The Artist and the Citizen

Limerick University’s Irish World Academy of Music and Dance celebrated its twentieth anniversary with three days of dance music and discussion, Academy20 Convocation. The event finished with a panel discussion on the Artist as Citizen, chaired by Vincent Wood and comprising director and author, Helena Enright, dancer and a PhD student in our own Department, Fearghus Ó Conchúir, curator Helen Carey, musician and composer, Nigel Osborne, poet, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and myself. I spoke not about what artists should do but what artists can do and what some artists have done. There was also a radio discussion on this, again chaired by Vincent Wood, and for which Helen, Fearghus and I were joined by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, the founding director of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. It will be aired on Monday 24 November as Arts Tonight, and will be available at their webpage thereafter. My thanks to all who made these events possible including Lisa Hallinan for Academy20 and Clíodhna Ní Anluain for RTÉ.

Panel at Academy20. Left to right: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Fearghus Ó Conchúir, Gerry Kearns, Helen Carey, Nigel Osborne, Helena Enright. Photograph by Maurice Gunning, used with kind permission.

Panel at Academy20. Left to right: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Fearghus Ó Conchúir, Gerry Kearns, Helen Carey, Nigel Osborne, Helena Enright. Photograph by Maurice Gunning, used with kind permission.

The most famous Citizen in Irish art is probably the individual who torments Leopold Bloom in chapter 12 of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The Citizen is discovered in Barney Kiernan’s pub ‘having a great confab with himself’ and ‘waiting for what the sky would drop in the way of drink.’[i]  The Citizen is a man of considerable size, a ‘stronglimbed […] sinewyarmed hero.’[ii] He peppers his conversation with Irish phrases, curses upon the English, and insults against Jewish people, ‘coming over here to Ireland filling the country with bugs. […] We want no more strangers in our house.’ The Citizen is the worst sort of nationalist bigot. As the insults slide towards physical violence, Bloom is offered the protection of being bundled out the door of the pub, chancing the response of ‘Three cheers for Israel!’ and then ‘Your God was a jew, Christ was a jew like me.’[iii] And now with excellent comic timing Joyce gives the Citizen a reply that shows the ridiculous extremity of his prejudice – ‘By Jesus says he, I’ll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will.’[iv] So now the Christian has become the one who would crucify the Jew, would himself have been the Christ-killer.

A review of Ulysses from the Observer newspaper, 1922; Source

The vainglory of the Citizen is an element of nationalist ideology and literature that Joyce ridiculed both in essays and in fiction. He declared that ‘nations have their ego, just like individuals,’[v] and noted that ‘out of the material and spiritual battle which has gone so hardly with her, Ireland has emerged […] with one belief–a belief in the incurable ignobility of the forces that have overcome her.’[vi] The Citizen’s celebration of Irish purity was likewise explicitly rejected by Joyce who asked: ‘What race, or what language […] can boast of being pure today?’[vii] In 1901, Joyce seemed certain that Irish culture offered slim pickings for the modern artist: ‘A nation which never advanced so far as a miracle-play affords no literary model to the artist, and he must look abroad.’[viii] According to Joyce, Irish literature was in thrall to a populist nationalist arrogance, ‘sodden enthusiasm and clever insinuation,’[ix] ‘the rabblement of the most belated race in Europe.’[x] In Finnegans Wake, Joyce was still ridiculing the literature of the Celtic Twilight, referring instead to the ‘cultic twalette.’[xi] In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus concludes that to cultivate the necessary independence to be an artist he will have to slip past the nets of ‘nationality, language, religion,’[xii] that have been set to keep the soul from free flight, and, in leaving Ireland and the influences of neighbours and family, will only then be able to go forth ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’[xiii]

Cover of the Pennsylvania State University Press edition; Source

This is a heady ambition for an artist. If a people’s sense of what is right and wrong is received uncritically from its religious leaders, or is based upon unrealistic notions of national purity and heroism, then, Joyce implies, such a people is essentially unfitted for independence or citizenship. Forging a national conscience, then, perhaps begins with a critical examination of prevalent social and political myths or, rather, it might begin with an attentiveness that registers the risk of myth. James Clarence Mangan (1803-49) wrote amusing abuse of the English as with his address ‘To the Ingleezee Khafir, Calling himself Djaun Bool Djenkinzun’:

I hate thee, Djaun Bool,

Worse than Márid or Afrit,

Or corpse-eating Ghool.

I hate thee like Sin,

For thy mop-head of hair,

Thy snub nose and bald chin,

And thy turkeycock air.[xiv]

James Clarence Mangan; Frederick Burton’s drawing of Mangan in the mortuary at Meath Hospital. Source: David J. O’Donoghue, The Life and Writings of James Clarence Mangan (Dublin: M.H. Gill and son, 1897)

Mangan published this poem in 1846 at a time when he was already writing apocalyptic poems about the danger of approaching famine. What is striking about his famine poems is that despite being a devotee of John Mitchel, there is little revolutionary confidence in Mangan’s poems. Indeed, there is a deep foreboding that the damage done to Irish society might weaken rather than enable political resistance. Consider, for example, the dramatic geographical metaphor by which Mangan reads Ireland as Siberia:


In Siberia’s wastes

The Ice-wind’s breath

Woundeth like the toothèd steel.

Lost Siberia doth reveal

Only blight and death.


Blight and death alone.

No Summer shines.

Night is interblent with Day.

In Siberia’s wastes alway

The blood blackens, the heart pines.


In Siberia’s wastes

No tears are shed,

For they freeze within the brain.

Nought is felt but dullest pain,

Pain acute, yet dead;


Pain as in a dream,

When years go by

Funeral-paced, yet fugitive,

When man lives, and doth not live,

Doth not live–nor die


In Siberia’s wastes

Are sands and rocks.

Nothing blooms of green or soft,

But the snowpeaks arise aloft

And the gaunt ice-blocks.


And the exile there

Is one with those;

They are part, and he is part,

For the sands are in his heart,

And the killing snows.


Therefore, in those wastes

None curse the Czar.

Each man’s tongue is cloven by

The North Blast, who heweth nigh

With sharp scymitar.


And such doom each drees,

Till, hunger-gnawn,

And cold-slain, he at length sinks there,

Yet scarce more a corpse than ere

His last breath was drawn.[xv]

Here, the extremity of the situation does not produce the violent reaction Mitchel and others anticipated. Tears are frozen and the living dead can not even raise a curse against their overlord. Even a poem that seems to call for revolution in fact resonates with doubt. The well-known My Dark Rosaleen ends in this manner:

O! the Erne shall run red

With redundance of blood,

The earth shall rock beneath our tread,

And flames wrap hill and wood,

And gun-peal, and slogan cry,

Wake many a glen serene,

Ere you shall fade, ere you shall die,

My Dark Rosaleen!

My own Rosaleen!

The Judgment Hour must first be nigh,

Ere you can fade, ere you can die,

My Dark Rosaleen![xvi]

There are two possibilities canvassed here. Either the demise of Ireland, my Dark Rosaleen, will be interrupted by a rebellion that will raise each hill and valley, or perhaps it really is the Judgment Hour and Ireland is doomed. This is the sort of honest doubt that prevents apocalypse being relished, Hamlet’s ‘consummation | Devoutly to be wished.’[xvii]


Silhouette of Mangan, 1822; Source.

Mangan did not always celebrate an Irish nation rendered heroic by adversity. In the teeth of the famine, he reflected upon habits induced by colonial rule:

Slavery debases the soul; yea! reverses its primal nature;

Long were our fathers bowed to the earth with fetters of iron–

And, alas! we inherit the failings and ills that environ

Slaves like a dungeon wall and dwarf their original stature.[xviii]

This suggestion that perhaps colonial subjects are not the stuff of heroes, has a rather postcolonial ring to it. Mangan also set his face against national chauvinism. In an early essay, he asserted that no one civilised language could be said to ‘be richer than another, because no one of them comprehends an ampler stock of ideas than another.’[xix] Mangan wanted to cultivate self-respect rather than chauvinism thus after publishing a set of translations of older Irish poems, he asserted that: ‘Our most anxious wish is, that the Irish public should see and acknowledge that there is really much more in the literature, and especially in the poetry of their native country, than, perhaps, they have hitherto given it credit for possessing.’[xx] In registering the disabilities of colonialism as well as the richness of an Irish heritage, Mangan is educating the Irish conscience. No wonder Joyce admired and loved his work.


Nora Barnacle and James Joyce; in London on the day of their marriage, 4 July 1931; Source.

Let me conclude by returning to Joyce. The nationalist’s moniker of Citizen is ironic, because of course it is Bloom who is the paradigm of good citizenship. If we wished to see Ulysses as fulfilling the promise made by Stephen at the close of Portrait, then we might think it was discharged in two ways. In presenting, Bloom, a fully rounded human being whose prudence, generosity and practical good sense seem almost the essence of citizenship, Joyce has offered an example of the conscience his nation might need, and indeed, in Ulysses and us, Declan Kiberd has described the novel as supplying advice on, as his subtitle insists, the art of everyday living.[xxi] But there are two other consciences described in the book. Stephen, insofar as he seems destined for maturity, has learned life lessons from the tolerant Jewish Irishman. Molly, on the other hand, has reached her own appreciation of Bloom through the exploration of her own sexuality and her recognition of the failings of the men who will pay her court but not respect. In fact, of course, Bloom is the gooseberry in this triangle for in truth Joyce acknowledged Nora as the source of his own encounters with reality.


The cover of Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and us: The art of everyday living (Chatham UK: Faber and Faber, 2009); Source.

Yet, there is one last element of the training of a conscience that is at least implicit in Ulysses. Although Joyce in 1901 despaired of developing modern art out of Irish exemplars, he continued to write about Ireland and he drew upon and deepened his own knowledge of Irish history and culture in order to do so. Even in the midst of his diatribe against those who refused to published Dubliners, he was at least ambivalent: ‘O Ireland my first and only love | Where Christ and Caesar are hand in glove.’[xxii] Like Mangan, he suggested that Ireland could assume a place among the community of nations without cultural shame. In part, he acted on the belief that his own achievements might redeem Irish literature by making it an essential reference point for understanding Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Or, to put it the other way around, Joyce wrote in the belief that Irish materials were as good as any other for producing literature of global significance. In one very important sense, Joyce’s modernism redeems the claim that one can be an Irish citizen of the world; that the materials for engaging with the enlightenment themes of rationality and citizenship come as easily from an Irish heritage as from any other. Attending to the local cultivates the cultural self-confidence that alone can ground an engagement with the wider world. It gives colour to our life by making our place in the world more interesting to us, by suggesting to us that people like us can attempt wonderful things and, as Mangan and Joyce, show us, we can do all this without chauvinism. This reaching into citizenship from art is at least worth our best effort.

Gerry Kearns



[i] James Joyce, Ulysses, edited (Paris: Shakespeare and company, 1922) 12: 118-20. Quotations in Ulysses are usually referenced by the chapter number and line number within the chapter. Disputed editions make this less definitive than it might be. I have used the online Columbia University online version prepared from the first edition by Samuel Schiminovich. This version is available here.

[ii] Ulysses, 12: 151, 154.

[iii] Ulysses, 12: 1792, 1810.

[iv] Ulysses, 12: 1812-13.

[v] Joyce, ‘Ireland, island of saints and sages’ [1907], in Ellsworth Mason and Richard Ellmann (eds), The critical writings of James Joyce (New York: Viking Press, 1959) 153-174, 154.

[vi] Joyce, ‘The soul of Ireland’ [1903], in The critical writings, 102-105, 105.

[vii] Joyce, ‘Ireland, island of saints and sages,’ 165-6.

[viii] Joyce, ‘The day of the rabblement’ [1901], in The critical writings, 68-72, 70.

[ix] Joyce, ‘The day of the rabblement,’ 71.

[x] Joyce, ‘The day of the rabblement,’ 70.

[xi] Joyce, Finnegans wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1939), 344: 12. For the Wake the usual system of referencing is to page and line number. There is now a much improved edition but this first edition is the basis for the accessible online edition with line numbers.

[xii] Joyce, Portrait of the artist as a young man (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1916), 238. This is the first edition and is available online.

[xiii] Joyce, Portrait, 299.

[xiv] James Clarence Mangan, ‘To the Ingleezee Khafir, calling himself Djaun Bool Djenkinzun’ [1846], in Jacques Chuto, Rudolf Patrick Holzapfel, and Ellen Shannon-Mangan (eds), The collected works of James Clarence Mangan. Poems: 1845-1847 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1997) 159-60, ll 1-7.

[xv] Mangan, ‘Siberia’ [1846], in Poems: 1845-1847, 157-8.

[xvi] Mangan, ‘My Dark Rosleen’ [1846], in Poems: 1845-1847, 168-70, ll 69-80.

[xvii] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, ll 64-5.

[xviii] Mangan, ‘A voice of encouragement–a New Year’s lay’ [1848], in O’Donoghue, The poems of James Clarence Mangan (London: O’Donoghue, 1903), 100-103, ll. 49-52.

[xix] Mangan, ‘Literae Orientales.–Turkish poetry–Second article,’ Dublin University Magazine 11:63 (March 1838) 291-312, 293.

[xx] Mangan, ‘Anthologia Hibernica.–No.II,’ Dublin University Magazine 29:173 (May 1847) 624-634, 634.

[xxi] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and us: The art of everyday living (Chatham UK: Faber and Faber, 2009).

[xxii] Joyce, ‘Gas from a Burner’ [1912], in The critical writings, 242-245, ll 25-6.


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on A Drink With Clarence Mangan and commented:
    “What is striking about his famine poems is that despite being a devotee of John Mitchel, there is little revolutionary confidence in Mangan’s poems. Indeed, there is a deep foreboding that the damage done to Irish society might weaken rather than enable political resistance. Consider, for example, the dramatic geographical metaphor by which Mangan reads Ireland as Siberia…”


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