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James Joyce, the Church and the State

As usual around June, I take down Ulysses for some more good-humoured updates on what happens on Bloomsday. This year my reading coincides with news of the latest church scandal from Ireland, the gruesome revelations about the remains of nearly 800 children found in a disused sewage tank in Tuam, County Galway. The children died between 1925 and 1961 while under the care of the Bon Secours nuns. Other graves are also being uncovered.

One is forced to make connections of meaning between what James Joyce is saying in Ulysses and the stories coming out about Magdalen laundries, child sexual abuse, and now these mass graves. The iron power of the Catholic Church in Ireland is object of his continuous satire in Ulysses, a power that only became entrenched after the Civil War. At times the satire goes on too long, Joyce seems unable to restrain himself from questioning the Church through the cleverness of his art. It makes one see that, whether in 1904 or after, simply no one was allowed to ask any questions of the internal power of the Church in Ireland. Yet Joyce sees intuitively that the Church is trapped too by its own influence in this world.

Catholicism, under Eamon De Valera and others, was used as the moral basis and guide of the Irish State. In the same year that Ulysses was published (1922) De Valera was instituting, in the sudden absence of any other model, a form of restrictive Catholic nationhood. And as the Australian lawyer Kieran Tapsell has drawn to our attention recently, 1922 was the year Pope Pius XI issued the decree Crimen Sollicitationis, “that created a de facto ‘privilege of clergy’ by imposing the ‘secret of the Holy Office’ on all information obtained through the Church’s canonical investigations.” In real terms, this meant that the State not only would not, but could not, question the actions of the Catholic clergy or religious. They could act without fear of exposure, virtually a law unto themselves.

It was a diabolical situation. While we now blame the Church alone for what happened in parishes and religious houses, actually the Church under De Valera and beyond was used as an extension of the State. It was locked into the process. Church houses did what the State couldn’t do because it didn’t have the funds. The Catholic moralism of De Valera’s Ireland is a grim thing to behold from this distance. It was a kind of ideological puritanism, of the very kind depicted in comic measure in Ulysses, which after 1922 turned Ireland almost into a kind of theocratic republic, in which any alternative to the Church line was ignored or publicly rejected.

Dire poverty was Ireland’s biggest challenge. We know this to be the case in 1904 too, where in Ulysses virtually every character owes somebody something; borrowing and gambling are two of the main economic activities; pastimes, really. Because the State could not support unmarried mothers and their children, it passed the responsibility to the Church. The religious orders were left to run the homes like businesses, with the babies sold into adoption, the mothers forced into hard labour in the laundries. The State was relieved of responsibility and the Church protected itself from scrutiny or investigation. The clergy and religious were left with enormous powers over the most vulnerable women and children in society. There was power without unaccountability,
judgementalism without compassion. 

Ulysses contains other forewarnings of what could happen in a place like Dublin. For example, we have Molly Bloom, who is a huge irrepressible reminder to Irish readers of sexuality. In fact, sexuality is one of her prime messages; Joyce never allows us to forget her sexuality through the whole book. Sexuality, that is the very thing being suppressed by the Church, with devastating results, as we see in these latest reports. Where the body is thought of as sinful, when the body is seen at all, then it becomes permitted by those in control to punish the sinful body, to treat the sinful body with indifference. The Church authorities were guilty of the heresy of Manichaeism. Joyce grasped this fact and we can only marvel at his relentless celebration of the human body in Ulysses. Sexuality, as an integral fact of being human and having a body, is therefore celebrated as well.  

The Tuam revelations raise other major questions about Dublin in the early 20th century, such as, where are the fathers of these children? Are they the Blazes Boylans of the world? We think too of the Maternity Hospital scenes later in Ulysses, where the women give birth while the men all drink and make filthy jokes. What is Joyce saying about Dublin in 1904? Are the men just drinking the whole time? Joyce softens the picture with the presence of experienced souls like Leopold Bloom, but the overall image remains problematic. And are the women really all alone, left to sort out the realities? Something missing from Ulysses is the network of women (and men, at times) who must have worked to protect mothers and children from a fate at the hands of the authorities. It is Bloom, the solitary and sensitive networker, who works against the prevailing indulgences.

And lastly, in this context we look at the portrayal of children in Ulysses. We ask what Joyce thinks of childhood and children. The scene stays in the mind in which one of Simon Dedalus’s daughters seeks money for food. There is no hope offered, let alone something to go on with. The father is, typically, caught up in his own daily interests rather than in those of his own family. The gap between the adults and children is profound, something Joyce makes clear too in the classroom scene that morning where Stephen displays little empathy or time for the students in his charge. So while Ulysses treats the transition from youth to age as a main theme, what are we to make of the absence of analysis about the transition from childhood to youth?


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