The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Why has Gerry Adams never finished Ulysses?

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 15 August 2005

I opened the 14 August New York Times Magazine to find a full-third of a page photo of Gerry Adams, arms folded and scowling in black blazer and jeans, and a brief interview on the right side from the Bearded One with the paper's Deborah Solomon. His characteristic soundbites follow: 'I have never been a member of the IRA.' In response to whether he's fired a gun: "No. But I have been blasted by assassins.' He explains that 'Sinn Fein has its own little security arrangement, but it's basically friends and colleagues who drive us around. They're unarmed.' Finally, asked 'So how would you protect yourself in the case of an attack?', Adams remarks: 'I would run very fast.'

These entertaining ripostes aside, my concern remained, as a teacher and explorer of literature, with his closing answer to Solomon's last query: 'In addition to your political activities, you are also a writer of fiction, and I am wondering if you have any special insight into the work of your fellow Irishman James Joyce.' Adams replied: 'I have never completed his "Ulysses." And I've never met anyone who has, although I've met people who say they have.' Why should this preoccupy me, in light of more immediate media flurry about whether he stepped down from an IRA Army Council (prior to the latest 'dump arms' announcement), upon which he and two Martins supposedly never sat to begin with? Well, this willfully ignorant attitude, at the risk of sounding like a snob, irritates me. Now, I have laboured through Joyce, with the exception of Finnegans Wake, which I have only floundered about in happily but admittedly weakly, a toddler in a swimming pool who knows that deeper depths sensibly elude him in his infancy.

Listen, following Adams, to the puerile blather that Ulysses towers as a glacial outcrop against which the reader can only squirm, as if Sisyphus on his uphill stint, that in the Irish Times pages accompanied their web features on Bloomsday and its patron, bleated by many other Irish men and women in the creative arts whom you've supposed to have trekked through the weighty tome at least once--if only to boast about it to such as Gerry at an apolitical fund-raiser. It seems it's a badge of honour to begrudge the appeal of Joyce if you pose as a prole among Irish literati, among whom Mr. Adams finds himself shelved, under fiction. I recall asking an earnest young student after an Irish Studies conference paper in which she presented her take on Adams' autobiography Before the Dawn why the hell Adams included a mid-volume fade into a purportedly fictional tale of a sniper who shoots a British soldier before resuming his earnestly and fully disclosed non-fictional account of his 'political activities'. She had no idea, the question seeming never to have occurred to her or any of the muddled audience, who all glared at me.

I don't idolise Joyce; one of my best friends is part of the academic 'Joyce industry' and I admit after auditing her reading-group lectures I picked up far less than a good beginner's guide like Anthony Burgess' Rejoyce, Don Gifford's annotations, or even Harry Blamires' page-by-page crib can give all you daunted neophytes. If you can face Cage Eleven, you can survive Joyce. Parts of his texts will bore you and parts will not. He captures life, after all. CD's from the 1982 RTE broadcast, one by Jim Norton on Naxos, and another by Donal Donnelly on Recorded Books, and BBC excerpts on cassette all can delight and instruct you beyond the page. It's not the Wake, after all! But surely anybody claiming to be well-versed in Irish culture should give Joyce enough patience to invest a share of time and effort. The intellectual and aesthetic workout will pay off with bigger brains and furtive smiles; your own stream-of-consciousness reveries will never be the same oul' dull routine. Look, I am no expert in parsing Adams' ouevre, fictional or factual. But when it comes to Joyce, I admit that he presents notable roadblocks to keep a republican advance from occupying the ideological terrain he mapped out of 1904 Dublin. Yes, for readers of The Blanket, as well as Mr Adams, hazards may loom. Even non-finishers of Ulysses realise that our sympathies are meant to be with non-violent Bloom rather than his nemesis straight out of the purple prosed uber-patriotic and ultra-xenophobic pages of T.P. Moran's The Nation, the Cyclopean Citizen--himself a caricature of Michael Cusack the GAA founder. Out of all the critics on Joyce I have read, none make a republican defence of his works, and none, I propose, can be seriously proposed.

I wonder: where exactly did Gerry Adams bog down in Ulysses' pages? A sneaking suspicion makes me think it might have been at the 'Cyclops' chapter, in which--in this sustained bravado passage--the author demolishes the claims of nationalism and erects instead those of tolerance. These constructions alone would not have brought about even the incomplete Republic of 1916, Joyce fully knows, but he remains too honest a writer, too bitter a critic of the anti-semitic, anti-protestant, and anti-British prejudice which infected far too many nationalists, and too brutal an Irishman, to accept the boasts of Irish-Irelanders like Moran and the Citizen. Republicans, attempting to take on the literary inheritance of the past century, cannot make the same claims to literary continuity that they may parse from the votes for the Second Dail or against the mandate of the GFA.

After all, look at the volumes issued by those out in 1916, 1921, or thereabouts. Liam O' Flatherty, Peadar O'Donnell, Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Casey (see UCD professor Chris Murray's superb new biography), Darrell Figgis, Eimar O'Duffy, Francis Stuart, and Sean O'Faolain--to name some still recognisable nearly a century on--all cast a Yeatsian cold eye on the enthusiasms that felled the poets Thomas MacDonagh and Padraic Pearse. It was left, actually, to the women--Maud Gonne, the Countess Markiewicz, Dorothy Macardle, and Kathleen Clarke to carry on in print--not fiction preferred by their male counterparts (with the notably qualified exception of Ernie O'Malley) so much as memoir, history, and propaganda for the Cause. Male writers associated with the rebels seem to have all surrendered their idealism along with their arms by the end of the Civil War. A few stubborn women, often widows or single, soldiered on, but the majority of men who would dominate Irish literature of the first half--at least--of the 20th century shunted aside the sword after that first order to dump arms. They bent their pens into plowshares with which to--as Seamus Heaney would later agree--dig a new furrow. Thus excavated, the worshipped Irish soil seemed better suited to seeds for a better Irish future than graves in which to mummify its past patriots.

This is an choice that the earlier Adams, like most republicans then and now, contested bitterly. Today, those of us who believe in the Cause have also been products of an educational system and our own self-confidence to read from, and respect, the humanist legacy within much of the mainstream current of Irish literature and culture that rejects--as did Joyce's Gabriel Conroy, Stephen Dedalus, and Leopold Bloom--the shrill cries to revenge of Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Bloom rejects hate. How this contrasts with the republican insistence to remember the Fenian graves and avenge those who have fallen for our freedom has not been, to my knowledge, fully addressed by activists today. I myself am unsure about my own loyalties as I age and return to a Joyce that in my youth I dismissed as too bigoted against 'old' Sinn Fein. As we all reconsider in what shape a republicanism rooted in values of fragile peace rather than armed rebellion will carry us into a third century of a still-incomplete national project in an era of multinationals and the erosion of nations, what Joyce, so trendily seen now by critics as not 'post' but 'semi-colonial', can offer to assist our mental and political quests may be a question worth reconsideration.

I send this contribution to The Blanket in the wish that such contrasts may be confronted by others within the republican and wider communities. If I met Gerry Adams, perhaps--judging from his interview--be the first who would admit to him that, yes, yes, yes, I have completed Ulysses and continue to re-read it with increasing delight. I'd add that the Cyclops chapter forces us all to re-think, if not regret, the ties that all too often have tangled the pull of freedom with the reins of bigotry. That's a lesson that Joyce meant for all of us to learn from the pages of Ulysses. It's one that only can be appreciated if you take the trouble to finish the damned work, and then start all over again. I hope you, and Gerry, will do so--to inherit Joyce's legacy.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

17 August 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

Changes Needed All Over
Eamonn McCann

Get Tough Now
Dr John Coulter

What for the Future?
Mick Hall

Why has Gerry Adams never finished Ulysses?
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Bombing London is No Longer Good News for the IRA
Anthony McIntyre

The Conflict Encapsulated
David Adams

No More Second Class Citizens
Paul Little

Nothing Has Changed
Anthony McIntyre

Venezuela: Lessons of Struggle
Tomas Gorman

10 August 2005

Failed Entity
Anthony McIntyre

Towards Justice: Damien Walsh Lecture
Fr Sean Mc Manus

Where Terror Reigns
Fred A Wilcox

Lack of Trust — Or Courage?
Mick Hall

Process of Consulting Loses Sway
David Adams

Unionism Can't Run on Empey
Anthony McIntyre

Another Side to the Surrender
Brian Mór

Provisional Surrender A Sell-Out
Joe Dillon

The Greatest Betrayal of All
Proinsias O'Loinsaigh

Censorship at the Irish Echo
John McDonagh & Brian Mór

Take Ireland Out of the War: Irish Anti War Movement News
Michael Youlton

Venezuela: Factories Without Bosses
Tomas Gorman



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