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Fighting England with Knife and Fork

Anthony J Jordan writes: Though Arthur Griffith features throughout Ulysses, this fact does not register with many readers of the novel: this may be because most do not know about Griffith or his twenty-year association with James Joyce.

Griffith was an Irish journalist who edited the Dublin-based The United Irishman newspaper. In 1901, Joyce wrote a critical article for his university magazine on WB Yeats’s Irish Literary Theatre. Publication was declined, so he sent the piece to various newspapers. The only paper to give it notice was The United Irishman. Griffith himself wrote a piece saying “ … I have failed to find any heresy, blasphemy, immorality or sedition in this pamphlet … Mr James Joyce writes on the ILT, and I do not agree with his criticism of it. But why the censor strove to gag Mr. Joyce is to me as profound a mystery as to why we should grow censors in this country. Turnips would be more useful. I hope this little pamphlet will have a large sale.”


Thus Griffith was the first person to introduce Joyce to the Irish public, on November 2nd, 1901. Joyce did not thank him for it, and within a few years he greatly annoyed Griffith, who had just published a commemorative book of poems by the late Willie Rooney, who had been Griffith’s friend. Joyce reviewed the book from Paris and savaged it, writing:

Little is achieved in these verses, because the writing is so careless, and is so studiously mean … They were written it seems, for a paper and societies week after week and bear witness to some desperate and weary energy.
But they have no spiritual and living energy, because they come from one in whom the spirit is in a manner dead, or at least in its own hell, a weary and foolish spirit, speaking of redemption and revenge, blaspheming against tyrants and going forth full of tears and curses, upon its infernal labour.

Griffith retorted by using Joyce’s article as an advertisement for the book in the following week’s paper, adding the one word he claimed Joyce was afraid to utter, that is patriotism.

In exile Joyce’s main intellectual contact with Ireland was Griffith’s United Irishman and later his Sinn Féin newspaper. His brother Stanislaus said “The United Irishman was the only paper in Dublin worth reading, and in fact he read it every week."

In 1904 Griffith published a seminal pamphlet called The Resurrection of Hungary, in which he set out a programme for Ireland to become independent of the British empire. In 1905, Griffith founded an organisation named Sinn Féin. Within seventeen years he would became president of a free Irish parliament in Dublin.

James wrote to Stanislaus of Griffith on September 25th, 1906 that “so far as my knowledge of Irish affairs goes, he was the first person in Ireland to revive the separatist idea on modern lines nine years ago. He wants the creation of an Irish consular service abroad, and of an Irish bank at home. What I don’t understand is that apparently while he does the talking and the thinking, two or three fatheads like (Edward) Martyn and (John) Sweetman don’t begin either of the schemes.”

On April 24, 1907 James told Stanislaus that he thought Griffith unassuming and sensible and supported his call for an economic boycott of Britain. He wrote: “The Sinn Fein policy comes to fighting England with the knife and fork … the highest form of political warfare I have heard of.”

Joyce had his Dubliners finished in 1905, but could not get it published despite valiant efforts. In desperation, he wrote to King George V in August 1911 seeking adjudication that he had not insulted the memory of his father, Edward VII, in one of the stories. Later in 1911 Joyce sent a challenging letter to Irish newspapers about the historical “suppression” of Dubliners. Griffith, who understood Joyce’s tactic, was the only editor to risk libel action by publishing the letter in full, in Sinn Féin on September 2nd.


Joyce made his final visit to Ireland in 1912 to try again to have Dubliners published. He met with unyielding opposition from George Roberts of Maunsel publishing house. Among those he called on was Arthur Griffith. On August 26th he wrote from Dublin to his brother Stanislaus:

… I went then to Griffith who received me very kindly and remembered my letter [17/8/1911 in Sinn Féin]. He says I am not the first person from whom he has heard this story. He says Roberts has been playing that game for years. He says the idea of Maunsel suing me is simple bluff and believes that they will not come into court and that if I get a strong solicitor on my side they will yield. He gave me a note to a first-class solicitor in Westmoreland St. He asked me to send him copies of my articles in Il Piccolo della Sera [a Trieste newspaper].

He planned to self-publish Dubliners but the printers refused to hand over the plates.

During the 1912 visit, Joyce told Griffith that he realised he was seeking to free the Irish people economically and politically, while he, Joyce, was seeking to liberate them spiritually in his novel. As Richard Ellmann observes:

Joyce was pleased to be treated as a man having a common cause, though working in a less obviously political medium. For he had remained faithful to his goal of creating new Irishmen and Irishwomen through the honesty and scorching candour of his writing. Ulysses creates new Irishmen to live in Griffith’s new State.

Indeed Andrus Ungar’s book Joyce’s Ulysses as National Epic: Epic Mimesis and the Political History of the Irish Nation State, sees the book as responding to the Irish Literary Revival’s expectation that a native epic would crown Ireland’s literary achievements and to the country’s imminent independence under Sinn Féin.

When Ulysses was finally published, on February 2nd, 1922, Griffith was the only contemporary politician featured, along with his Resurrection of Hungary and Sinn Féin. Joyce was briefly exhilarated at the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, and took satisfaction in the fact that, at the very time that he was giving his country a new conscience by completing Ulysses, his old associate Arthur Griffith was taking office as its first president. Joyce wished to salute Griffith’s at-last successful efforts and the many references to Griffith in Ulysses are more than coincidence. For a moment it seemed that the two events were allied, that Ireland could be a nation once again in terms of both spiritual and political emancipation.

17/10/2019