrox, bloody atrox.

I tend to become very excited for various reasons when talking about Ireland. For one, they have leprechauns and the fey, we have… Well. We have the Merlion. They have the internationally-acclaimed Riverdance (how Irish it is exactly leaves much to be debated, but for purposes of argumentation, bear with me), we have Riverfest. And as a country not that much larger population-wise (6 million; Wiki) than Singapore, they have contributed great writers in almost every field of English literature: Beckett, Heaney, Shaw and of course our much beloved Joyce, this despite having been colonised (or oppressed, if you will) by the British since the 1600s with the Plantations of Ireland.

Or instead of “despite”, perhaps the operative word used should be closer to “because”? That these great writers wrote in English cannot simply be a coincidence (Beckett did write in French though), and language and communication for the Irish seems to be one of those prominent issues like the GST or ERP are for Singaporeans. I once interviewed an Irish couple for a project on the Merlion:

Me: “Describe the Merlion in one word.”

Husband: (thinks for a second) “Very grand.”

Wife: “ONE word.”

Husband: (laughs) “It’s a problem we Irish have. We speak too much.”

In Joyce’s work then, the use of language becomes not just a means of developing Daedalus’ consciousness, but each and every word used is itself a contest between Irish heritage and English oppression, especially so in light of how English, in becoming the dominant language, has gradually reduced the position of the Irish language. And following the Ulster Plantation in the 17th century, when the Irish were forced to live on the least fertile land, Irish as a language came to be recognised as that of the backward and lower-class, while English was the language of the more urban-minded. The discussion of the tundish with the dean is perhaps the best example of this “battle” of the languages.

Isn’t Irish-accented English the sexiest thing around, by the way? (Next to Ewan McGregor’s Scottish-English in Trainspotting)

Ireland and identity

It was very interesting to read Jackson’s article about Ireland and its place in the Empire. I was always confused with Ireland’s position within the Empire and the present United Kingdom due to the separation of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and it seems that this article cleared a lot of my doubts. So far, we’ve been reading texts from a colonizer’s point of view but Joyce’s text is interesting because his (/Stephen’s) position as a colonizer or colonized is quite ambiguous. Ireland, despite being part of United Kingdom, used to be a colony and this notion causes a lot of conflict when it comes to its national identity. I visited Belfast last year, and despite Ireland having long been declared a free state, there is still conflict as to whether the Irish identify themselves as British or Irish (for example, you are not allowed to fly the Union Jack in certain parts of Belfast) and I could still see the effects of the economic drain of Empire on it. I think this conflict of identity really exemplifies the dichotomy between who was considered a subject or citizen within the empire and how this dichotomy affects the creation of national identity. I also feel that a lot of modernist writing concerns itself with the search for identity and Joyce’s text, to me, is about the search for identity – whether it be a national identity or his identity as a writer. However, I think that this identity cannot easily be defined as a simple uniform, permanent entity but a fluid, changing one.