Like many Irish men and women before him and since, James Joyce had to leave Ireland. Tellingly, like Synge and then Beckett over twenty years later, Joyce chose Paris rather than London. He first left Dublin at the start of December 1902, but was happy enough to be home for Christmas. Joyce set off again in mid January and this time was in Paris until mid April 1903, when an urgent telegram called him home to be by his mother’s bedside as she lay dying. But it wasn’t until he set off for Zurich on October 8th 1904—with Nora Barnacle, who true to her name would stay by his side for the rest of his life—that Joyce truly and permanently became an exile.

What belongings he had with him, besides a toothbrush and powder, a pair of black boots, and any coat and vest that his friend James Starkey (Seumas O’Sullivan, future editor of The Dublin Magazine) could find, we will never know. But Joyce was more concerned to take the meagre store of writing he had accomplished so far: there were drafts of an early novel and three very short stories he had recently written. As well as some notebooks, he also had a sheaf of his Elizabethan-styled verses that were published as Chamber Music in 1907. Alongside what he could carry in his bags across the Irish Sea, he also took away with him a storehouse of memories: physical, psychological, emotional, and above all the everyday language of his fellow Dubliners.

If Joyce managed to leave Ireland, Ireland never left Joyce. As Stephen Dedalus proudly claims in A Portrait: ‘This race and this country and this life produced me […]. I shall express myself as I am.’ Away from Ireland, Joyce kept current with what was happening by reading its newspapers almost every day for the rest of his life. Each of his works is distinctly Irish and today’s Ireland has been shaped in various ways by each of Joyce’s works; for example, Dublin’s streetscape is read and imaginatively shaped through the lens of Joyce’s books, and the fictional world of Ulysses has invaded the cultural memory and commemorative practices of Dubliners.

Joyce spent his whole life reading and writing. Wherever he ended up, from his earliest schooldays to his untimely death just before his fifty-ninth birthday, Joyce read and wrote every day as much as his poor eyesight permitted. He couldn’t help himself, Joyce was a writer, and writers are born as readers. This view of the obsessive and detached author who mediated his entire life through words—someone who seemed to have no concern for the pressing contemporary political and social issues overtaking Ireland and the world—is so ingrained in our conception of ‘James Joyce’ that in our imaginations he is just the kind of man who when asked ‘And what did you do in the Great War?’ could boastfully quip: ‘I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?’ This representation of Joyce in Stoppard’s Travesties is funny in a way, but it is also disturbing because it appears so true to life. With varying degrees of effectiveness, readers and critics have recognised the Irish historical and political import of Joyce’s works. He certainly never assumed the Yeatsian pose of a ‘smiling public man’, nor was he the politically engaged modernist writer that Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis became as the twentieth century progressed. On the other hand, it was no empty boast when, in the midst of his tortuous negotiations about the publication of Dubliners, the young writer claimed: ‘It is not my fault that the odour of ash-pits and old weeds hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass’.

From the start, critics saw that his works did indeed engage with the political and social issues that Ireland in particular faced, but as always Joyce’s writing would do so in its own ways and on his terms. As the War of Independence raged here in July 1919, an anonymous (presumably English) reviewer in Everyman captured an abiding view of the writer and his works:

Dubliners is a collection of short stories dealing with undercurrents of Irish character. The author understands the technique of his craft to perfection, and uses words as a sculptor uses clay. Every phrase is pregnant with suggestion, but the suggestion for the most part is unpleasantly and curiously tinged with a pessimism that finds virility and purpose only in the power of evil. […] The book may be styled the record of an inferno in which neither pity nor remorse can enter. Wonderfully written, the power of genius is in every line, but it is a genius that, blind to the blue heavens, seeks inspiration in the hell of despair.

Joyce made no apologies for the ‘scrupulous meanness’ and pungent smell that pervades his early works; in fact, he promoted Dubliners precisely because of its seemingly realistic depiction of the sordid details of life: ‘From time to time I see in publishers’ lists announcements of books on Irish subjects, so that I think people might be willing to pay for the special odour of corruption which, I hope, floats over my stories.’ Such an uncompromising representation of life was an essential weapon in Joyce’s strategy to change Ireland by changing the way the Irish see themselves. As with Dubliners, for better and for worse, early readers and critics considered Joyce’s first novel to be an accurate and authentic expression of Irish culture then, and arguably still today. One of the first prominent critiques of A Portrait as a sociological study was by Ernest Boyd. As someone who had been a drama critic for the Irish Times and would later be an editor of The American Spectator, he wrote that:

Mr Joyce shows himself throughout preoccupied with all that is mean and furtive in our society, and so far as he permits his own views to emerge, he professes the greatest contempt for a social organization which permits so much vileness to flourish squalidly, beneath a rigid formality of conduct. The pages of this book are redolent of the ooze of our shabby respectability, with its intolerable tolerance of most shameful social barbarism. Mr Joyce shows how we breed and develop our Stephen Dedaluses, providing them with everything they crave, except the means of escape from the lime which envelops them.

Other readers and critics also recognised Joyce’s zealous commitment to revolutionising literature as well as bringing about a tangible change in Irish life. In Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach recorded Shaw’s reaction to the imminent publication of Ulysses in 1922. Having read only some of the early episodes, Shaw voiced a one-sided, though unfortunately persistent, view of Joyce’s works that was common among reviewers, especially Irish ones:

It is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of human civilisation; but it is a truthful one; and I should like to put a cordon round Dublin; round up every male person in it between the ages of 15 and 30; force them to read it; and ask them whether on reflection they could see anything amusing in all the foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity. To you, possibly, it may appeal as art; […] to me it is hideously real; I have walked those streets have heard and taken part in those conversations. I escaped from them to England at the age of twenty; and forty years later have learned from the books of Mr Joyce that Dublin is still what it was […]. It is, however, some consolation to find that at last someone has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it. In Ireland they try to make a cat clean by rubbing its nose in its own filth. Mr Joyce has tried the same treatment on the human subject. I hope it may prove successful.

Ignoring the humour as well as the deeper sense of humanity that distinguishes Ulysses from Dubliners and A Portrait, Shaw was nonetheless obviously attuned to the political and social mission of Joyce’s writing. In all his works Joyce never diverged from his aim to depict Ireland as it was; that is, as he had experienced life here and knew it. Joyce never abandoned his mission to bring about a radical change in his countrymen if not in his country.


Throughout his life Joyce had a staggering self-assurance in whatever he set out to write and from at least 1902 to 1922 he always had ambitious projects on hand. It would take ten years for the refashioned short stories that first appeared in The Irish Homestead in 1904 and 1905 to appear as part of the more expansive canvas of Dubliners. His eccentric early Dublin epiphanies would become the basis of his first semi-autobiographical effort, Stephen Hero, and when that failed supremely, he cannibalised the text and then transformed it into the palimpsest we know as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This appeared so close on the heels of Dubliners in 1916 that it perplexed his critics about the significance and trajectory of Joyce’s artistic critique of Ireland.

Then, having redefined the contours of A Portrait, Joyce shunted its remnants to his next work, Ulysses, which had its title if little more by 1906. These traces of A Portrait in Ulysses comprise Stephen’s brief sojourn in the Martello Tower, probably some of his probing aesthetic theorising on Sandymount Strand, as well as a rehearsal of his contentious dialogue in the National Library, and possibly a version of the story about a scuffle in the Monto that ended with some manner of a rescue by an obliging older man, whom his acquaintances think might be Jewish. Finally, with only a vague sense of how to proceed further with Ulysses, Joyce took a necessary detour and wrote his only play, Exiles.

After 1915, his sole preoccupation was writing Ulysses. Aside from the few little dramas that characterised his day-to-day existence—like the drudgery of making ends meet and a world war that forced him to move with his family from Trieste to Zurich, back to Trieste, and then finally on to Paris—from at least 1917, Joyce did little else but compile notes from his scattered reading so he could write and rewrite Ulysses. With his ‘wretched eye and a half,’ Joyce described himself during the frantic last few months of 1921 as ‘[working] like a lunatic trying to revise and improve and connect and continue and create all at the one time.’

Joyce had worked unceasingly on Ulysses for about seven years, but in the end he did not finish writing it; he simply had to abandon it as his publisher and printer desperately tried to get the book out by Joyce’s fortieth birthday, February 2nd 1922. And now, for the first time in his life, Joyce did not know how to proceed: he did not have any old or new creative writing to occupy him. Joyce spent the next eight months worried (and worrying others) about the reception and sale of his masterpiece. Then in mid October he left Paris and visited the printers of Ulysses in Dijon on his way to a month-long holiday. In Nice Joyce took on the pressing problem of correcting some of the errors that had crept into Ulysses because of the piecemeal and unceasing way in which he expanded it phrase by phrase and episode by episode. He half-heartedly continued to prepare an errata list in his notebook, but soon enough just stopped. Then, with a cryptic insight on the ‘Cyclops’ episode that he was correcting at the time—‘Polyphemous is Ul’s [Ulysses’s] shadow’—his work on Ulysses came to an abrupt halt; he simply moved on and reverted to his life-long practice of taking notes from whatever he was reading.

Today we possess a unique cultural treasure in the form of about sixty ‘Work in Progress’/Finnegans Wake notebooks that Joyce kept from 1922 to 1940. They are an almost complete record of all of Joyce’s reading interests and document his abiding interest in Ireland, its history, its politics, its citizens, its language, and so much more. For all of their brilliant artistic virtuosity, taken together Joyce’s works are a strident critique of the political, social, and cultural structures of Irish life in the first half of the twentieth century. He would not have been surprised at the seeming lack of any real change in his country in the past hundred years; Joyce’s audience is always the Irishmen and women who are to come. Nonetheless, as Joyce progressed with Finnegans Wake an unmistakable admixture of profound energy tinged with deep pessimism and even resignation about the human comedy becomes the dominant mode of discourse and critique about the history and prospect of Ireland and the world.

After the list of errata, the remainder of the notes on that first notebook page are of a qualitatively different kind. Once again Joyce began to record words that struck his fancy, for whatever reason, but now it was for some later, as yet undetermined, book of the future.

He could always rely on newspapers to provide him not just with the news but also the sort of new and interesting words that he prized. He took note of a few technical terms (‘clipper ship’ and ‘liner’) from a story in the Daily Mail about sailors who work ‘dead horse’ at sea. Then, from the golf column in the Irish Times, he noted that a ‘ladies foursome tournament’ was taking place in Ranelagh. Later he was struck by the notion that in a curious game then in vogue of spotting bearded men around the city a ‘King Beaver [is a] redwhiskered policeman on a green bicycle.’ Joyce then took an interest in peculiar names: ‘Buttle’, from the commemoration of Albert Edward Buttle, Lieutenant, Royal Irish Rifles, who had died three years before of wounds received in battle in France; as well as that of a Mr ‘Widger’, who was reported to have been well known in Irish racing and hunting circles and had died in Duagh, Waterford, though less tragically, on October 26th 1922, aged 65. Joyce also noted the phrase ‘franking machine’ from a story about the ‘Future of Stamps’.

All in all, this was not a very promising start to the work that would occupy Joyce for the next seventeen years. Even so, he would find a place for several of these notes in Finnegans Wake, but that would only come in due course.

Almost all of the remaining pages in this notebook are filled with similar notes from newspapers and journals—and they share an emphatic Irish dimension. But Joyce’s note taking is not the record of an historian or even a reader who had a specific interest in the political situation of his country during those turbulent years. In this notebook, Joyce showed only a tangential interest in the debates that featured so prominently in the Irish Times at the time (October 1922 to February 1923) about the Irish Free State constitution. There is no mention of the more obviously pressing issues of the Civil War that were engulfing the country, nor the military courts, nor even the downfall of Lloyd George’s coalition government. There is simply no evidence of Joyce’s overt engagement with the issues that Ireland was facing at that crucial juncture in its history. But, nonetheless, from the now lost 1891–2 ‘Et tu, Healy’ diatribe to Finnegans Wake, Ireland’s history and politics were Joyce’s predominant concerns.

Unsurprisingly, the contentious and often violent efforts to establish the Irish Free State form a recurrent backdrop to these notes, though Joyce’s attitude towards these events is curiously ambivalent. For example, from the report ‘Iron Rule in Ireland’ in the Illustrated Sunday Herald, he noted the grim Civil War doggerel ‘Move up, Mick, Make room for Dick’ about Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy, the army’s new commander-in-chief. Joyce comically subsumes and purposely obscured this specific Irish historical reference in Finnegans Wake when he wrote, with a wry smile no doubt: ‘Move up, Dumpty. Make room for Humpty!’

The Dublin scholar Vincent Deane has shown that the Irish Times was only one of many papers—most of them English—that Joyce read with interest in 1922, including among others the Daily Mail, the Illustrated Sunday Herald, the Sunday Pictorial, and the Daily Sketch. All of these proved to be invaluable reservoirs of daily topical stories and, more importantly, current, dynamic language. Joyce came to rely on each day’s newspaper to provide ‘exotic and unassumingly everyday’ facts and phrases that were grounded in concrete actualities. Then, through his artistry, the fragments he recorded became the lexical building blocks and thematic timbre of his most profound investigation and critique of Irish history and historiography.

Deane also discovered that Joyce returned to D.P. Moran’s The Leader again to gather an ‘explicitly “Irish” voice’ in this first Finnegans Wake notebook. Here Joyce was assiduously noting all manner of Anglo-Irishisms in the paper’s various columns, including the aptly titled ‘As Others See Us’. Joyce’s notes focus on the ‘mockery of all things English and expose what were seen as attempts by certain sections of the Irish public to ape British ways.’ All of this was grist for Joyce’s mill, though as yet he had little idea of how he would use this material. In fact, the first material Joyce used from this notebook was from The Leader.

Having written nothing for six months, Joyce made the bold claim in August 1922 that his next work would be concerned with ‘universal history’ but—just as for the young Stephen Dedalus, for whom the universe was mediated via the ‘World, Europe, Ireland, County Kildare, Sallins, Clongowes Wood College’—for Joyce universal history is always local lore. His first attempts to write anything after Ulysses were centred on (often mythic) aspects of Irish history, but the conceptual strategy that enabled Finnegans Wake to take over these specifically Irish narratives in an ‘all-encompassing world history’ was a few years away.

Joyce reported on March 11th 1923, almost as an afterthought: ‘Yesterday I wrote two pages—the first I have written since the final Yes of Ulysses.’ Those first pages were a new composition about ‘Roderick O’Conor’, whom Joyce dubs ‘the paramount chief polemarch last preelectric king of all Ireland.’ Over the next year Joyce wrote and revised five sketches before he set down the path of ‘Here Comes Everybody’ that was the kernel story for what became ‘Work in Progress’ and then Finnegans Wake.

An interesting insight these 1923 sketches provide is that Joyce didn’t know how to proceed but knew that he just had to keep on writing. One of the first sketches purports to be about ‘Tristan and Isolde’, though Joyce recast these legendary figures as ‘Johnny’, a handsome and vain Irish footballer and Lothario, and ‘Lady’, a naïve and silly Hollywood starlet and temptress from Chapelizod. Then Joyce wrote about ‘the big four, the four waves of Erin’, who have become Joyce’s old and senile Four Masters. They are professors of ‘past, present, absent and future’ but obviously have a distorted sense of time and geography since they recount tales of ‘the scattering of the Flemish armada off the coasts of Galway and Longford, the landing of St Patrick at Tara in the year 1798, the dispersal of the French fleet under General Boche in the year 2002.’ In one version the four old jossers sing a song to celebrate hearing the news of Tristan and Isolde’s glorious first kiss. Or, as Joyce has it here: they ‘heard the detonation of the osculation’ and, overjoyed they sing a glee, which Joyce makes particularly Irish later on by calling it a planxty.

There is another theatrically staged amorous dialogue between Tristan and Isolde: after Tristan recounts his previous lovers to her—most of whom were French—Isolde asks him to be a real man and pledge that he now cares only for her. When he answers in melodramatic language worthy of a Dublin Panto, she replies, like the flapper she is: ‘Can the sobstuff.’ Joyce used many adverts from the Sunday Pictorial to add a contemporary flavour to his rendering of Tristan and Isolde. The scene culminates with Tristan asking forthrightly ‘whether she had ever indulged in clandestine fornication?’ Isolde vehemently denies such an allegation and swears herself to be a virgin ‘by the uninvioable dew of Ben Bulben.’ Although the troubled love story of Tristan and Isolde is one of the themes of Finnegans Wake Book II, Chapter 4, their encounter there is certainly not presented in such candid and frank words.

There were also sketches about ‘St Kevineen’ and Joyce’s version of the meeting of ‘St Patrick and the Archdruid’, which is the real story of the conversion of Ireland by Saint Patrick. Finally, there is the newly discovered sketch on the ‘Young Isolde’ as Saint Dympna, which the National Library of Ireland only acquired as part of its preeminent Joyce collection in 2006. Although (surprisingly) the sketch does not appear in Finnegans Wake, its thematic relevance to Joyce’s project is clear: Dympna is the patron saint of mental health, sleepwalking, as well as victims of incest. Legend tells that she was a seventh-century virgin who was supposedly the daughter of a pagan Celtic-Irish chieftain and a Christian mother. According to some versions, after his wife’s death the distraught chieftain conceived a passion for his daughter because she resembled her mother’s famed beauty and attempted to seduce her. Shocked, Dympna fled with her chaplain, settling near Antwerp, where she devoted herself to helping others. The father pursued her and discovered the couple, tracing their flight through coins they had spent on their journey. When Dympna continued to reject the unnatural union, her father slew the chaplain and severed her head; miracles are said to have taken place at her gravesite.

Here Joyce tells the tale of the young Isolde’s prudence; her geography lessons (she thinks ‘India a pink ham and France a patched quilt’); her charm (‘she knew how to stagemanage her legs in several pastimes of goodytwoshoes’); her health; her piety; her ‘learning in zoog’; her domestic economy (‘she cleaned the chimney by setting fire to an Irish Times’); her pity and charity. Joyce wrote about these same topics extensively from 1926 onwards in ‘Issy’s Nightlessons’ (Finnegans Wake II.2) but he did not return to this manuscript version when he did so, which based on how Joyce usually wrote is simply puzzling.

For an author who managed to publish almost everything he had ever written in one form or another—from his earliest 1902–4 ‘epiphanies’ to some of these same 1923 sketches, which he only integrated into Finnegans Wake as late as 1938—the fact that this previously unknown text was discovered in 2006 is extremely important not just for Joyce scholarship and the literary history of later modernism, but also because it helps to reorient our conception of Joyce’s vision of Ireland shortly after the founding of the Free State, its history, and, of course, its future. The new text is of utmost interest and requires that some well-established hypotheses about Joyce’s creative development in 1923 be reconsidered. I am one of several critics who has argued that one of the fundamental breakthroughs that made Finnegans Wake possible was the discovery of the childhood motif in 1926 that was the impetus of Book II, but now we see that this investigation was there at the very start of the genesis of Joyce’s work in progress. The cyclical repetition of the generational struggles between parents and children provided Joyce with the structuring device he needed to bridge what he had already written of Books I and III.

After decades of restrictions that have shaped scholarship (including the content and form of this essay), the expiration of the Joyce Estate’s copyright on published (and some unpublished) works on January 1st 2012 is getting ever closer. Dublin, this UNESCO city of literature, will have the opportunity to reclaim one of its most critical citizens and exiles and then we will see what kinds of change this may bring about.


Reference Works:

Sylvia Beach. Shakespeare and Company (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, [1959] 1991).

Ernest Boyd. ‘The Confessions of a Young Irishman’, New Ireland, 3 March 1917.

Robert Deming (compiler and editor). James Joyce: The Critical Heritage, Volume One, 1902–1927 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970).

Richard Ellmann. James Joyce (New York: Oxford University Press, revised edition, 1982).

James Joyce. Dubliners. Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, edited by Margot Norris, text edited by Hans Walter Gabler with Walter Hettche (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006).

——. Exiles: A Play in Three Acts (New York: Viking, 1951).
——. Finnegans Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1975).
——. The ‘Finnegans Wake’ Notebooks at Buffalo: VI.B.10, edited by Vincent Deane, Daniel Ferrer, and Geert Lernout, with an introduction by Deane (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001).
——. A First-Draft Version of ‘Finnegans Wake’, edited by David Hayman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963).
——. ‘Joyce 2006 Papers’ (Dublin: National Library of Ireland).
——. Letters of James Joyce Volume I, edited by Stuart Gilbert (New York: Viking, 1957; reissued with corrections 1966) and Volumes II and III, edited by Richard Ellmann (New York: Viking, 1966).
——. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, edited by John Paul Riquelme, text edited by Hans Walter Gabler with Walter Hettche (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007).
——. Stephen Hero, edited by Theodore Spencer, John J. Slocum, and Herbert Cahoon (New York: New Directions, 1963).
——. Ulysses, edited by Hans Walter Gabler et al. (New York and London: The Bodley Head and Random House, 1984, 1986).

Vincent J. O’Malley, Ordinary Suffering of Extraordinary Saints (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2000).

Tom Stoppard, Travesties (New York: Grove Press, 1975).