]Another Bash in the Tunnel: James Joyce and the Envoy (2004)

Bruce Stewart

[Note: printed in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 93, No. 370 (Summer 2004), pp.133-46; originally ‘Another Bash in the Tunnel: James Joyce and the Irish Critics’, a paper given at QUB in June 2003 and subsequently reprinted in a longer version in Brian Caraher & Robert Mahony, eds., Ireland and Transatlantic Poetics: Essays in Honour of Denis Donoghue (Delaware: Newark UP 2007), pp.58-76.]

In the summer of 2004—the centenary of Bloomsday—the James Joyce International Symposium will once again convene in Dublin, the city of the writer’s birth and the scene of all his fiction. In this article I want to consider the Irish response to the first such meeting back in 1967, a central index to which was the tone and substance of a volume entitled A Bash in the Tunnel: James Joyce by the Irish (1970), edited by the literary publican John Ryan and incorporating articles that Brian Nolan (aka—and henceforth—Flann O’Brien), Patrick Kavanagh, Denis Johnston and others had contributed to a “James Joyce” Special Issue of Envoy which Ryan had earlier published in April 1951. Thrown together in a frankly derisory manner by O’Brien in his capacity as guest-editor, that issue had consisted of seven pieces starting with an openly contemptuous ‘Editorial Note’ which was directly followed by Kavanagh’s well-known squib “Who Killed James Joyce?”: ‘I, said the commentator, / I killed James Joyce […] The weapon that was used / Was a Harvard thesis.’[1] For the rest, the issue gathered essays by John Garvin (“Andrew Cass”) and Niall Montgomery together with a memoir by Joseph Hone and a note on the classical sources of Ulysses by W. B. Stanford before closing with Kavanagh’s fugitive thoughts about the novelist in a little “Diary”—though hardly that very thing itself. In 1970 (four years after O’Brian’s death), the number was greatly augmented by additions from Eoin O’Mahony, Monk Gibbon, Benedict Kiely, John Jordan, Aidan Higgins, Bernard Share, Francis Harvey, Ulick O’Connor, J. B. Lyons, Patrick Boyle, Edna O’Brien and John Montague (a poem) as well as reprinted passages from writings on Joyce by Samuel Beckett, Thomas McGreevy, Stanislaus Joyce, Arthur Power and J. F. Byrne along with a selection of obituary notices.

The pervasive temper of the “Special Issue” is exemplified by Denis Johnston’s  ‘Short View of the Progress of Joyceanity’ which centrally takes the form of a defence of Oliver St. John Gogarty’s notorious tirades against Joyce in 1939 and 1941.[2] In it Johnston draws upon his own period of academic bondage to pour scorn on ‘[t]he intensity with which Joyce’s work is being studied in these United States’ before launching into an account of the earlier fracas: ‘Gogarty [struck] an assassin’s blow at an important industry […]. Need I say that the reaction was catastrophic! It was as if [he] had deliberately belched at Mass.’[3] While Johnston was the son of a Presbyterian judge and Gogarty a Catholic both were upper-middle and there is more than a trace of complicity in the former’s defence of what Edna O’Brien has recently called the ‘loathsome revenge’ of the model for Buck Mulligan in Ulysses.[4] Not stopping there, Johnston advances a full-blown critique of Joyce himself —‘an early hanger-on’ whom Gogarty ‘had never  liked anyway’—arguing that ‘[t]here is actually no reason why the legacy of Dedalism to the world should be of very great weight once it has been discovered’ since ‘it is only a coincidence when those who have the supreme gift of self-expression in any of the arts have got anything startling to express.’[5] Moreover, ‘Joyce says little or nothing about himself, and seems to have directed all his contemporary biographers away from the real facts of his life to a lot of dreary rows with Maunsell & Co. He even goes so far as to delete the chapter headings from his work, so as to make us find them out for ourselves.’[6] A low trick.

Johnston is ultimately less concerned with the character of Joyce’s writings than with the fact that American students are being taught to regard him as a literary evangel: ‘They are being told that Mr. Bloom is a Scapegoat, bearing on his shoulders the sins of the human race, and they are well out now on a limb of the Golden Bough, looking for anything else that can be found with whiskers and horns.’[7] He is equally scornful of symbolic discoveries associated with Finnegans Wake, to wit that ‘Liffey is female, while Howth Head is definitely male’ and ‘that in the world of dreams, all time happens at once’.[8] Brushing aside the ‘forced parallels from history or mythology’ that formed the staple of Joyce’s art as the world understood it in the 1950s, he finally identifies his ‘greatest sin’ as ‘an unabashed confusion of the subjective with the objective that makes it impossible to distinguish between the author’s observation of his hero, the hero’s observation of his past, or the reader’s observation of any of them.’[9] This comes oddly from the author of The Old Lady Says “No!”, a play founded on precisely such a confusion—a sort of lower-case Walpurgisnacht in the pattern of Joyce’s “Nighttown”. There is a discernible air of disappointment at the antics of Protestant America in his final objection to the exalted place that Ulysses has assumed in the post-war Anglo-American canon: ‘there is an air of unreality about all the explanations that reminds me irresistibly of a commentary on the liturgy, and not of literary criticism at all.’[10]

What incensed the Envoy writers as a class was Joyce’s success in gulling the commentators in regard to his own character as an escapee from the ‘spiritual paralysis’ of life in Ireland. Clearly he had sold Herbert Gorman a pup in priming him for the first biography of 1944.[11] Richard Ellmann’s far more circumspect study would not appear for almost a decade after the date when ‘the Irish’ made their retaliatory strike; yet, though it effectively demolished the excesses of biographical credulity and symbol-hunting, the anti-nationalist convictions attributed to the novelist remained essentially the same.[12] The peculiar irony was that Ellmann’s book had been maliciously infected by distortions arising from a practical joke that the Dublin clique played on Maria Jolas shortly before the appearance of the Envoy’sSpecial Issue. This took the form of a spurious interview with John Stanislaus Joyce that O’Brien had magicked into the “Joyce Papers” which she published in the Joyce Yearbook for 1949, later boasting to John Kelleher that he himself was the author of such sentences as: ‘The Turkish bath came into my mind and there I went after having any God’s quantity of champagne. Oh dear, dear God, those were great times.’[13]

In 1983 Hugh Kenner placed a chapter of caveats in front of A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, observing that the interview is cited in four footnotes to Ellmann’s ‘standard biography’ of Joyce.[14] More pertinently perhaps, he himself had substantially reproduced the phoney monologue in his own groundbreaking Dublin’s Joyce (1955), where he called it ‘the stenographic report of an unidentified interviewer’, citing Jolas’s Yearbook as his immediate source.[15] No wonder that he calls O’Brien ‘the greatest virtuoso of the Irish Fact’, in support of which he quoted an interview with Time Magazine for August 1943 where O’Brien professes to have made a quick visit to Germany in 1933, married the violin-playing daughter of a basket-weaver who died shortly afterwards (the daughter, that is) before immersing himself in ‘matters of state’ back in Éire, where he never talks about his tragic loss excepting only in colloquy with the Time reporter. For better or worse, the interview coincided with the period when O’Brien was reeling from the blow struck to his literary pride by the rejection of The Third Policeman. Clearly was more than usually disposed to pull the legs of visiting Joyceans—albeit in 1939 he had displayed a form of pathetic self-abasement in his correspondence with the American writer William Saroyan: ‘I guess it [At Swim-Two-Birds] is a bum book anyhow. I am writing a very funny book now about bicycles and policemen and I think it will be perhaps good and early a little money quietly.’[16]

Kenner’s “Warning” against the falsity of Irish literary witness raised critical hackles to a considerable height in Ireland, arriving as it did at a moment when the intellectual climate had undergone a sea-change since his last significant intervention. These were due to the operation of several factors of historical moment: the advent of television, the inauguration of the Economic Development Programme of 1958, membership of the European Union and the arrival of the Northern Ireland Crisis—all tending to raise consciousness in different if related ways. The world from which the Envoy Special Issue sprang now seemed very remote from contemporary Irish experience (remoter, at least, than its America after-image) and the ambiguous homage that Kenner had earlier lavished on the Irish mind was less acceptable than before:

The crucial place of Ireland in the recent history of Western literary art is accounted for in the historical fact that Ireland escaped the humanist dogma. Consequently the great Irish nihilists (for so they appear in a humanist perspective) have been the persistent reformers of the fictional imagination.[17]

The sternest rebuke to all of this came from Seamus Deane in his Field Day pamphlet of 1984:

A recent book, like Hugh Kenner’s A Colder Eye [sic], exploits the whimsical Irishness of the writers in a particularly inane and offensive manner. The point is not simply that the Irish are different. It is that they are absurdly different because of the disabling, if fascinating, separation between their notion of reality and that of everybody else.[18]

That is, indeed, what Kenner argued in several places, and also what the Envoy contributors implied when they asserted that they alone were capable of understanding Joyce. At the same time, the majority of their essays are clearly inspired by uneasiness at the long shadow that he had cast over the cultural landscape they inhabited. In addition there was the anxiety of influence that Seamus Deane has justly discerned in Flann O’Brien’s relation to the older writer, calling it ‘one of the most astonishing examples’ of the syndrome originally identified by Harold Bloom.[19] If, on one occasion, this took shape in The Dalkey Archive (1964) where Joyce appears as a publican’s curate, on another it took the form of the remark with which O’Brien shocked Samuel Beckett: ‘What was Joyce but a refurbisher of skivvies stories?’[20] It was Niall Montgomery, according to Anthony Cronin, who worked out the solution to the Joyce-problem which O’Brien adopted. Montgomery, Cronin tells us, was a ‘quick-eyed and quick-witted architectural student who[se] attitude to Joyce was obsessive but ambiguous’ in as much as he ‘regarded Joyce’s works as an intellectual playground: esoteric, cabbalistic, logomachic’ while leaving out ‘in so far as it can be left out, the human content and the compassionate purpose.’[21] It followed that ‘Joyce and his challenge’ could be ‘defused by making him a mere logomachic wordsmith, a great but demented genius who finally went mad in his ivory tower.’[22]

In his ‘Editorial Note’ to the Envoy Special Issue, O’Brien attempted a serious critique of Joyce in a few sentences only, sadly without arriving at anything worthy of the subject:

Humour, the handmaid of sorrow and fear, creeps out endlessly in all Joyce’s works. He uses the thing, in the same way as Shakespeare does but less formally, to attenuate the fear of those who have belief and who genuinely think that they will be in hell or in heaven shortly, and possibly very shortly. With laughs he palliates the sense of doom that is the heritage of the Irish Catholic. True humour needs this background urgency, Rabelais is funny, but his stuff cloys. His stuff lacks tragedy.[23]

The rest of his contribution is given over the ‘a bash in the tunnel’—of which more in just a moment. In “An Cruiskeen Lawn” he returned to the offensive with a characteristic piece of pseudo-philological derision: ‘James Joyce was illiterate […] his every foreign language quotation was incorrect’ while his ‘few sallies at Greek are wrong, and his few attempts at a Gaelic phrase absolutely monstrous.’[24] Nowhere, in fact, did he praise Joyce: hence it is the novel At Swim-Two-Birds that constitutes his only tribute to the older writer.

Looking back at the Envoy Special Issue in 1970, John Ryan recounts the reason why he appointed O’Brien guest editor with an unavoidable comparison that requires some wriggling out in view of: ‘His own genius closely matched, without in any way resembling or attempting to counterfeit, Joyce’s.’[25] That said, ‘if the mantle (or should we say the waistcoat?) were ever to be passed on, nobody would be half so deserving of it as the man who, under his other guises as Flan [sic] O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen, proved himself intestably [sic] to be the most creative writer and mordant wit that Ireland has given us since Shem the Penman himself.’[26] In augmenting the Envoy with ‘commissioned’ and reprinted pieces, Ryan takes his title from the specimen of literary guff that O’Brien had proffered as prefatory remarks to the Special Issue. Therein he tells of a man, the son of a catering-supplier to Coras Iompair Éireann (as it then was) who locks himself in a dining-car that gets shunted into a tunnel adjacent to Kingsbridge (now Heuston) Station where obscurity and the lack of a wristwatch causes him to lose track of time with dire consequences for the state of  his liver. O’Brien asks us to consider: ‘Funny? But surely there you have the Irish artist? Sitting fully dressed, innerly locked in the toilet of a locked coach […] drinking somebody else’s whiskey, being whisked hither and thither by anonymous shunters, keeping fastidiously the while on the outer face of his door the simple word ENGAGED!’ And he concludes: ‘I think the image fits Joyce, but particularly in his manifestation of a most Irish characteristic—the transgressor’s resentment of the nongressor.’[27] The least that can be said about this preface is that the editor is unsure whether to play the part of ringmaster or clown.

Next up was Patrick Kavanagh with his spiteful poem. Particularly witty are the sectarian remarks about W. R. Rodgers, poet and BBC-man whose baptism certificate evidently disqualifies him from uttering the nunc dimittis: ‘Who said the burial prayers? - / Please do not hurt me - / Joyce was no Protestant, / Surely not Bertie?’ Kavanagh’s earnest opinion of Joyce is inscribed more largely in his “Diary” at the end of the issue—the  two pieces acting like book-ends suggesting an editorial consistency that O’Brien’s introduction notably fails to convey on its own account. Kavanagh first establishes his credentials (or the lack of them) as a Joyce-reader:

I find it difficult to form any particular opinion about Joyce. I have one advantage over certain others: I was never an original admirer of Joyce and so I have not had the normal reaction, that readjusting of one’s values which is common in regard to one’s enthusiasms. [...] I read Ulysses for the first time about seven years ago. Since then, it has been my second favourite bedside book.

The remainder of his essay—barely more than jottings—combines antipathy to transatlantic critics (‘There is nothing wrong with Joyce … it is his commentators who are mad’)[28] with an attempt to enlist the Joyce to his own banner of literary ‘parochialism’. This leads, somewhat oddly, to the eccentric estimate of Ulysses based on a misunderstanding of the relation between realism and expression in his developing art: ‘Ulysses […]  is almost entirely a transcription of life. Joyce added nothing—except possibly Stephen, and he gave us Stephen completely in the Portrait.  […]. The Portrait of the Artist is Joyce’s testament.’[29] In this scheme of things, Finnegans Wake represents the reductio ad absurdum of its author’s always-limited genius: ‘What I am trying to say is that Joyce has little, or none, of that ethereal commodity known as inspiration. He is the very clever cynical man who has found a formula. […] Finnegans Wake is the delirium of a man with no more to say. He has melted down the matrix.’[30]

There being nothing more to add in the way of literary criticism, Kavanagh now turns to a more material aspect of the question: ‘I am constantly reminded of the number of writers who achieve the depths of hell’s despair simply because they happened to get a woman without spondulecs. If Joyce had had a thousand a year would he have written Ulysses as he did?’ (The fact is that he did have a thousand a year during much of the composition of Ulysses.) Kavanagh’s visitation of the question of Catholic influence is remarkable for its counter-reformational ardour: ‘Almost the most outstanding quality in Joyce is his Catholicism or rather his anti-Protestantism. Joyce, through Stephen, in the Portrait, must have done more damage to Protestantism than any modern apologist.’[31] The argument is not, of course, without its problems since, as everybody knows, Joyce abandoned Catholic orthodoxy—yet, if ‘reason made him a bad Catholic […] whatever the defects of Catholicism, he saw that Protestantism was a compendium of all those defects’, Kavanagh tells us. It is probable that what he intended by these remarks was little more than a snub to the predominantly Protestant critical consensus that embraced James Joyce as a literary modernist.

At the centre of the Envoy Special Issue in point of scholarly weight stands a pseudonymic essay entitled ‘Childe Horrid’s Pigrimace’ by John Garvin, the Wexford-born Dublin City Commissioner who had earlier established a reputation for expertise in matters Joycean with an article concerning which Hugh Kenner had this to say in the acknowledgements to his own Dublin’s Joyce (1955): ‘The material on De Valera in Finnegans Wake owes its inception to the work of Mr. Andrew Cass who staked a modest claim on this lode in The Irish Times for April 26, 1947.’[32] The view of A Portrait of the Artist offered here only differs from that of contemporary reviewers in the Irish press by virtue of the popular psychology with which Garvin colours his disapprobation:

Accordingly, unless it can be treated as a study from which the writer had achieved an inhuman and almost schizoid detachment, it must be ascribed to the pathetic desire of a middle-aged man to dramatise his own lost youth and to exaggerate its intellectual capacity and promise. Such a petty pursuit is reminiscent of the father who writes his boy’s prize essays or of the mentally-retarded person whose conversation impulsively recurs to “when I was in College 20 years ago”.[@]

A verdict follows: ‘As Joyce himself said, all this stuff was boiling inside him and he had to get it out of his system, but it is a pity that he did not rid himself of it quickly’.[34]  About Ulysses Garvin has no better opinion: ‘[…] its interminable trimmings and its stuffed Odysseus promoted from a short story to balance the pretentious epic of Telemachus, enabled Joyce to get off his chest a great deal of juvenile resentments and self-pity.’[35] Harsh things are likewise said about the formal technique of “Penelope”: ‘The omission of punctuation marks is a mere trick designed to hide the fact that a great deal of the alleged run-on thinking is in fact nothing more than a characteristic piece of pungent Joyce prose.’[36] Like Patrick Kavanagh and Gogarty before him, Garvin is not one to be gulled by the experimentalism of Finnegans Wake, for which he finds this explanation: ‘Ulysses demonstrated the author’s inability to give forthright expression to his own mature personality.  […]  He, therefore, wanted a medium of expression in which he could give vent to his Irish memories, be obliquely autobiographical and at the same time epitomise himself as the all-wisest [sic] Stagyrite [Aristotle].’[37]

Yet, after all these damning judgements have been made, Garvin is still intent on demonstrating that ‘Ireland is the real “Joyce country”, the primary scene and source of inspiration for Finnegans Wake, and no other work in the English language has the Irish accent ever been so authentically reproduced.’[38]

In dealing with his spiritual mother, Anna Liffey, he shows his affection for the accents and the story of Ireland, her woods and mountains and plains and her rivers as symbols of eternal nature in their unceasing flow by bogs and bends and green hills and dark pools [....&c.][39]

That lyrical outburst, with its unintentional resemblance to the Citizen’s effusions in the “Cyclops” chapter of Ulysses, is indicative of an implacable desire to reduce the Joycean text to the conventional order of nationalist enthusiasm: pro patria and possibly pro deo. From such a standpoint the inspiration of Joyce’s mature writings is plain: ‘He could play with the idea of an alternative life’s history for himself had he stayed at home in 1904 and participated in the developments which by the time Ulysses was published had crystallised in a new Ireland and a new concept of national identity.’[40] If crystal-gazing is still in vogue, one might suggest that over-activity of the patriotic thyroid is responsible for that counterfactual assertion.

There is much unconscious comedy in A Bash in the Tunnel such as, for instance, Bernard Share’s insistence that it would be ‘useless for the tourist boys to hope to interest the visiting Joyceman in the current beauties of the capital, the concrete boxes, the O’Connell Street ice-cream parlours, the parking meters. They have no need to look at Dublin: They know it from Dubliners and Ulysses, and they know that nothing can possibly change it.’[41] Other contributors include Monk Gibbon who has angry things to say on behalf of an unnamed collectivity: ‘[Joyce] excites in some of us a fundamental antipathy, like that of a man who cannot stop telling us about the dog-dirt on his boots.’[42] The reason for this reaction is not hard to find: platonic attachment was a state of mind peculiarly close to Gibbon’s heart. Elsewhere he complained: ‘We have passed onto an age when only “the primal urge” is acceptable as a valid explanation of even the most sublimated personal attachment.’[43] But there are good things here also, notably Benedict Kiely’s warm-hearted celebration of Joyce as a ‘national treasure’[44] and Edna O’Brien’s rhapsodic answer to the spiritual call of his art: ‘Towards the end of his life there came a thaw, a burstingness. He was famous then. […] He had achieved monumence both in his work and in his being [...] It is hard not to want to believe in immortality, considering the death of Mr. Joyce.’[45]

What might be said of the Envoy Special Issue and its sequel, excepting isolated enthusiasms like those above, is that they represent a moment when the expropriation of Joyce’s Dublin triggered apoplectic irritation on the part of its living literary denizens. In 1950 it might have seemed sufficient to inveigh against gullible foreigners. In 1970 the position had been transformed by the comprehensive verdict on moral life in Ireland that Richard Ellmann’s great biography had bestowed on Joyce studies in 1959. In The Consciousness of James Joyce (1977) he summarised that verdict:

If British tyranny was brutally materialistic, so was Irish fanaticism. Persecution, by Church or State, whether of Jews or of artists, went with other forms of materialism, such as cruelty and lovelessness. On the other side was an etherealism which included the diseased ideals of religion and patriotism, ideals without body and essences without form, antisexualism or love cheapened by sentimentality.[46]

While neither Ryan nor any other contributor to A Bash in the Tunnel attempted to defend the Irish nationalist tradition so described in any systematic way, none saw fit to desist from critic-bashing in the belligerent style of the Envoy writers either. To call this a lost opportunity is to underestimate the predicament facing the ‘Irish writers’. Lacking a distinctive intellectual discourse with which to challenge the ‘liberal-humanist’ consensus—as later Irish critics have so successfully done with the aid of postcolonial theory—they simply carped (the gadfly in barfly’s clothing). It remains a pity that they did seek in Joyce’s works an explanation for their own confusions at the same time as they berated transatlantic Joyceans for their inevitable failings.


[1] ‘A Short View of the Progress of Joyceanity’,  in Envoy (April 1951), p.12.

[2] Ibid., pp.13-18, p.14.

[3] Idem.

[4] James Joyce (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1999), p.24.

[5] Envoy (April 1951), p.16.

[6] Ibid., p.17.

[7] Ibid., p.15.

[8] Idem.

[9] Idem.

[10] Idem.

[11] James Joyce (NY: Farrar & Rhinehart 1939).

[12] James Joyce (Oxford: OUP 1959; rev. 1983).

[13] ‘Interview’, in Maria Jolas, ed., A James Joyce Yearbook (Paris 1949); quoted in Kenner, A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1983), p.22.

[14] Kenner, ibid., p.23.

[15] Dublin’s Joyce (London: Chatto & Windus 1955), pp.265-67.

[16] Quoted in No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien (London: Grafton 1989; rep. Paladin 1990), p.111.

[17] Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study (London: John Calder 1961), p.69.

[18] Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea [1984] (Minneapolis 1985), p.57.

[19] A Short History of Irish Literature (London: Hutchinson 1986), p.194.

[20] Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (London: HarperCollins 1996), p.158.

[21] No Laughing Matter (1989), p.56.

[22] Ibid., p.57.

[23] ‘Editorial Note: A Bash the Tunnel’, in Envoy (April 1951), p.11.

[24] ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, in The Irish Times (16 June 1954; quoted in Cronin, op. cit., 1989, p.111.)

[25] ‘Introduction’, A Bash in the Tunnel (Brighton: Clifton Books 1970), p.[13].

[26] Idem.

[27] Envoy (April 1951), p.9.

[28] ‘Diary’; in Ryan, ed., op. cit (1970), p.70.

[29] Ibid., pp.70-72.

[30] Ibid., p.72.

[31] Ibid. p.71.

[23] Dublin’s Joyce (London: Chatto & Windus 1955), p.vii. Garvin later published his Joycean findings at book-length in James Joyce’s Disunited Kingdom (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1976).

[33] ‘Childe Horrid’s Pilgrimace’, in Envoy (April 1951), p.21.

[34] Idem.

[35] Ibid., p.22.

[36] Ibid., p.23.

[37] Ibid., p.24.

[38] Ibid., p.26.

[39] Ibid., p.27.

[40] Idem.

[41] ‘Downes’s Cakeshop and Williams’s Jam’, in Ryan, ed.,op. cit. (1970), p.191.

[42] ‘The Unraised Hat’ in Ryan, ed., op. cit. (1970), p.212.

[43] The Pupil: A Memory of Love (Dublin: Wolfhound Press 1981), p.8.

[44] ‘The Artist on the Giant’s Grave’, ibid., p.236.

[45] ‘Dear Mr. Joyce’, in ibid., p.47.

[46] Ellmann, The Consciousness of James Joyce (London: Faber & Faber 1977), p.80.

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