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‘M’appari tutt’ amor’: James Joyce’s Italian Influences in Ulysses

Many students of Ulysses will be familiar to the point of boredom with James Joyce’s oft-quoted remark in a letter to Bertrand Russell, wherein he boasted that, should Dublin ever suffer an atomic blast ‘it would be possible to rebuild the entire city, brick by brick’ with the novel as a guide. But what is perhaps more surprising is that not a single word of the book which is now acknowledged as Ireland’s first and greatest national epic was written while Joyce was living in the city of his birth.

Joyce had been a stranger and occasional visitor to Dublin since 1904, having eloped to the European mainland with his eventual wife Nora Barnacle. Indeed, his final visit to Dublin came in 1912, two years before he started writing Ulysses, a farewell mired in the difficulties he encountered in publishing his short story collection Dubliners. (1)

Via Pola and Rome, Joyce had eventually settled in Trieste, a port city at that point under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but whose Italian majority would eventually be annexed by Italy after World War One. It was in this coastal, Mediterranean melting-pot, far from the babbling of ‘dear, dirty Dublin’, that he started one of the most ambitious literary reconstructions of the city to date.

The obvious instinct is to scoff at the notion that this hyper-intellectual Clongowes-educated (2) Catholic emigré could ever deliver on his mission statement to encapsulate the dissonances operating within his kaleidoscopic birthplace. Joyce was now not even situated in the city that he wanted to map, but, having abandoned Ireland for a cosmopolitan life in continental Europe at the age of 22, now had to piece together Dublin from half-remembered wisps of impressionistic smoke and whatever he could glean from the letters he received from home. (3)

Joyce himself, however, saw the attraction of the exotic and the experiences of the Dubliner were not mutually exclusivein ‘Araby’, ‘Eveline’ and ‘After the Race’ in Dubliners, he presents us with consecutive stories where the drab smallness of Dublin life tempts his protagonists into a strange and fateful alliance with the foreign and unknown.

Thus a counter-point emerges – in writing Dublin from the distant perspective of one who rejected it, Joyce is crafting a portrayal of his city as Irish as any other. Part of the process of writing Ireland as a rich fully-realised nation involves placing it in a relative position with these other cultures, and using the attraction or repulsion provoked by these cultures to distil a uniquely Irish essence.

Of course, the foreign doesn’t always position itself as a tempting horizon, but is often much more embedded within the quotidian than we think. In Ulysses, a novel displaying a studied affinity to the exponents German, French and (sometimes begrudgingly) English culture, it is appropriately Joyce’s home of Italy which emerges as both uniquely familiar and enticing.

Ulysses, among many other things, speaks of the melodious correspondences and uncanny parallels which belong to the story of Dublin’s contact with Italy. Far from making Joyce a stranger in the country of his own birth, it is his interest in Italy that makes him better suited to telling the tale of his own nation

‘The first touch of foreignness’

A 1970s RTÉ report on the Italian community in Dublin refers to Italy as ‘the first touch of foreignness to most of us’, and it is perhaps the enduring and almost prelapsarian nature of this relationship which gives Italy its special status in Irish culture.

Italy has left deep roots in Dublin and further afield, and today, thousands of Irish citizens can trace their family history to the tiny communes of Casalattico and Picinisco, in Frosinone near Lazio. But these roots run even deeper, seemingly extending almost to the beginning of Irish history.

The “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses (4) sees the über-nationalistic (and just a little bit racist) ‘Citizen’ invoke ‘our wool that was sold in Rome in the time of Juvenal’ as proof of a time where Ireland stood apart from English domination and took her place among the nations of the earth. (5) 

Though Ireland received Christianity from Roman Britain, its process of religious and cultural exchange with Italy was reciprocal and voluntary, and in particular the mutual exchange of musical excellence will be discussed later on. Ireland was not just a staging-post for the Roman faith, with Italy itself often sought out by great Irish figures. The steadfast missionary Columbanus, who died in a town called Bobbio in Emilia-Romagna having founded an abbey there, was the most prominent of such figures, having spread the Catholic faith throughout Europe before his journey ended in Italy. 

Interestingly, the novel’s disaffected protagonist, and Joyce’s semi-autobiographical surrogate Stephen Dedalus (somewhat ironically) admits to having seen the path of ‘fiery Columbanus’ as one to follow when he emigrated to Paris, a happy coincidence which will be more relevant later on in our argument.

Italy didn’t just pull, however, as various circumstances saw its own citizens pushed towards the Emerald Isle. While Joyce was obviously writing during and before the two great wartime migrations of Italians to his home country, they did not make first contact, with Lombards having migrated over on the coattails of the Normans hundreds of years before. Later, another significant wave of Italian emigrants in the context of Irish history would arrive in the form of the stuccadores who helped construct one of the decadent symbols of British imperial decadence in Dublin’s Georgian Core. (6)

Italians began to make their own mark on the variety of Dublin; organ-grinders and ice cream salesmen abounded, Giuseppi Cervi started the first of Dublin’s many fish and chip shops in 1882 and Joseph Nannetti, son of an Italian sculptor and a name that Ulysses readers will know well, became Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1900. (7)

And suddenly this friendship, where Ireland sent its best to Italy and Italy shaped Ireland in turn, reached a crucial point – a twelve year old James Aloysius Joyce needed to learn a third language to help his application to Belvedere college, and fatefully stumbled on Italian as his choice. (8)

‘All that Italian florid music’

One comic exchange in the ‘Eumaeus’ episode of Ulysses between Stephen and his co-protagonist, the Jewish advertising canvasser and everyday everyman Leopold Bloom, might give the misleading impression that Joyce is no more receptive to the Italian language than any other. 

Having ‘perceived an ice-cream car round which a group of presumably Italians in heated altercation were getting rid of voluble expression in their vivacious language in a particular animated way’, Bloom gushes A beautiful language. I mean for singing purposes’, going on to asking Stephen ‘[w]hy do you not write your poetry in that language? Bella Poetria! it is so melodious and full. Belladonna voglio’.

Stephen, ‘trying his dead best to yawn’, replies ‘[t]o fill the ear of a cow elephant. They were haggling over money’, and Bloom is forced to concede that the reputation of Italian for melody may only rest on ‘the southern glamour that surrounds it’.

We shouldn’t be deceived by the stock cynicism of Joyce’s surrogate here – Joyce is, perhaps above all, interested in language as form. Throughout his works, the sounds of words are as important as their substance, and Joyce’s love of Italian is linked to the properties of his writing in a way which becomes especially clear in Ulysses.

Despite what Stephen might think, music constitutes of the most meaningful historic ties between Italy and Ireland. The two nations met again and again throughout the centuries in this particular cultural sphereIreland introduced Italy to the harp, which in turn inspired the pianoforte, before the eighteenth century saw Italians return the favour by crowding Dublin with singing talent. 

The above details of this relationship come from an essay by W. H. Grattan called ‘Eighteenth Century Italians in Dublin’, and his detailed findings go on to reveal just how impactful this musical influx was. With Signor Benedetti’s concert tour making Italian music the in thing in Dublin high society, plenty of maestri brought their expertise westwards, some settling in Dublin for years, or, in the case of the Passerini family, for almost a century. This expertise trickled down through the ranks of Dublin’s own musical prodigies, as in the example of John Field, credited with the invention of the nocturne, who was taught by Tommaso Giordani.

The legacy of this harmonic friendship is nowhere more evident than in “Sirens”, an episode constructed itself on the principles of the fuga (fugue) technique in music. (9) Italy begins as one of many rhythmic undercurrents of the episode with Bloom passing ‘[b]y Bassi’s blessed virgin’ and ‘by Ceppi’s virgins’, the Italian-owned antique shops of Dublin, on the way to the Ormond Hotel.

The undercurrent begins to stir as separate Italian operas in Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello and Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula are alluded to as patrons begin to fill the Ormond’s Concert Room bar. It becomes clear that the Italian tradition is not just an occasional ornament in Joyce’s prosaic fugue, but its compositional bedrock, and it is a song best-known in Italian, translated into English and originally written by a German composer, that provides the episode with its first set-piece.

After much coaxing, the faux-reluctant Simon Dedalus, father of Stephen, is persuaded to sing ‘M’apparì tutt’amor’ from Friedrich von Flotow’s opera Martha. Though Bloom regards the widower Dedalus as a somewhat tragic figure whose best days are behind him, he and the rest of those present witness a moment of pure transformation when the tenor begins his recital, as:

‘[t]hrough the hush of air a voice sang to them, low, not rain, not leaves in murmur, like no voice of strings of reeds or whatdoyoucallthem dulcimers, touching their still ears with words, still hearts of their each his remembered lives’

There is a faraway inflection to this music ‘of the ethereal bosom’, music which, in transposing the passionate words of another language into one that the listeners can understand, seems to reflect how one of the most established modes of Irish self-expression has developed in tandem with the influence of an alien culture. Dedalus is speaking Irish unfamiliarly and freely, and it leads to unexpected moments of candour for those caught up in its spell.

Martha tells the story of Lionel, a farmer who falls in love with a noblewoman who is subsequently cruelly stolen away from him. Bloom, who has been pointedly but obliquely worrying about his wife’s with Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan which is presently being consummated, finds himself transfigured into ‘Lionelleopold’ after hearing Dedalus’ song. It is through identification with Lionel in this air that he is pushed towards the most frank confrontation of his anguish concerning his wife Molly’s infidelity, with Bloom specifically attuned to the ‘cry of lionel loneliness that she [Martha, and maybe Molly] should know […] For only her he waited.’

The existence of this strange musical tryst between Ireland and Italy seemingly draws the listeners away from the familiar surroundings of the Dublin hotel bar and towards the creative world of their cultural forefathers who are responsible for the most famous rendition of Flotow’s air. When the audience demands a return to ‘[o]ur native Doric’ and attend to ‘Big’ Ben Dollard’s recital of the Irish rebel ballad The Croppy Boy, Bloom is by contrast left cold by the self-congratulatory response which follows:

‘roars of bravo, fat backslapping, their boots all treading, boots not the boots the boy. General chorus off for a swill to wash it down. Glad I avoided.’

Though the poignant history of Irish nationalism plays an enormous part in Ulysses, here it is implied that, far from a language for haggling over prices, Italian’s special status within Dublin life positions it as an emotional language which can access deeper spiritual resonances in the Irish psyche.

What the Italian language embodies in this scene is a certain affective flexibility, a means for Joyce to segue from the seedy flirtation which sets the scene in the bar to a meditative pause which takes place outside of time. This linguistic flexibility, however, had somewhat different but no less interesting consequences for Joyce’s own stylistic purposes.

I mentioned Del Greco Lobner’s essay on Joyce’s fascination with the Italian language earlier (see footnotes), and the specific aspects which he chose to fixate on are worthy of closer study.

Joyce was a writer whose defining quality is that he always wanted language to do as much as possible for him – so much of Ulysses showcases his ability to uncannily place his finger on an unnamed impression through his own invented adjectives and adverbs, in a book that abounds with descriptions of ‘dewsilky cattle’, librarians moving ‘sinkapace forward on neatsleather creaking’ and ‘teabathed lips’.

Italian is a language which rewards this relentless search for exactitude, where parole alterate (altered words) are used to isolate meaning on a scale that is unique relative to other European languages like Spanish which also use them. Various suffixes can be added to Italian words for a diminutive, augmentative or pejorative effect – if you wanted to convey the sense of a minor or sub-par film you might use filmuccio or filmetto instead of film, and if the regular il vecchio (old man) just wasn’t going to cut it in terms of emphasising how aged the poor fella was, you’d use un vecchione instead. (10)

Del Greco Lobner explains that through these parole alterate, the ‘experimentation he [Joyce] did not find possible in French came quite easily in Italian’, and it is perhaps unsurprising that a book which he starts writing at the back end of his Italian adventures sees him taking an enormous leap in terms of moving away from the fairly conventional prose of Dubliners and the only-slightly-unhinged stylings of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Some of the characters who he satirises fit rather neatly onto the Italian schema of augmentatives and diminutives, and excusing some probable errors on my part you have to wonder if the likes of big Ben Dollard and ‘littlejohn Eglinton’ were written as ‘Benedettone’ or ‘Giovannino’ in the Italian translation of Ulysses.

When addressing the influences of Joyce’s experiments with language in Ulysses, we must stress that it is not just an Irish novel with Italian inflections, but more specifically a Dublin novel with Triestine inflections. Ellmann recalls that Joyce was ‘always fascinated by local jokes’, none more so than in Trieste where he was fluent in the local drinking songs, and he revelled in how the demographic variety of this seaport was reflected in its idioms. As Ellmann puts it:

‘Joyce was particularly taken with the [Triestine] dialect; if Dublin speech is distinctive, Triestine speech is more so, having its own spellings and verb forms and an infusion of Slovene and other words. Not only was Triestino a special dialect, but the residents of Trieste, who had congregated there from Greece, Austria, Hungary, and Italy, all spoke the dialect with special pronunciations. The puns and international jokes that resulted delighted Joyce.’

Ulysses does not ignore the internal stratification of Dublin from its centre to its suburbs, and many of its set-pieces are defined by their localization within a particular road or even a tram line – it is a book where the reader is expected to be wise to a knowing allusion to ‘Vico Road, Dalkey’, have some familiarity with ‘the route Skin-the-goat drove the car for an alibi’ (11) and make sense of ‘words changing colour like those crabs about Ringsend in the morning’ as a metaphor. Joyce’s playful and productive relationship with the contradictions and complications of Dublin’s local geography are surely in some part a product of how Triestine dialect was able to contain Slavic, Italian and Jewish multitudes, and Stephen is right in that what the Italian language has to offer to his novel is predicated on much more than sound alone.

Anch’io ho avuto di queste idee

When untangling the history of Irish nationalism, it’s not uncommon to be held up by the frequent paradoxical thickets and Gordian knots which intertwine religion and politics, many of which Joyce made a point of talking about across his work. (12) An almost comical example of the confusions that these contradictions were apt to lead to was the muddle that Irish nationalists got into when addressing the Italian Risorgimento, which sought to unify the Italian peninsula but had Pope Pius IX, who controlled the central Italian Papal States, as an obstacle. Jennifer O’Brien explains it thusly:

‘[T]he pro-papal agitation posed an acute dilemma for Irish nationalists. Their ideology made them instinctively sympathetic to any national struggle for independence and unity, and they had enthusiastically welcomed the fall of absolutist Austrian rule in 1859. Yet they could not afford to swim against the tide of public opinion or to alienate the politically influential priests’. (13)

In this, we can see that the relationship between Ireland and Italy is so much more than just music, a fact which can be illustrated by another of Stephen’s typically pithy aphorisms. ‘I am the servant of two masters […] an English and an Italian’, Stephen tells Haines in ‘Telemachus’, the first episode of Ulysses, referring to his subjection to King Edward VII as an Irishman and to the Pope as an Irish Catholic.

The structure of Italy, where the Pope wielded a certain level of political mastery, was thus invariably seen in relation to Ireland’s through the same religious ties which Columbanus amongst other missionaries had cultivated many centuries ago. But in the eventual triumph of the Risorgimento, Italy was progressing towards a secular political sphere, a journey which Ireland had made much less progress in undertaking. Indeed, Ellmann recalls that Joyce delighted in his freedom to explore the religious pluralism which flourished in Trieste, attending Greek Orthodox services as part of his fascination with ‘eastern’ culture and visiting its Jewish cemetery.

Italy represents something very different in the respective minds of Stephen and Bloom in Ulysses – for the former, modelled on a man who was himself nicknamed ‘Dublin’s Dante’,  the Italian medieval canon is a cultural touchstone which informs much of his personal philosophy, and for the latter Italy exists as an ideal which is at once sensuous and associated with social mobility. Yet for both Stephen and Bloom Italian is something which seems to compensate for the little tyrannies of life in Dublin.

We needn’t spend an awful amount of time discussing Bloom – the downtrodden salesman who always seems the butt of the joke amongst his acquaintances within the Dublin bourgeoisie views Italy as a signifier of luxury which would help him escape and transcend it. Just observe how his repeated wish for Stephen to instruct Molly in Italian can be related to his prior ‘Utopian plans’ to bring her on a money-spinning tour of the English seaside, and implicitly, as Molly sees it, improve her ‘ignorant’ nature.

But now, onto our ‘fiery Columbanus’. In analysing Stephen’s philosophical influences, we would be foolish to focus solely on Joyce’s affection for Dante, and Stephen’s old favourite ‘san Tommaso Mastino’, that is to say St Thomas Aquinas, can always be prevailed upon to lend him some argumentative ballast. Aquinas first emerges as a contributor to Stephen’s aesthetic theories in Portrait, with Stephen boasting to his friend Lynch that ‘[p]erhaps Aquinas would understand me better than you. He was a poet himself.’

The Dominican theologian returns in Ulysses, yet again in Stephen’s hour of discursive need, within a context that requires some explanation. Stephen has a half-flippant, half-inspired theory about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where as his friend Buck Mulligan puts it, ‘[h]e proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father’. Mulligan’s interpretation isn’t as absurd as it sounds – Stephen’s point is more or less that Shakespeare, having purportedly played the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the play, was both addressing his own dead son Hamlet and addressing himself in the guise of his own father. Though Haines asks to hear this convoluted theory, Mulligan vetoes any such event, moaning that he would rather avoid ‘Thomas Aquinas and the fiftyfive reasons he has made to prop it up.’

Yet when Stephen later presents his theory in hostile territory, in the Dublin’s National Library in front of John Eglinton and Richard Best, representatives of the city’s Protestant intelligentsia, it is clear that Aquinas is not just an ornamental indulgence on Stephen’s part but part of his armoury. Stephen feels himself ‘Cordoglio. Lir’s loneliest daughter’ amongst these arbitrators of literary credibility who discuss at length the future of Ireland’s cultural heritage without mentioning the name of the prodigy in their midst, but his desire to prove himself is tempered by the fact that he relies on them for any access to artistic influence in Dublin.

The mock-epic ambience of Ulysses reaches its peak here as Stephen is forced to stay on his guard against a guileful enemy, and the calculating Eglinton requires particular care, compared by Stephen to Brunetto Latini’s basilisk who ‘quando vedo l’uomo l’attosca’ (‘when it looks at men it poisons them’). The skulking, shrewd aspects of Italian culture are accentuated as Stephen deploys it like one of Odysseus’ own stratagems to gain the upper hand. ‘I may as well warn you that if you want to shake my belief that Shakespeare is Hamlet you have a stern task before you’, Eglinton growls, but Stephen leans on the hidden intrigue of the Renaissance to show that Shakespeare is a presence which eludes the librarian’s received notions of the bard, hiding ‘as a painter of old Italy’ within his works. Ultimately, Stephen argues, the cult of divine motherhood which the ‘cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe’ has deceived Best and Eglinton into ignoring the depth of paternal feeling within Hamlet.

Aquinas comes in as Stephen’s trusty, learned Horatio, ‘whose gorbellied works I enjoy reading in the original’. Part of Stephen’s claim rests on the contention that Shakespeare chooses the guise of Hamlet’s father’s ghost to allude to his wife Ann Hathaway’s affair with his brother (this isn’t just ‘algebra’, it’s more or less a whole quadratic equation at this stage). Stephen turns Eglinton’s earlier invocation of ‘[t]he doctor’ (Sigmund Freud) on its head by arguing that a trendy reference to the ‘new Viennese school’ merely shields Shakespeare from being characterised as a bitter cuckold in Hamlet, which Aquinas’ ‘wise and curious way’ reveals by way of patient logic.‘Gentle Will is being roughly handled’, Best complains afterwards, but it is the subtlety of a centuries-old Italian which acts as the muscle.

Italy and its cultural magnetism act as an effective counterweight to the oppressive here and now of Dublin, but the country exerts a force which is not just opposite but equal. The two countries are uncannily comparable in circumstance, and Italian culture is clearly positioned as a sweet but familiar release from the insular scene of early 20th century Dublin. But Joyce knows enough about the history of Italian struggle to caution that this release alone is an impermanent solution, and that a unified country which ‘takes her place among the nations of the earth’ is not in itself an unimpeachable ideal.

To return to Dubliners briefly, as I hinted at before it is often the case that once the gap has been breached and the once distant ideal of the exotic has been made tangible, it is revealed as frighteningly imperfect. (14) Italians were certainly part of the struggle to liberate and unify Ireland, and many accounts of Irish Republicanism remember the contributions the Irish-Italian brothers William and Hayden Corri, grandchildren of the landscape painter Valentine Corri and great-great-grandchildren of renowned composer and conductor Domenico Corri, who emigrated to England from Rome.(15) But Joyce’s life in Trieste was testament to the fact that the project of Italian unity was far from complete – the Irredentist movement which sought to reclaim Italian-speaking areas such as Trieste was alive in the city, and according to Ellmann:

‘the similarity here [between Irredentism and Republicanism] was so striking that Joyce found he could interest his Italian friends in Irish political parallels’.

Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, who lived (often fractiously) with Joyce and Nora in Trieste, was even arrested and interned throughout the war as a result of his own rather flagrant support for the Irredentist cause.

It’s worth saying that in much of Italy, Joyce found that he was encountering the same sense of historical paralysis that so famously oppresses Dublin within his works. Joyce worked as a bank clerk in Italy’s capital for just over six months, but was soon fed up with life in the tourist-ridden, stress-inducing Eternal City. Ellmann adds that much of this could be explained by Rome’s resemblance to the Dublin from which he had recently emigrated:

‘In Rome the obtrusiveness of the dead affected what he thought of Dublin, the equally Catholic city he had abandoned, a city as prehensile of its ruins, visible and invisible. His head was filled with a sense of the too successful encroachment of the dead upon the living city’.

Thus it must be understood that when Joyce draws parallels between Italian and Irish struggles for national self-determination, as when parallels are drawn between iconic Risorgimento leader Giuseppe Garibaldi and Irish Republican Brotherhood founder James Stephens,(16) it is not without a note of caution. 

A conversation between Stephen and Almidano Artifoni,(17) the maestro di musica who gives Stephen voice lessons, subtly but invitingly encourages these parallels between the younger Ireland and the seasoned revolutionary Italy. Attempting to convince Stephen to abandon his aimless existence as an aesthete and instead make his fortune through his voice, Artifoni remembers that ‘Anch’io ho avuto di queste idee … quand’ ero giovine come Lei (‘I too had this idea… when I was young like you’). ‘Lei si sacrifica’ (‘You sacrifice yourself’) through intransigence, he warns, cautioning Stephen against equating self-formation with self-sacrifice by appealing to his own experience. 

It doesn’t feel at all tenuous to suspect that Joyce is making a political analogy here, given both his familiarity with Irredentism and the troubling blind spots of uncritical Irish nationalism which surface in his novel, not as a criticism of the project itself, but of its possible unchecked implications.

Irredentism, Ellmann reminds us, contradicted Joyce’s own strongly-held socialist ideals at the time, and many contemporary Italian socialists pointed out that the nationalist tides rolling through the Adriatic were actively harmful to class solidarity. If Trieste was a prize to be ‘redeemed’ (‘redenta’) by Italy, it stood that it was not the birthright of its Slavic and Greek inhabitants, as well as those of the Hapsburg empire. Accordingly, Irredentism took the considerable Slavic population of Trieste as its opponent, with nationalist leaders stoking tensions against the pan-Slavic presence within the city, which included Dalmatian and Slovenian components, painting it as an insidious spectre which would outgrow and overpower its Italians lest they took urgent action.

Just as Rome was unable to escape the image of its ruins, the ugliness of a static conception of history – the non-negotiable ideal of a ‘redeemable’ Italy – propelled Italian attempts to reclaim the Trieste. Joyce feared this too in how Irish nationalism seemed to stray away from the socialism which underpinned its origins in search of a necessary enemy, prioritising national supremacy above national equality.

The Citizen is the proponent of this aspect of nationalism in his invocation of a motherland which was somehow both a hub of continental trade and sealed off from continental migration.This somewhat paradoxical ideal of a nation which is both cosmopolitan and self-sufficient needs some sort of justification for the latter quality. The Citizen’s vision of nation is thus unaccommodating, a return to a fixed historical vision of a self-contained Ireland before Jewish ‘strangers’, by which term he pointedly refers to Bloom, came across, ‘filling the country with bugs’. 

In making an example of the Citizen and the lack of resistance his invective meets from the other punters in ‘Cyclops’, Joyce is alluding to tensions in Irish political life that resembled the anti-Slavic sentiment which polluted the Irredentist cause – 1904 was not only the year in which Ulysses was set, but the year of the infamous Limerick pogrom which saw Jewish businesses boycotted in the Irish county. These sentiments were by no means limited to pub bores or the Irish mid-west, with charges of anti-Semitism notoriously levelled at Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith and, most pertinently to Joyce, Mulligan’s real life model in Oliver St. John Gogarty, a senator of the Irish Free State.

Perhaps then we should stop short of reading Stephen’s remark to Bloom in ‘Eumaeus’ as wholly flippant, seeing it as consistent instead with Joyce’s warning against being distracted by national ideals. Indeed, for all the arrestingly lyrical prose which is dedicated to the products of the Italian cultural imagination in Ulysses, the material evidence of Italian life encountered in Dublin turns out to be pretty quotidian, from the squabbling stevedores, to Artifoni jogging after the Dalkey tram, through to Antonio Rabaiotti’s ‘ice gondolas’ in ‘Circe’ and Bloom’s typically self-conscious internal debate as to whether it would be polite to ask councillor J.P. Nannetti how to pronounce the word ‘voglio’.

It seems apposite that when Emmet’s Speech from the Dock reappears in the dreamlike ‘Circe’ episode of Ulysses, having been the focal point of the denouement in ‘Sirens’, it is the Irish son of an Italian father Nannetti who Joyce chooses to recite them. ‘More Irish than the Irish’, Nannetti is the image of a culture that is admired and aspired towards in Ireland as one that has taken great strides towards taking ‘her place’ in Europe, and two years after the novel’s 1904 setting his formidable network of allies in Dublin will contribute towards the trade unionist’s election as Lord Mayor.

But the contrasting treatment of Bloom, the Jewish man of Hungarian descent who, perhaps enviously, makes this observation as to how well Nannetti has assimilated, is indicative of the oversights of a nationalist project which has been unmoored from any guiding sense of unity. If Nannetti’s warm standing in Dublin society partly acknowledges the inspiration that Irish nationalism has taken from other projects of national self-determination such as Italy’s, the implicit disparity between himself and Bloom suggests that more important concepts of national solidarity have not yet been developed.

Critically, but with the loving sensitivity of a lifelong student of Italian culture, Joyce excavates what he can from the historical correspondence between Italy and the country of his birth, Joyce crafts a cosmopolitan nationalist mode that does not deal with Italy as a ‘liberated’ country, but as one on an incomplete and perpetual journey of self-formation which goes beyond the simple fact of nation. With the same homerule sun which can be seen reflected in the Mediterranean and the shimmering Adriatic now inexorably rising in the Dublin of Ulysses, Joyce’s greatest achievement is making us interested in those that dwell in its shade.

(1) More detail is available in Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, but Joyce was in a protracted war with his own publisher George Roberts over supposedly offensive passages in Dubliners, with Joyce even vainly writing to King George V to appeal for help.

(2) Chronicled at great length in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Clongowes Wood is a prestigious boarding school in County Kildare – Joyce’s protagonist Stephen Dedalus recalls being asked by the other boys about his family’s status.

(3) I also mention this here – – but it really is great to look at the lengths (again in Ellmann’s authoritative biography) that his family members had to go to to ensure every last bit of Dublin was in its rightful place. You can only imagine how Joyce’s long-suffering brother Stanislaus felt while running around Dublin to check that Aungier and Wicklow Street were both within the Royal Exchange Ward.

(4) In the blog linked above there is a more thorough explanation of what the ‘episodes’ mean, but they are all based on individual episodes in Homer’s Odyssey.

(5) Robert Emmet’s ‘Speech from the Dock’, his last words before being hung for treason against British rule in 1803 –When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.’

(6) You can read more about this in Donal T. Flood’s ‘The Decay of Georgian Dublin’, but the decline of Dublin’s Georgian Core, built in the 18th Century under the instructions of the British Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, led to its rich inhabitants fleeing and leaving behind unsanitary, rotting tenement houses.

(7) Most of this information comes from the aforementioned RTÉ broadcast ( but I also made use of the following links in this section – Fiona Hyde, 6 interesting facts from the unique history of Irish-Italian chippers”,; ‘Dublin’s Little Italy’, (the author’s name was just given as ‘Donal’)

(8) See more in Corinna Del Greco Lobner’s fascinating essay ‘James Joyce and the Italian Language’ 

(9) Joyce would later claim after writing “Sirens” that he could no longer listen to music, now being fully aware of its artifice [Ellmann]

(10) See Schaum’s Italian Grammar (Fourth Edition)

(11) Skin-the-goat, or James Fitzharris, was one of the so-called Invincibles who assassinated the Irish Permanent Undersecretary Thomas Henry Burke in the name of Irish Republicanism. Fitzharris was the group’s getaway driver.

(12) Totemic Irish Parliamentary Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell, who wielded enormous power in the House of Commons on behalf of Irish Home Rule in the 19th Century, but who was abandoned by Ireland after his infidelity came to light, is the most notable example in Joyce’s works. In ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ in Dubliners he haunts the now-atrophied world of local Dublin politics, in Portrait his infidelity is responsible for a rift in Stephen’s family, and in Ulysses his downfall is heavily alluded to in the ‘Circe’ episode.

(13) See ‘Irish Public Opinion and the Risorgimento, 1859-60’, (

(14) Briefly, in ‘Araby’, the young protagonist visits an alluring Eastern-themed bazaar but is scared by its drabness, in ‘Eveline’ a slightly older girl attempts to elope to Buenos Aires with her lover, but retreats at the decisive moment, apparently reminded of home, and in ‘After the Race’, the naïve Irish protagonist finds himself taken advantage of by his glamorous continental fellow racers.

(15) These details can again be found in Donal’s blog.

(16) The comparison in question comes from the following passage in ‘Lestrygonians:

‘James Stephens’ idea was the best. He knew then. Circles of ten so that a fellow couldn’t round on more than his own ring. Sinn Fein. Back out you get the knife. Hidden hand. Stay in, the firing squad. Turnkey’s daughter got him out of Richmond, off from Lusk. Putting up the Buckingham Palace hotel under their own very noses. Garibaldi’

Here, Bloom’s richly associative train of thought jumps from the daring exploits of Stephens to one of history’s most courageous leaders, whose Expedition of the Thousand daringly conquered the south of Italy with a volunteer force.

(17) So-named after the head of the Berlitz School in Trieste which employed Joyce for a time.


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