The year of living anxiously

As James Joyce’s writings reflect, 1912 was a time of unease, with Unionists flocking to sign their anti-Home Rule Covenant in blood and some republicans looking back to an ancient, common Celtic past for inspiration

The fear of a contract broken hung heavy in the air throughout the year 1912. Over 200,000 loyalists pledged themselves, “in solemn Covenant throughout this our time of threatened calamity”, to oppose a Home Rule parliament in Ireland.

Many of the signatories saw themselves as members of a blood brotherhood. Some, indeed, signed in blood. It was in the name of such a bond that thousands of them would sacrifice their lives four years later at the Somme.

A similar anxiety haunts James Joyce’s play Exiles, set in the suburban Dublin of that year. It concerns the fear of a returned exile, Richard Rowan, that his best friend is having a clandestine sexual relationship with Richard’s own partner, Bertha. The play would only be published in 1918 but a warrior language of swords, wounds and ultimate reconstruction is shown to have been latent in the world of 1912. “In the very core of my ignoble heart,” says Richard to his friend, “I longed to be betrayed by you and by her . . . To be for ever a shameful creature and build up my soul again out of the ruins of its shame.”

The world just prior to the first World War was felt by many to have become shallow, meaningless, enervated; and the search for extreme situations, which would ultimately lead millions of young men to trenches and barricades, had caused others in the pre-war period to join expeditions to the antarctic, to climb mountains or to trek into the wilds. On such journeys, men often released an unexpected tenderness in one another; and such bonding is also the main subject of Exiles. Richard tells his friend, despite the fear of betrayal, that “I longed to put my arm around your neck”.


Richard speaks of Ireland in 1912 as being “on the eve of her long-awaited victory”. That victory was the nightmare which terrified the Ulster Volunteers: but James Joyce was not impressed by the Third Home Rule Bill. It would only, he told readers of Il Piccolo della Sera, compel the new Irish government to pay for deficits created by the British treasury. It would be a betrayal haunted by “the shade of Parnell”, whose fate was a proof that no English person ever betrayed Ireland: the Irish could always be relied upon to betray one another first.

Joyce had reason for his bitterness. In July 1912, on a return visit to Dublin, he discovered that a printer was refusing to work on his short story collection Dubliners (the printer objected, among other things, to the use of the word “bloody”). In response, Joyce wrote on the back of his now-broken contract Gas from a Burner, a lampoon against “This lovely land that always sent/Her writers and artists to banishment/And in a spirit of Irish fun/Betrayed her leaders one by one”. In Joyce’s judgement the sell-out that was the Act of Union at the start of the 19th century was now to be compounded by the fake electoralism of a Home Rule parliament, which would reflect only the interest of a nationalist elite of professional men, priests and publicans.

Joyce wrote from the viewpoint of a staunch republican: but there were some in the ranks of cultural nationalism whose distrust of parliamentarianism led them to pine for a lost Gaelic kingship. If the Ulster Covenanters ended their declaration with “God Save the King”, some Gaelic revivalists yearned for the return of their broken aristocracy. Many spoke of ancestors “raised in the raths of kings” – the fetish for aristocracy still rampant in England had its parallels among Irish nationalists.

The great Celtic scholar Osborn Bergin spent much of 1912 editing a bizarre and brilliant text called Pairlement Chlainne Tomais (The Parliament of Clan Thomas). It was an attack by ruined Gaelic bards of the 1600s on the new planters who had not only freed the serfs but also encouraged vulgarians to express uncouth opinions in upstart parliaments. The new men in the text, Clan Thomas, are slothful dolts, skilled only in one art: betrayal of covenants – “whoever offered kindness was discounted by them, and whoever attacked or denounced them was closest to them above all men in the world”. Had either James Joyce or Edward Carson been in a position to read this text, they might have been forgiven a chilly smile.

Not all radicals were averse to the idea of Home Rule. Patrick Pearse was still an enthusiast for it in 1912, but in a speech at the Mansion House in December, he began his critique of “the murder machine” that was the colonial education system. Its cramming for a results-oriented examination method led him to call for a more inspirational teaching dedicated to the development of the individuality in each child.

Pearse believed that education should inculcate a sense of the nation, its culture and history. This was a view endorsed by Tom Kettle in a lecture on The Economics of Nationalism given at Maynooth in the same month. Denouncing a rootless cosmopolitanism as too vague to win loyal support, Kettle admitted that there might be no such thing as a National Trigonometry but asserted that there was a National Economics. International movements like socialism, he said, would succeed only if earthed in a national experience. The Irish Question was essentially political as well as economic in nature. Kettle, a charismatic Home Ruler and MP, would die in the first World War.

Most Irish literary works of 1912 have a rather “Edwardian” feel to them. The god Pan, who had already featured in such English classics as The Wind in the Willows, paid a visit to Ireland (in order to abduct a shepherdess) in James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold. In the same year, George Moore recorded in Salve (the second volume of his autobiography) how he toured ancient Celtic sites listening to the mystic poet George Russell expostulate on the return of the gods.

Russell, a Portadown Protestant aghast at the sectarian divisions now threatening to tear Ireland asunder, sought to go back to a common Celtic bedrock. Moore recalls how he was at once moved by such idealism and yet amused at his friend’s attempt, over a dinner in a Dundalk inn, to convert solid Northern Presbyterians to the superior truths to be found in a pagan scheme of things.

All of the ideals explored in all of these texts would be put to a ferocious test in the years after 1914. Seen in retrospect, 1912 appears as a year of “latency”, one in which an old world was still dying even as a new one struggled to be born.

It was also the year of Mann’s Death in Venice and Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious. Perhaps the more shrewd analysis of the Irish situation was offered by George Bernard Shaw in an address on what it meant to him to be an Irish Protestant.

For him Protestantism was a great historic movement of reformation and self-assertion against spiritual tyranny: and it was consistent for those who believed in self-election in theology to support self-determination in nationhood. He would, he averred, prefer to be burnt at the stake by Irish Catholics than protected by the English garrison.

Shaw was a sardonic optimist. To the jibe that Home Rule would cause the Irish to cut one another’s throats, he said: “Who has a better right to cut them? The English are very glad to get us to cut the throats of their enemies. Why should we not have the same privilege among ourselves? What will prevent it?”

Shaw’s answer was: “The natural resistance of the other Irishmen.” If only he had been right. In 1912 Bram Stoker, creator of Dracula, died: but the real blood-suckers – war, militarism, aggressive imperialism and narrow nationalism – would soon sweep all sardonic optimism away.

Declan Kiberd is Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame