James Joyce: Icon for Our Times

James Joyce: icon for our times

Call for Something Truly Radical

In 2012, when President Michael D. Higgins called for a ‘huge debate’ to redefine ‘Irishness’ it appears he had something truly radical in mind. He indicated that the redefinition must be in a manner that is ‘… appropriate for a real republic’.[1] In a recent article in History Ireland entitled Post-Independence Perspectives on ‘Irishness’ and Identity I responded with a proposal to apply the concept of objective or universal identity to the Irish situation.[2] This is, without doubt, a revolutionary answer to the President’s call and a far cry from traditional viewpoints. However, as I point out, Ireland prides itself in being a progressive nation. It has welcomed radical cultural change in recent times. Furthermore, the story of perspectives on ‘Irishness’ from independence to the present day could be summarized crudely as an ongoing war of attrition against the view of a pure unitary Irish race that was cherished by the visionary romantics of the early State.

A change in metaphor summarises the historical trend. According to literary critic Declan Kiberd, the unitary green flag of the visionaries that wrapped Cathleen Ní Houlihan was replaced, in the minds of Irish writers, by a quilt of many colours.[3] Applying the new paradigm of universal identity implies that we must extend this metaphor to its logical conclusion. The multicoloured rug should now be superseded by a modern Venn diagram of national and international influences indicating that ‘Irishness’ is part of a truly cosmopolitan phenomenon.

Before dismissing the proposal as a bridge too far, its advantages should be considered carefully. As a people we have argued for decadeswithout an agreeable solutionabout who we are. The universal definition of the term ‘identity’ represents a change in paradigm of several magnitudes and gives us power to create an identity landscape that correlates perfectly with our human condition rather than depending, as we now do, on ever-changing subjective views, feelings and opinions about the people amongst whom we exist.

La Deuxième République

I am not sure what President Higgins thinks of this wide-ranging proposal. However, I suspect that he is not overly perturbed. After all, if something radical is needed and called for, then he should not be surprised if something radical is proposed. But the suggestion that we adopt a fresh vision of ourselves by accepting the new paradigm of ‘identity’ and separating it from notions of ‘Irishness’ is merely a beginning. The shift from an insular vision of a unitary race to a fully cosmopolitan perspective on the eve of the anniversary of independence requires the creation of a modern tuiscint ar féin or ‘sense of self’. Furthermore, there needs to be a symbolic recognition that a genuine cultural evolutionary step is occurring. The best way for this country to acknowledge that it is truly entering a new era on the eve of its second century is to replace all old icons with a fresh set of insignia that reflect the enormity of the change.

The creation of a modern tuiscint ar féin or ‘sense of self’ is required

An appropriate means to achieving this goal involves putting asideon the official levelall national emblems, the militaristic anthem, all associations with a particular culture, while, at the same time, extending our notions of Irish culture to include the full spectrum of new migrants. All revered protagonists that spawned Ireland’s so-called ‘identity’ should also be set aside. Next, in the space left behind by all former figures, emblems and symbols, just one icon should substitute for all: James Joyce.

Joyce is selected because he recognised the universal dimension in his people. He famously stated: In the particular is contained the universal. Had the Irish been able to understand this reality, the country would have been saved from the fabrication of an absurd sense of self and from the agony of disentangling and extricating itself from the delusion at an enormous cost to its citizens. Accepting Joyce as the national icon is not meant to create a static condition. He symbolises a new situation that has not yet been realised and an aspiration to embrace our common humanity. As such, Ireland has the potential to be the first country in the world to covet the notion of universal identity as a national goal. To focus attention on the grandeur of the exercise, to prepare ourselves for this fundamental shift in considering our distinctiveness and to break away from all contrived and artificial concepts of our former official identity, we should think in terms of creating a new Irish State—La Deuxième République, perhaps. If successful, what a wonderful long-term legacy would be left from the Decade of Commemorations.

Some are likely to reject these suggestions because they appear too extreme. At the same time, only a far-reaching solution will fix the broken record and take the needle out of the groove. In other words, we accept final answers to enigmas like: What is Irish identity? and What is Irishness, or the record player will continue regurgitating the same questions. Others will respond, ad nauseam, with no progress being achieved. The present proposal breaksonce and for allthis Groundhog-Day cycle.

Joyce-Parnell Link

One last symbolic adjustment needs to be made at the national level in acknowledgment of Joyce’s empathy with the plight of Charles Stewart Parnell. A recognised link between these two figures would endow the new national icon with a historical dimension and satisfy the wise suggestion that the country should not lose its connections with the past. Indeed, Joyce’s legacy is somewhat like a modern highway running from the 1890s, through a landscape created by former Renaissance elites and patriots who worked well beyond the constraints of objectivity. This mythical countryside may be quaint but has passed its sell-by date and is irrelevant in terms of a true understanding of the country’s ‘national identification’. The Joyce-Parnell partnership also underpins the proposed national aspiration through what might be termed a ‘mission statement’ for the nation. This statement is derived from Parnell’s own words and should surround the central iconic figure of Joyce, reading: … no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further’.[4]

Raymond M, Keogh


[1] President Michael D. Higgins 2012 < http://www.eolasmagazine.ie/michael-d-higgins-on-redefining-irishness >

[2] Keogh, R. M. 2021. Post-Independence Perspectives on ‘Irishness’ and Identity. History Ireland Vol. 29(2):50-53.

[3] Kiberd, D. 1996. Inventing Ireland. Vintage. UK.

[4] Charles Stewart Parnell: quote taken from a speech given at Cork on 21st January 1885.

Images: James Joyce (St. Stephen’s Green). Cartoon RMK ©

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