When Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was first performed in London in 1955, the play had only been running for ten minutes or so when a member of the audience shouted ‘This is why we lost the colonies!’ Perhaps he was unaware that the author of the piece was from Ireland; that the desolate landscape on stage represented among other things the impoverished state of that country; and that this deprivation had helped to spark the first anti-colonial revolution of the twentieth century, one from which other colonized nations would eventually take their cue until the British Empire passed into history. The heckler’s words were truer than he thought. ‘If we lose Ireland we have lost the Empire’, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson had warned in the run-up to the Irish revolution. If you can’t hold down a people on a small island within sight of Scotland (‘an afterthought of Europe’, as James Joyce called the place), what chance do you have of hanging on to India?

The Irish war of independence began in 1916 with the ‘Easter Rising’ in Dublin, and ended in 1921 with the signing of an Anglo-Irish Treaty providing a significant degree of self-government for most of the island. The Irish Free State was established the next year, felicitously coinciding with the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses. It is in this politically turbulent context that Luke Gibbons’s James Joyce and the Irish Revolution situates the work of Joyce, a writer who left Ireland for self-imposed exile in continental Europe in 1910, never revisited his homeland and is generally regarded as turning his back on what he saw as its parochial political squabblings for a lifetime dedicated to art. Gibbons is a renowned intellectual figure in Ireland. Born in County Roscommon in the impoverished west of the country, the son of a nationalist politician in the Dublin parliament, he graduated in English from University College Galway, eventually coming to hold chairs at the Universities of Notre Dame in the United States and Maynooth in Ireland. His work has been distinctive over the years for its diversity, including books on Irish cinema, literature, empire and aesthetic theory, with unflagging socialist republican commitments to the culture and politics of his home country. In this study, his second book-length treatment of the author of Ulysses—the first was Joyce’s Ghosts, from 2015he is out to demolish the image of Joyce as a non-political aesthete, seeing his literary experiments as fuelled by much the same energies that unseated British rule in its oldest colony. Far from being the last desperate gasp of the Celtic Revivala ‘poets’ revolution’, as it has been nostalgically or dismissively labelledthe Easter Rising was in Gibbons’s view a distinctively modern event, one which suspended the flow of time, shocked ‘a comatose Irish culture’ into new political consciousness, and was akin in this sense to the modernist strategies of Joyce and his artistic colleagues.

The book begins with an account of Joyce’s art as an index of his country’s political unconscious. The bleak, listless short stories collected in Dubliners, the tormented spiritual history of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and what Gibbons sees as the ‘modern epic’ of Ulysses register forces which were stealthily at work in Irish society at the time, but which had yet to break through to consciousness and which eluded direct realist representation. Joyce writes of the mental paralysis of the nation, invoking the psychoanalytical language of hysteria and seeing in the surface of social life certain symptoms of deep historical trauma. ‘In Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century’, Gibbons writes, ‘national life was as debilitated as the damaged lives of the individuals who people the pages of Dubliners’. Like Freud’s neurotic, Ireland was afflicted by reminiscences, yet at the same time dimly conscious of living on the brink of some momentous breakthrough. It was a cowed, conformist society, as directionless as Leopold Bloom’s perambulations around Dublin in Ulysses, yet electric with a sense of possibility. ‘There was hardly anyone at the time who did not believe that Ireland was on the point of some decisive transformation’, wrote Joyce’s friend John Eglinton. It was as though the imminent revolution was already foreshadowed in certain subterranean shocks that the seismograph of art could record more sensitively than any official chronicle.

If there is the nightmare of Irish history, then, there is also a proleptic sense of alternative futures, of half-articulate energies groping for political realization. As Gibbons remarks, portents of the coming crisis were taking place in the shadows. When that crisis finally broke out in the avant-garde theatre of the Easter Rising, it was as though it had sprung from nowhere. Even some of the revolution’s footsoldiers were unaware of what was about to take place. ‘Outside its narrow circle of revolutionary cultists’, observed one commentator quoted here, ‘it was totally unexpected, and thus initially seemed insane, a tragic farce’. Only retrospectively would it become real, when the British began executing the leaders of the Rising and the event assumed its place as the first fusillade in a war of independence. It was at this point that the occupation of the Dublin General Post Office passed from being a piece of crazed adventurism or semi-surreal acte gratuit into historical reality. As in Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit, the meaning of the insurgency had to await its future realization.

A socialist and Sinn Féin supporter as a young man, Joyce wrote to his brother of the need for ‘a deferment to the emancipation of the proletariat’. By the time of the Easter Rising he had, after some years of expatriation, adopted a pose of indifference to Irish politics. But though he may have put such politics at arm’s length, some of its practitioners were alert enough to him. Gibbons points out that Ulysses circulated in Irish revolutionary circles, and that a number of ira veterans who hardly counted as intellectuals regarded its author as the Irish writer with whom they most identified. The preference is all the more impressive given the difficulty of his work: in 1922 a Dublin periodical printed a cartoon that portrayed a prisoner opting for hard labour rather than an enforced reading of Ulysses. One veteran of the Rising, Desmond Ryan, wrote that Ulysses was the most eloquent prologue to the Irish revolution ever written. Both put an inconsiderable island on the map, evoking outrage and admiration.

Only four years before the insurrection, Joyce published an essay on Charles Stewart Parnell in language which strikingly prefigures the rhetoric of the 1916 Proclamation of Irish independence. Some of the characters in Ulysses, or rather their real-life counterparts, took part in the revolution, along with a number of Joyce’s friends, and the novel, set in 1904, is strewn with anachronistic allusions to Sinn Féin, a party founded one year later. There are also passages presaging the ruin of central Dublin in 1916. In 1920, after the hunger strike and consequent death of Terence MacSwiney, the nationalist mayor of Cork, Joyce broke his self-imposed political silence with a scurrilous squib against the British authorities.

Even though he abandoned his early revolutionism, Joyce remained a democrat remarkably close in sensibility to the common people, as well as a satirical debunker of imperial power—a rare stance among eminent modernist authors. Many contemporary writers, Gibbons argues, regarded him as a revolutionary fellow traveller. H. G. Wells detected in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a virulent hatred of the English and a violent, monomaniac, ‘insurrectionary’ habit of mind utterly at odds with an English liberal sensibility. The Anglo-Irish diplomat Shane Leslie described his work as ‘literary Bolshevism’, while Wyndham Lewis deplored its modernist techniques as the literary equivalent of political revolt.