Joyce had a lot to say about Scotland, most of it bad. The author had first-hand experience of this country, having visited Glasgow, aged 12, with his father in the summer of 1894, a visit that was “spoiled by rain”, writes Willy Maley.
James Joyce had mixed feelings about Scotland.
Some things never change. When it came to Scotland, Joyce had mixed feelings. On the one hand, he was indebted to the richness and vibrancy of Scottish literary culture. On the other, he was angry at a neighbouring nation that had proved unfaithful. Joyce, like many Irishmen, blamed Scotland for playing the part of England’s sidekick.
Scotland figures in Ulysses as a sister subject nation who has, in order to curry favour with England, betrayed her Hibernian sibling. The theme of betrayal that runs through all of Joyce’s writing has a distinct Scottish dimension because from an Irish perspective, Scotland had welshed on her Celtic counterpart. The Anglo-Scottish Union of Crowns in 1603 paved the way for the Plantation of Ulster. When James VI of Scotland became James I of Britain, he set the scene for a troubled history whose bittersweet fruits Joyce would taste three centuries later. Alasdair Gray, our own answer to Joyce, has pointed to the upshot of this Anglo-Scottish alliance, the result of a dynastic accident: “Jamie arrived at a tactic which could only be deployed by a Scottish king ruling Ireland with an English army: the colonization of Ulster”.
In doing so, Gray argues, James “did not think he was splitting four nations into five, but joining them into one”. Joyce argued that Ireland must choose between England or Europe, and asked: “Must the Celtic world, the five Celtic nations, driven by stronger nations to the edge of the continent, to the outermost islands of Europe, finally be cast into the ocean after a struggle of centuries?” He saw Ireland struggling under a double yoke – British and Roman, in the form of Catholicism – and yearned for a future that was open and pluralist and internationalist.
For personal as well as political reasons Joyce had cause to be anti-Scottish. In the poem ‘Gas from a Burner’ (1912), he wrote: “Poor sister Scotland! Her doom is fell; She cannot find any more Stuarts to sell.” In the same verse he took a sideswipe at one of the Scots who loomed large in his life, George Roberts, his “Irish foreman from Bannockburn”. Roberts was the manager of the printing firm that trashed copies of Joyce’s short story collection, Dubliners, an act of vandalism that fuelled the author’s negative perception of Scots
The most notorious Scot of the day was Arthur Balfour, the Conservative politician who was chief secretary for Ireland from 1887 to 1901, earning the nickname “Bloody Balfour” in the process. He later became British Prime Minister, an office he occupied in 1904, the year in which Ulysses is set. “Mr Allfours (Tamoshant. Con.)” is one of many references in the novel to Balfour. “Tamoshanter” is not a constituency, of course, but an allusion to Burns. The use of the poet’s work in this context sounds mocking or ironic, but Joyce’s references to “Bobby Burns”, as he calls him in Finnegans Wake, suggest a familiarity with, and fondness for, Scotland’s bard. The fact that at least nine songs by Burns are sampled in Ulysses implies an auld acquaintance.
In Ulysses, the greatest buddy-buddy story ever told, aspiring writer Stephen Dedalus and his portly mentor, Leopold Bloom, debate “the possibility of Irish political autonomy or devolution”. Since the peace process got underway in Ireland there has been renewed concern over Irish-Scottish connections. The Irish-Scottish Academic Initiative, which involves the Universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde, Trinity College (Dublin) and Queen’s (Belfast), is one example of this fresh climate of cultural co-operation. Devolution and the establishment of a new Scottish parliament offer a definite model for a devolved assembly in Northern Ireland. It is Scotland’s ambiguous position as nation/region that allows it to stand as a halfway house or staging post for both political traditions in Northern Ireland.
In an early moment in Ulysses, the contradictions of Britishness are beautifully parcelled out, as Mr Deasy, Stephen’s boss, speaks of “the pride of the English”, while gazing at a picture of “Albert Edward, Prince of Wales”, who happens to be dressed in “tartan fillibegs”. Throughout his work, Joyce is constantly dismantling “Britishness”, displaying it as a multi -national construct, a patchwork quilt that folds under questioning. Joyce’s deconstruction of Britishness – itself a Celtic myth whose origins lie in Ireland and Scotland as much as in Wales – has to be set in the context of a balding state combing its Celtic fringe, grooming itself in the face of calls for home rule from its three non-English nations. Joyce’s references to Scotland revolve around the question of her complicity with England in the plantation of Ulster and pursuit of Empire. In Ulysses, Mr Deasy has on his sideboard a “tray of Stuart coins, base treasure of a bog: and ever shall be”. The Stuarts are invoked always as part of a recurrent motif of broken trust. Another character comments: “We fought for the Royal Stuarts that reneged us against the Williamites and they betrayed us.” The Scots are not only duplicitous, but doom-laden. Bloom overhears someone speak of “The ends of the world with a Scotch accent”. In the same passage the line “Coming events cast their shadows before” is taken from a Jacobite ballad in which a wizard foretells the doom of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1745, and the effective end of the Stuart cause. In Charles Stewart Parnell, the great English Protestant whom many believed could lead Ireland into the 20th century, Joyce found his own lost king. The ends of the world may not come with a Scotch accent, but the end of a particular phase of Irish history has.
In Ulysses, Joyce mentions “the Bruce’s brother” as one of the failed saviours of Ireland. Edward Bruce was brother of the more famous Robert, the Scottish king who defeated the English at Bannockburn in 1314. Edward invaded Ireland the year after Bannockburn and, in alliance with Irish forces, swept the English down and out of the north of Ireland, an example of a historical effort at a union between Scotland and Ireland. Such an uneasy alliance is depicted in Braveheart. In this allusion, and in the mention in Finnegans Wake of a country caught in the web of a “scotch spider”, Joyce is touching on the bruises of history and the braces holding the legacies of Scotland and Ireland together. Or as he puts it, examining the pict pockets of “scoutsch breeches”.
Joyce shared the anti-Scottish prejudice common to his time. In Finnegans Wake, a reference to a “scotobrit sash” reminds readers that the origins of Orangeism and its continuing influence in the north of Ireland has a pronounced Scottish dimension. Twice in Ulysses Joyce cites the song Scotland’s Burning, substituting “London” and “Dublin” respectively. In Joyce’s texts, Scotland remains a burning issue smouldering beneath the blanket terms of Anglo-Irishness.
In the epigram to a poem entitled ‘Water Music’ (1932), characterised by various kinds of hushing, Hugh MacDiarmid silenced Joyce so that he could hear the sounds of Scotland: “Wheesht, wheesht, Joyce, and let me hear/ Nae Anna Livvy’s lilt, But Wauchope, Esk, and Ewes again,/ Each wi’ its ain rhythms till’t”. As always, Joyce, whether or not he was listening, had a ready response, for in Finnegans Wake there is another call for quietness: “Be in your whisht! Whysht?” Thus MacDiarmid’s call for quiet becomes, in Joyce’s hands, a question.
But the Scottish poet was to have the last word. Towards the end of MacDiarmid’s monumental tribute, the 6000-line poem In Memoriam James Joyce (1955), another form of silence, a mournful muteness, is invoked: “Ah, Joyce! We may stand in the hush of your death-chamber/ With its down-drawn blind”.
At the dawn of a new era in Irish-Scottish relations, as Ireland prepares to shake hands with an old friend, Scotland continues to stand in the hush of Joyce, demanding a fair hearing.
This article first by Willy Maley first appeared in the Sunday Herald in 1999.