January 15, 2016

1. Ireland

A. Parnell

Charles Stewart Parnell was a major figure in the politics of Ireland and England in the late 1800s. Today, however, few people in the U.S. have even heard of him. Gladstone, the English Prime Minister, said that Parnell was the most remarkable person he’d ever met. “Lord Haldane described him as the strongest man the House of Commons had seen in 150 years.”1 Like John F. Kennedy, Parnell became a figure of mythical dimensions after his early death (he died at 45, Kennedy at 46).

The name “Parnell” is an English name. His father was an Anglo-Irish landowner, part of the “Protestant Ascendancy.” His mother was from a prominent American family; his maternal grandfather, Charles Stewart, had been an American admiral and naval hero.

Parnell entered the English House of Commons in 1875, when he was 28. He was then a member of the Home Rule League, and he quickly became a leader of the League. Parnell won the support of Irish Republicans, who wanted complete independence and believed in using force to obtain it. He also won the support of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which took a more conciliatory approach to England, and was wary of revolutionaries who might turn against the Catholic Church. So Parnell had broad support in Ireland; he was sometimes called “the un-crowned king of Ireland.” In 1880, Parnell visited the U.S., met with President Rutherford Hayes, and addressed the House of Representatives.


Compared to England, Ireland was a small country. Ireland was at England’s mercy; England dominated Ireland. English landlords owned much of Ireland, and Irish farmers had to pay rent to absentee English landlords. The farmers were often unable to pay rent, and were evicted from their farms. The Irish had to pay taxes to the Church of Ireland, a Protestant church to which most of the Irish didn’t belong. The English had conquered Ireland centuries before, but the Irish didn’t want the English to own Ireland forever because of a conquest that took place in the distant past. The Irish wanted to expel the English, own their farms, govern themselves, etc. But Protestants in Northern Ireland feared that they’d be an oppressed minority in an independent Ireland, so they opposed Irish independence; they were called Unionists, Loyalists, or Orangemen.

Parnell campaigned for land reform, and succeeded in reducing the amount of land owned by absentee landlords. As Yeats said of Parnell,

He fought the might of England
And saved the Irish poor,
Whatever good a farmer’s got
He brought it all to pass

Parnell achieved these reforms by a mixture of political maneuvering and hardball tactics. Sometimes he urged Irish farmers not to pay rent, and not to leave their farms when they were evicted. But Parnell’s hardball tactics stopped just short of actual violence. Parnell also used hardball tactics within the House of Commons; he and his comrades would disrupt proceedings of the House by lengthy speeches and procedural devices.

Ireland had about 85 MPs (Members of Parliament); the total number of MPs was about 650. By 1885, Parnell had united most of the Irish MPs, and persuaded them to vote as a bloc. Parnell’s party could tip the balance of power in England. When Parnell threw his support to the Liberals in 1886, the Liberal leader Gladstone became Prime Minister. Some people must have wondered, “Does England rule Ireland? Or does Ireland rule England?” Gladstone believed in a “Little England,” opposed an extensive Empire, and supported Irish Home Rule. Gladstone and Parnell worked closely together.

But Gladstone couldn’t pass his Home Rule bill (“The First Irish Home Rule Bill”). A section of his own party opposed Home Rule, and broke away to form the Liberal Unionist Party. With the support of the Liberal Unionists, the Conservatives returned to power, and remained in power for most of the next twenty years. Lord Salisbury was the Conservative leader and Prime Minister. Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father, was a prominent Conservative and a Cabinet member. Joseph Chamberlain was a leading Liberal Unionist.

If Parnell had lived, he might have been able to obtain gradual Home Rule for a united Ireland. But he had an affair with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea, and this created a scandal that weakened his party. His party split into two factions, with most members opposing him. He campaigned hard to regain power. On September 27, 1891, “rather than disappoint his followers in the west, he addressed a crowd in pouring rain... subjecting himself to a severe soaking.” He died on October 6, perhaps from kidney disease, perhaps from stomach cancer.

It is said that 200,000 people attended his funeral in Dublin. One woman sent an ivy wreath, saying she couldn’t afford anything fancier.2 Touched by this gesture, several mourners put ivy leaves in their lapels, and the tradition of “Ivy Day” began. Joyce wrote a story about Dublin politics, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”

It may be possible to identify Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants from their names. A Protestant in Joyce’s story “The Dead” has a name that seems English: Browne. An Irishman with an English-sounding name is more likely to be Protestant. Likewise, in India, certain names suggest Hindu, others Muslim, still others Sikh.

B. Michael Collins

I saw the movie Michael Collins (1994). Collins was a leading figure in Ireland’s fight for independence. While Parnell was a political leader, working for change within the democratic process, Collins was best known as a guerrilla leader. Both Parnell and Collins had the charisma to be effective leaders, but eventually there were splits in their movements; both can be seen as having been brought down by former allies.

The movie begins with the Easter Rising of 1916, which resulted in the execution of 16 rebel leaders. Some say that Collins wasn’t executed because he wasn’t a leading member of the rebel group; others say that Collins was selected for execution, but simply walked out of the selected group. The execution of the 16 leaders rallied public support for the cause, and brought Collins, at age 26, into the forefront of the group.

Some of the leaders of the Rising may have believed that a “blood sacrifice” would help the cause of independence. One is reminded of Tertullian’s view that the execution of Christian martyrs is the seed of the church (semen est sanguis christianorum).

Michael Collins

Collins decided that open battle was doomed to fail, and that guerrilla tactics were preferable. The next Irish rising, known as the Irish War of Independence, began in early 1919. Collins’ forces assassinated British agents and informers. At one point, Collins snuck into a British office to look through British files, and gather information about British agents. Collins had worked for an investment firm and an accounting firm; he was a good organizer and money-manager.

In 1920, the British offered a reward of £10,000 for information leading to the capture or killing of Collins. Instead of hiding, Collins rode around Dublin on his bicycle; apparently Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) inspired Collins with the idea that “if you didn’t seem to be hiding, nobody hunted you out.”3 There were few photos of Collins, and the British didn’t know what he looked like.

The British fought hard against the Irish, using regular troops, auxiliaries, police, a force called “Black and Tans,” etc. But the insurgency continued. In 1921, the British — under pressure from American opinion, from a peace movement within Britain, etc. — offered a truce. Collins later told a Brit, “You had us dead beat. We could not have lasted another three weeks. When we were told of the offer of a truce we were astonished. We thought you must have gone mad.”

In the latter part of 1921, the Irish rebels negotiated with the British. The initial talks were conducted by Irish leader Eamon de Valera, but de Valera insisted on Collins taking his place, perhaps because de Valera anticipated that the final treaty would be unpopular in Ireland. The British were determined that Ireland not be a completely independent republic, but rather a dominion within the British Commonwealth — like Canada. Furthermore, the British were determined that the new state not embrace all of Ireland — Northern Ireland would remain within the UK.

Collins was joined, on the Irish negotiating team, by Arthur Griffith, a journalist and the founder of Sinn Fein. The British negotiating team was made up of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. To avoid a resumption of war, Collins reluctantly agreed to sign the treaty. Churchill said, “Michael Collins rose looking as if he was going to shoot someone, preferably himself. In all my life I have never seen so much passion and suffering in restraint.”

Irish voters supported the treaty, but de Valera and his followers rejected it, and in 1922, civil war broke out. The pro-treaty forces, led by Collins and aided by the British, were too strong for the anti-treaty forces.

In August, 1922, Collins traveled to Cork, his home county and a hotbed of anti-treaty feeling. He attended meetings, probably trying to end the civil war; Collins may have planned a meeting with de Valera. On August 22, Collins and his comrades were ambushed by anti-treaty forces, and Collins was killed. He was 31 years old. Some 500,000 people attended his funeral in Dublin, including British soldiers who had fought against him.

Today’s Republic of Ireland is descended from the state that Collins fought for and negotiated for. And two of the main political parties in the Republic of Ireland are descended from the parties that fought in the civil war (“Fine Gael” is descended from the pro-treaty party, “Fianna Fail” is descended from the anti-treaty party).

The movie Michael Collins does a decent job of narrating these events. But like many modern movies, it assumes that viewers have ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), and it assumes that there must be continual explosions and shootings to keep viewers’ attention.

Gandhi used non-violent means, civil disobedience, to achieve independence for India. Would this approach have worked in Ireland? This approach would have aroused public opinion in England and the U.S., and brought pressure on the English government. Arthur Griffith advocated a non-violent approach, a boycott of British goods.

C. James Joyce

What did Joyce think about the civil war and the death of Collins? In A Portrait of the Artist, Joyce depicts himself telling a nationalist,

No honorable and sincere man... has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell, but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another.... Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.

Joyce made the same point in a poem called “Gas From A Burner,” where he speaks of Ireland as

This lovely land that always sent
Her writers and artists to banishment
And in a spirit of Irish fun
Betrayed her own leaders, one by one.
’Twas Irish humor, wet and dry,
Flung quicklime into Parnell’s eye.

Perhaps Joyce viewed the death of Collins as another betrayal, like the betrayal of Parnell, and perhaps he viewed the split in the rebel movement as another in a long line of splits. The joke about Irish political parties is that the first agenda item, at their first meeting, is The Split. The split is usually between pragmatists and purists, between those who want an attainable degree of independence, and those who want complete independence.

James Joyce with his daughter, Lucia

Joyce didn’t take politics seriously. He seemed to feel that his task, his mission, lay outside politics, and outside Ireland. His political story, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” is light-hearted. It contains a discussion about whether someone is in the pay of the British: “That’s a fellow now that’d sell his country for fourpence — ay — and go down on his bended knees and thank the Almighty Christ he had a country to sell.”

When Parnell died in 1891, the nine-year-old Joyce wrote a poem in praise of him. His father was so pleased with the poem that he had copies printed for his friends. It was called “Et Tu, Healy?” with Parnell as Caesar and Tim Healy, Parnell’s ally-turned-opponent, as Brutus. Joyce’s father (John) was such an ardent Parnellite that when Healy spoke in public, John Joyce interrupted him, and was forcibly removed.4

For Joyce, Parnell was a larger-than-life figure, a mythic figure, and after Parnell died, Joyce had little interest in Irish politics. Collins and his cohorts seemed like pigmies compared to Parnell. Joyce was, however, on friendly terms with Arthur Griffith, and liked Griffith’s idea of a boycott.

If you haven’t read Joyce, a good place to start might be his short story “The Dead,” which is the last story in Dubliners. As you read, you may want to consult a book like Joyce Annotated, by Don Gifford. Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce has a chapter called “The Backgrounds of The Dead” (Chapter 15). In 1987, “The Dead” was made into a movie.

Another story in Dubliners, “A Painful Case,” takes a jab at Nietzsche. The protagonist, James Duffy, lives a solitary life, and apparently reads Nietzsche. When his former friend dies, he thinks, “she had been unfit to live, without any strength of purpose, an easy prey to habits, one of the wrecks on which civilization has been reared.” Duffy lives without love, and “without any communion with others.” “A Painful Case” makes a case against Nietzsche. “Here, as in his larger works, Joyce is the celebrant of charity and communion with mankind.”5 Other writers from this era, such as Hesse and Chekhov, also condemn the Nietzschean attitude.

Joyce’s self-confidence sometimes takes one’s breath away. When he was 20, Joyce visited George Russell, and said that an avatar might be born in Ireland. He must have been referring to himself. This remark shows that Joyce conceived of literature in quasi-religious terms. It could be argued that not only Joyce, but Joyce’s generation, had a lofty conception of literature.

Joyce is an example of a person who seemed to will a short life — or to put it another way, he didn’t will a long life. When he was about 25, he wrote, “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”6 Joyce died at 58.

One of the most interesting descriptions of Joyce comes from the American poet Archibald MacLeish:

I never found Joyce warm. I liked him. The little beard. The thick lenses.... I liked his shyness and his stiffness and the sense of something vivid and maybe dangerous under it.... I’ve been close to some accounted [great] but it was always the deeds or the work I felt — not a greatness in the man himself. But in Joyce you felt a hard, strong actuality that, if not greatness, was at least something you were always conscious of.7

Joyce was influenced by the Italian writer Guglielmo Ferrero. Ferrero was about ten years older than Joyce, and he was a prominent intellectual around 1900. Joyce read his books Militarism and Young Europe (L’Europa giovane). Ferrero’s best-known work is a five-volume history of Rome. In 1908, Ferrero lectured in the U.S., and was invited to the White House by Teddy Roosevelt. Ferrero was a journalist as well as an author; in 1913, on the eve of World War I, he published an essay in the Atlantic Monthly called “The Dangers of War in Europe.”

Guglielmo Ferrero

Ferrero married the daughter of Cesare Lombroso, a well-known writer of Jewish descent. Lombroso had written a book called Anti-Semitism and Modern Science. Ferrero was interested in Jewish issues, and was an adamant Dreyfusard. Ferrero argued that Jews have a tendency to try to save the world — through a Messiah or through Christianity or, in more recent times, through socialism or anarchism. Ferrero believed that Jews had a genius for proselytism, propaganda, and advertising.

In 1906, when Joyce was 24, he wrote to his brother that he was reading Ferrero, and planning a short story about a Dubliner, Alfred Hunter, who was rumored to be Jewish. Joyce changed Hunter into Leopold Bloom, a salesman of newspaper ads; the short story about Hunter/Bloom grew into the novel Ulysses. It seems likely that Ferrero influenced Joyce’s decision to make a Jew the protagonist of Ulysses. And Joyce’s decision to call his novel Ulysses may have been influenced by Ferrero’s discussion of Vergil (in Ferrero’s history of Rome).8

D. George Moore

George Moore came from a wealthy Catholic family that owned a large house and estate, Moore Hall in County Mayo. Joyce called him,

     ...a genuine gent
that lives on his property’s ten per cent9

Moore’s father served in the British House of Commons. When Moore inherited Moore Hall from his father, Moore continued the family tradition of treating tenants well, not evicting them, etc.

As a young man, Moore lived in Paris, studied painting, and became acquainted with artists and writers — Renoir, Monet, Turgenev, Zola, etc. When he was about 30, Moore decided to abandon art and devote himself to writing. At 34, he published a memoir, Confessions of a Young Man; later he published another autobiographical volume, Memoirs of My Dead Life. Moore also wrote art criticism, and was an early champion of the Impressionists. His novels were banned as immoral; Wikipedia speaks of Moore’s “willingness to tackle such issues as prostitution, extramarital sex and lesbianism.” The controversy surrounding his novels seemed to boost their sales. Two of his better-known novels are A Drama in Muslin and Esther Waters.

portrait of George Moore by Manet

In his novel Vain Fortune, Moore depicts newlyweds who learn that the husband’s previous girlfriend has killed herself. This story apparently influenced Joyce’s “The Dead,” in which a married couple’s second honeymoon is disrupted by the wife’s memory of a dead boyfriend.10 The young Joyce praised Vain Fortune in his short essay “The Day of the Rabblement.”

When he was about 50, Moore returned to Ireland and became involved in the Celtic Revival, writing plays, etc. He published The Untilled Field, a volume of short stories about Irish life; this volume may have influenced Joyce’s Dubliners. After ten years, Moore left Ireland, and published a memoir about his years there; this memoir, entitled Hail and Farewell, “entertained its readers but infuriated former friends.” Yeats was one of the many people whom Moore quarreled with. George Moore died in 1933, at the age of 80.

E. Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born in 1865, so he was about 15 years younger than George Moore, and about 15 years older than Joyce. Yeats was born into an Anglo-Irish family. His father and brother were well-known painters.

Yeats, painted by his father

Yeats’ two sisters were involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement, worked with William Morris in London, and then started the Cuala Press in Dublin, making books by hand, often books written by their brother William. Their goal was to “find work for Irish hands in the making of beautiful things.” In addition to making books, the Yeats sisters made rugs, tapestries, etc.

While he spent most of his early years in Dublin and London, Yeats also visited County Sligo, in western Ireland, where his mother’s family was from. Sligo left a lasting impression on him, it was “the country of the heart.” One of his best-known poems, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” is about a small island in Lough Gill in Sligo:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
    And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
    And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
    I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Yeats is buried in Sligo; his epitaph is taken from one of his last poems, “Under Ben Bulben”:

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Yeats’ grave, with Ben Bulben in the background

Yeats also had an attachment to County Galway. He often visited Lady Gregory at Coole Park in County Galway; Gregory was a leading figure in the Irish Literary Revival, and writers often gathered at Coole Park. For several years, Yeats lived at Thoor Ballylee, a castle/tower built about 1500, near Coole Park.

Yeats was interested in Irish folklore, the occult, and William Blake. He helped to edit and publish the first complete edition of Blake’s works. Yeats was also fond of Shelley, and late in his life, Yeats wrote, “I have re-read [Shelley’s] Prometheus Unbound... and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had thought among the sacred books of the world.”

Yeats was interested in the Hermetic/occult/mystical thinker Swedenborg. Yeats said that magic was his “constant study.... The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.” Yeats was also interested in Eastern religion, especially Hinduism.

Yeats wasn’t a recluse. He once said, “Friendship is the only house I have.” At age 25, while living in London, he co-founded the Rhymers’ Club, a club of poets that met in a tavern and recited poetry; Yeats published anthologies of the club’s poetry. In his early thirties, while in Dublin, Yeats became involved with the Irish Literary Revival, and co-founded the Abbey Theater. He was also a member of Hermetic societies, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, and the Ghost Club. Yeats knew many British writers as well as Irish writers; he was especially close with Ezra Pound, and for a while, he shared a house with Pound.

Yeats was even involved in politics, serving two terms in the Irish Senate. He was somewhat critical of democracy, and somewhat impressed with authoritarian government; he had a certain admiration for Mussolini. He was a member of the Eugenics Society, and he complained about “the new ill-breeding of Ireland, which may in a few years destroy all that has given Ireland a distinguished name in the world.”11

Though sympathetic toward Irish nationalism, Yeats kept his distance from violent revolution. The executions of the leaders of the Easter Rising made a deep impression on him; for Yeats, the executions changed comic figures into tragic figures, changed ordinary men into heroic martyrs. Yeats’ poem “Easter, 1916” ends thus:

I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

At 24, Yeats met Maud Gonne, and became infatuated with her. He repeatedly proposed to her, but she turned him down, and eventually married another man. Her marriage soon disintegrated, however, and she continued to be part of Yeats’ life. When Yeats was 52, he married a 25-year-old woman, Georgie Hyde-Lees. They had two children, and remained together until Yeats’ death at age 73.

After World War I, Yeats became pessimistic about the future, and wrote in “The Second Coming,”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

These lines seem especially relevant to our time, and to groups like ISIS.

Yeats believed in 2000-year historical cycles. Yeats apparently believed that the current epoch began with the rise of Christianity, so the next epoch would begin around 2000 AD. He concludes “The Second Coming” by asking,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats describes this “rough beast” with images reminiscent of ISIS:

    somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs....

ISIS often uses lion imagery, and depicts its “warriors” as lions.

Yeats met Joyce when Yeats was 37 and Joyce 21. They were introduced by a Dublin literary man, George Russell, who told Yeats,

The first specter of the new generation has appeared. His name is Joyce. I have suffered from him and I would like you to suffer.... Of all the wild youths I have ever met he is the wildest.12

Yeats was impressed with Joyce, and spoke of Joyce’s “very delicate talent”; he was probably impressed by Joyce’s self-confidence, and by the way he read his own works. Joyce made outrageous remarks like, “I’ll read you some of my poems, but I don’t care what you think of them.” Such remarks prompted Yeats to say that Joyce had “the worst manners.” One might expect that a young, unknown writer like Joyce would praise the works of an established writer like Yeats, but when Joyce met Yeats, he criticized Yeats’ works.

Joyce asked Yeats (and everyone else he knew) for money. Yeats didn’t give Joyce money, but he introduced him to Arthur Symons, who played an important role in Joyce’s early career, and to Ezra Pound, who played an important role in Joyce’s later career.13 Yeats helped Joyce to get a grant from England’s Royal Literary Fund; Yeats’ letter described Joyce as “a man of genius.”14

The young Joyce realized that Yeats was “the principal living Irish writer.”15 Joyce praised Yeats’ poem “Who Goes With Fergus?” as “the best lyric in the world.”16

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all disheveled wandering stars.

This poem is from Yeats’ play The Countess Cathleen; Joyce attended the premier in Dublin in 1899.

Joyce was also impressed with Yeats’ story “The Adoration of the Magi,” calling it “a story which one of the great Russians might have written.”17

But Joyce felt that Yeats was “too fond of the aesthetic.”18 Perhaps Joyce felt that Yeats preferred beauty to truth, while the best imaginative writers, like Shakespeare and Ibsen, were equally devoted to beauty and truth. Joyce said that Yeats was too devoted to “the loveliness which has long faded from the world.”19 Joyce himself tried to find beauty and truth in the world around him, in nitty-gritty reality. Yeats wrote,

Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.

In poems like this, Yeats seems to turn his back on reality. Joyce seemed to prefer Ibsen, who kept his feet planted firmly on reality. Perhaps Joyce felt that a writer like Ibsen could influence reality, could inspire a certain sort of conduct, whereas a writer who leaves reality can’t mold reality, can’t influence people. Joyce himself aspired to “forge in the smithy of my soul [the] conscience of my race.” Joyce aspired to both depict reality and mold reality. Joyce said that his purpose in Dubliners was “to write a chapter of the moral history of my country.” Two editors of Dubliners, John Wyse Jackson and Bernard McGinley, wrote, “One of Joyce’s aims in Dubliners was to diagnose, and perhaps even to help cure, what he saw was wrong with Dublin life.”20

Joyce seemed to question whether Yeats had a will, a goal. He said of Yeats, “an aesthete has a floating will,”21 and in Finnegans Wake, he called William Butler Yeats “Will-of-the-wisp.”

Yeats’ toughest critic is the Zen writer R. H. Blyth. Blyth admired haiku poetry, which stays close to reality. Blyth said that haiku treats the outer world objectively, or treats the inner world objectively.22 Blyth regarded Yeats as a subjective poet of the worst sort.23 As an example, he quotes these lines:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.24

Doubtless many people are fond of the famous last line, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” But even the most ardent Yeats fan must admit that this line is far from the simplicity of haiku, the honest realism of haiku, the austere beauty of haiku; one might say that this line is “highly poetic poetry,” one might say it’s the opposite of haiku.

In 1923, Yeats became the first Irish writer to win the Nobel Prize. William Butler Yeats died in 1939, at the age of 73. If you want to learn more about Yeats, consider the acclaimed two-volume biography by R. F. Foster.

F. Other Irish Writers

Liam O’Flaherty wrote The Informer, a well-regarded novel about the Irish War of Independence. It was turned into a popular movie by O’Flaherty’s cousin, the American filmmaker John Ford. O’Flaherty also wrote short stories, such as “The Sniper,” which deals with the Irish Civil War, and was written while that war was still going on. Like many Irishmen, O’Flaherty volunteered for military service at the start of World War I. His experiences on the Western Front may have contributed to his later mental instability. He wrote about World War I in his short novel Return of the Brute.

Sean O’Casey wrote several plays set during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. O’Casey left school at 14, and worked at a variety of menial jobs. Many of his plays deal with the Dublin working class. Criticized by staunch Republicans, O’Casey left Ireland, and spent his latter years in England. He wrote six volumes of autobiography. Sean O’Casey died in 1964, at the age of 84.

Elizabeth Bowen wrote a novel about modern Ireland, The Last September. Bowen was born into the Anglo-Irish landowning class; her family had an estate in Cork, where Bowen spent summers in her early years. The Last September is set on this Cork estate, during the Irish War of Independence. Bowen wrote numerous novels, a travel book about Rome, a study of Trollope, etc.24B

Frank O’Connor is best known for his short stories, many of which were published in the New Yorker to “great acclaim.” In 1918, when he was just 15, O’Connor fought in the Irish War of Independence, then he fought in the Irish Civil War. O’Connor wrote a biography of Irish leader Michael Collins, whom he fought against in the Irish Civil War. O’Connor wrote about his war experiences in a short story called “Guests of the Nation”; this story inspired a movie, The Crying Game. Among his best-known short stories are “My Oedipus Complex” and “First Confession.” O’Connor wrote about his difficult early years in a short story called “The Man of the House.” He also wrote about his childhood in a memoir called An Only Child, then discussed his later life in a memoir called My Father’s Son.

James Stephens is known for his collections of Irish fairy tales, such as Deirdre and Irish Fairy Tales. He’s also known for his novels, some of which are influenced by Irish folklore; perhaps his best-known novel is The Crock of Gold. Stephens was a nationalist, and knew some of the leaders of the Easter Rising. He wrote a book about the Rising called Insurrection in Dublin. His mother was apparently an unmarried servant in a Protestant family; Stephens was adopted by this family. Joyce believed that he and Stephens were born on the same day, and that they were spiritual twins; he asked Stephens to finish Finnegans Wake, if he was unable to do so.25 James Stephens died in 1950, at about age 70.

Stephens (left) with Joyce (center) and Irish tenor John O’Sullivan

J. M. Synge was one of the leading dramatists of the Irish Literary Revival, and his plays were performed at the Abbey Theater. His family was from the Anglo-Irish ruling class (like the families of George Moore, William Butler Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke, the philosopher George Berkeley, etc.). Synge attended Trinity College in Dublin, a bastion of the Protestant establishment. Early in his career, Synge was often without money and food. He eventually became ill from not eating, and needed an operation; he warned the young Joyce (who also lacked money and food) that the cost of illness was greater than the cost of eating. Yeats, who was six years older than Synge, advised Synge to visit the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, to find material for his writing. Synge spent several summers in the Aran Islands, learning the Irish language, collecting Irish folklore, etc. His early plays, like Riders to the Sea, draw on the stories and language of the Aran Islands. His work wasn’t popular with Irish nationalists, and his best-known drama, The Playboy of the Western World, caused a riot at the Abbey Theater. John Millington Synge died of cancer in 1909, at age 37.

J. M. Synge (painter unknown)

Iris Murdoch was born in 1919 in Dublin. Her family was Protestant (the name “Murdoch” is probably Scotch). She studied Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, and taught Philosophy at Oxford for about ten years. She wrote several books about Philosophy, but her reputation rests on her novels. She wrote a novel about the Easter Rising called The Red and the Green. In 1973, she won the James Tait Black Prize for The Black Prince, a novel about erotic obsession. Murdoch was married to a British scholar, and had affairs with both men and women; one of her lovers was the novelist Elias Canetti. Iris Murdoch died in 1999 at age 79.

Iris Murdoch

G. Thomas Keneally

My interest in Ireland was aroused by a Booknotes interview with Irish-Australian writer Thomas Keneally. Keneally is best known for the novel Schindler’s Ark, which became the movie Schindler’s List. In the interview, Keneally discussed his book The Great Shame, which deals with Ireland, the Potato Famine, the emigration of Irish to Australia and the U.S., etc. He pays special attention to Irish who were transported to Australia as convicts.

Keneally discusses the Irish nationalist John Mitchel, who participated in the Young Ireland movement in the mid-1800s. Mitchel was imprisoned first in Bermuda, then in Tasmania. On his way to Tasmania, he wrote his Jail Journal, “one of Irish nationalism’s most famous texts.”26 Prisoners like Mitchel were often held quite loosely, and several escaped.27 Mitchel escaped to the U.S. and became a spokesman for the Confederacy during the Civil War period. In Mitchel’s mind, the Confederacy’s relation to the U.S. was similar to Ireland’s relation to the UK.

Keneally says that life was especially hard on Norfolk Island, 900 miles east of Australia. Convicts sent to Norfolk Island sometimes wanted to commit suicide, but their Catholic faith deterred them (the Catholic Church threatened suicides with eternal damnation). So three men would “draw straws,” and the winner would be killed by another man with a shovel or pick. The man in second place would be killed by the authorities (because he had murdered the winner). The loser would testify against the killer, but wouldn’t be killed himself.

Keneally found the story of the “suicide pact” in Robert Hughes’ bestselling book The Fatal Shore, which deals with early Australia. Hughes was a prominent art critic, and he made several documentaries about art history, including The Shock of the New (1980), American Visions (1997), and Goya: Crazy Like A Genius (2002). According to Wikipedia, Hughes was “generally conservative” and “expressed antipathy for the avant-garde.... He was incapable of writing the jargon of the art world, and consequently was treated by its mandarins with fear and loathing.”

H. Conor Cruise O’Brien

I saw an interview with Irish author and statesman Conor Cruise O’Brien. O’Brien died in 2008, at the age of 91. O’Brien’s mother was a member of the Sheehy family; Joyce knew the family, and refers to them in his works. Joyce was infatuated with one of the Sheehy sisters, Mary (O’Brien’s aunt). It is said that Mary Sheehy is the girl whom the protagonist of Joyce’s “Araby” is in love with. O’Brien says that his mother, Kathleen Sheehy, is the original of Molly Ivors, a character in Joyce’s “The Dead.”28

In the 1950s, O’Brien was a member of Ireland’s UN delegation, then in 1961, he became a UN representative in the Congo. There he clashed with Western mercenaries, and was dismissed from UN service. O’Brien wrote about his experiences in To Katanga and Back, “a classic of both modern African history and of the inner workings of the United Nations.”29

O’Brien has been called a “contrarian.”30 He openly rejected Catholicism, but became a government official nonetheless.31 Though initially aligned with Irish Republicans, O’Brien later became a harsh critic of IRA violence, and joined a Unionist party. He tried to censor Republicans in TV, newspapers, and classrooms. O’Brien pokes fun at the uncompromising Republican: “He has a mind like an unripe gooseberry — small, bitter, fuzzy, and green.”32

O’Brien was active in journalism as well as politics.

O’Brien’s maternal grandfather, David Sheehy, was active in Parnell’s movement, and O’Brien wrote a book called Parnell and His Party 1880-90. He also wrote a book about Israeli history, a brief history of Ireland, a biography of Burke, and an autobiography. One of the recurring themes of his work is the relationship between religion and nationalism.

O’Brien is a harsh critic of Thomas Jefferson, whom he wrote about in The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800. O’Brien insists that Jefferson was a racist, while Washington, Adams, and Hamilton were anti-racists. O’Brien criticizes Jefferson for supporting the French Revolution, even in its violent aspects. O’Brien says that Jefferson resembles Rousseau, and O’Brien planned to follow his Jefferson book with a book about Rousseau. O’Brien contrasts Jefferson with Burke, who was critical of the French Revolution; O’Brien sides with Burke against Jefferson and Rousseau.

O’Brien with his second wife, and their two adopted children

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1. Wikipedia back
2. When Joyce’s father died in 1931, Joyce sent an ivy wreath from Paris. back
3. As the Arabs say, The best place to hide is in the sun. Poe dealt with this idea in his story “The Purloined Letter.”

There are some good documentaries on Irish history:

  • The Story of Ireland (2011), a 5-hour BBC documentary narrated by Fergal Keane (Youtube)
  • The History Channel made a one-hour history of Ireland (Youtube)
  • a film about Michael Collins, arguing that he’s “Ireland’s greatest” (Youtube)
  • Hang Up Your Brightest Colours is about Michael Collins (Youtube); it’s a 1973 film by Kenneth Griffith, it’s very partisan, very pro-Irish; the title comes from a letter written by George Bernard Shaw to Collins’ sister: “How could a born soldier die better than at the victorious end of a good fight.... I met Michael for the first and last time on Saturday last, and am very glad I did. I rejoice in his memory, and will not be so disloyal to it as to snivel over his valiant death. So tear up your mourning and hang up your brightest colours in his honour.”
  • Get Collins (2007), about the intelligence war in Dublin; I haven’t been able to find this film
  • If you watch the movie Michael Collins (1994), you’ll find a documentary about Collins on the DVD
You could also approach Irish history through songs. “The Croppy Boy” is a song about the 1798 rising, and it takes the side of the Irish rebels. One version of “The Croppy Boy” begins,

It was early, early in the spring,
The birds did whistle and sweetly sing,
Changing their notes from tree to tree,
And the song they sang was Old Ireland free.

“Croppies Lie Down” is also about the 1798 rising, but it takes the side of the British. It begins,

We soldiers of Erin, so proud of the name
We’ll raise on the rebels and Frenchmen our fame;
We’ll fight to the last in the honest old cause,
And guard our religion, our freedom and laws;
We’ll fight for our country, our King and his crown,
And make all the traitors and croppies lie down.
     Down, down, croppies lie down.

“The Sash” celebrates the victories of the Ulster Protestants, or Orangemen. It begins,

So sure I’m an Ulster Orangeman, from Erin’s isle I came,
To see my British brethren all of honor and of fame,
And to tell them of my forefathers who fought in days of yore,
That I might have the right to wear, the sash my father wore!


4. Richard Ellman, James Joyce, ch. 3 back
5. A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, by William York Tindall. Is “A Painful Case” prophetic? Joyce’s brother, Stanislaus, seemed to think it was, and Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, doesn’t question Stanislaus’ claim. Stanislaus said the story was written in 1905, but anticipated an event that occurred in 1909. “Joyce would have many instances later,” Ellmann remarks, “of this putatively prophetic power.” (Ellmann, Ch. 12, p. 210, footnote) But James Joyce’s Dubliners reproduces an article from July, 1904 about a similar death; the dead woman’s name was Mrs. Sarah Bishop. Joyce’s story may be based on this 1904 incident.

Later Ellmann mentions a better example of prophecy in Joyce’s work: “Cosgrave’s suicide in the Thames in accordance with Stephen’s prediction about ‘Lynch’ in Ulysses.” (Ellmann, Ch. 35, p. 677, footnote) The prediction was “Exit Judas. Et laqueo se suspendit. [Exit Judas. And he hangs himself with a noose.]” back

6. “The Dead” back
7. Ellman, Ch. 33, p. 598, footnote back
8. See James Joyce and the Language of History, by Robert Spoo, Ch. 1, p. 31. See also James Joyce, Ulysses, and the Construction of Jewish Identity, by Neil R. Davison, Ch. 6, circa p. 136

Another reason why Joyce was interested in Jews is that he saw himself as an exile, just as Ferrero depicted Jews as exiles. Yet another reason is that several of his friends in Trieste were Jewish, including the well-known writer Italo Svevo.

Critics have compared Dubliners to Vergil’s Eclogues, and Ulysses to Vergil’s Aeneid.

Click here for a good essay on Ulysses by Mary Colum. back

9. “Gas From A Burner.” George Moore (full name “George Augustus Moore”) should not be confused with the philosopher G. E. Moore (full name “George Edward Moore”). G. E. Moore was a Cambridge professor and one of the pioneers of analytic philosophy. back
10. Another source of “The Dead” is Bret Harte’s novel Gabriel Conroy, which opens with, “Snow. Everywhere. As far as the eye could reach — fifty miles, looking southward from the highest white peak — filling ravines and gulches.... Snow lying everywhere over the California Sierras on the 15th day of March 1848, and still falling.” Joyce recommended four authors to his step-grandson: Bret Harte, Tolstoy, George Moore, and the Goncourts. (Ellmann, Ch. 15, p. 247) back
11. Quoted in Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration, by Donald J. Child, p. 154 back
12. Ellmann, Ch. 7, pp. 100, 109 back
13. Pound had a knack for discovering writers. He discovered Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot. back
14. Yeats also helped Joyce to apply for “a State pension from the English king.” The “State pension” was evidently separate from the Royal Literary Fund. back
15. Ellmann, Ch. 5, p. 66 back
16. Ellmann, Ch. 5, p. 67 back
17. This quote is from Joyce’s early essay “The Day of the Rabblement.” I found the plot of Yeats’ story convoluted. The story seems utterly unlike the stories of the “great Russians.” Could anything be further from the humble realism of Chekhov? The story seems closer to Poe than to the Russians. On the other hand, as a Jungian, I’m receptive to Yeats’ story, I wouldn’t say that Chekhov’s approach is the best approach.

“The Adoration of the Magi” is part of a trilogy of occult stories, the other two being “Rosa Alchemica” and “The Tables of the Law.” One might compare the “rough beast” born in the “Second Coming” to the “cold, hard” unicorn born in “The Adoration of the Magi.” Both creatures seem to signify new epochs, post-Christian epochs. back

18. Ellmann, Ch. 6, p. 89, footnote back
19. A Portrait of the Artist back
20. James Joyce’s Dubliners, pp. 11, 87. Jackson and McGinley compare Joyce to Vergil, and say that Joyce and Vergil both inserted games and puzzles into their work. (ibid, p. 87) back
21. “The Day of the Rabblement” back
22. As an example of “outer objectivity,” Blyth quotes

Fleas, lice,
The horse pissing close by —
A lodging for the night.

As an example of “inner objectivity,” Blyth quotes

Leaves of the willow tree fall;
The master and I stand listening
To the sound of the bell. back

23. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, Ch. 5. In an earlier issue, I discussed Blyth’s admiration for the Chinese poet Bai Juyi. back
24. “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” back
24B. Elizabeth Bowen shouldn’t be confused with Catherine Drinker Bowen or Marjorie Bowen. Catherine Drinker Bowen was an American writer, known for her biographies of Francis Bacon, Edward Coke, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., etc. Marjorie Bowen was a popular British writer of both fiction and non-fiction. All three Bowens were born in the late 1800s. back
25. In Realms of Gold, I mentioned that two of Mark Twain’s novels deal with the “mystic connection” between people born on the same day. back
26. Wikipedia. Keneally’s Great Shame is 700 pages long. If you want a briefer work on a similar subject, consider Timothy Egan’s The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero. Egan’s book deals with Thomas Meagher. Meagher participated in the Irish rebellion of 1848, was sent to Tasmania as a prisoner, escaped to the U.S., and fought for the North in the Civil War. back
27. Click here for a documentary on the escape of the “Fremantle Six.” back
28. In Ulysses, Joyce mentions “Mr David Sheehy M.P.” (O’Brien’s maternal grandfather). In Portrait of the Artist, Joyce depicts O’Brien’s uncle, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, in the character of MacCann. MacCann is “Ready to shed the last drop. Brand new world. No stimulants and votes for the bitches.” Skeffington’s feminist principles prompted him to take his wife’s last name, and become Sheehy-Skeffington. back
29. Wikipedia back
30. Wikipedia back
31. O’Brien says that his father was “an agnostic, and had produced an edition of W.E.H. Lecky’s history of the rise of rationalism in Europe.” back
32. O’Brien reflected on his life and times in two essays in The Atlantic, which can be found here and here. back