John Wyse Nolan's wife

John Wyse Nolan's wife

In Brief

Nosey Flynn's conspiratorial gossip about Bloom in Lestrygonians includes a recent sighting: "I met him the day before yesterday and he coming out of that Irish farm dairy John Wyse Nolan's wife has in Henry street with a jar of cream in his hand taking it home to his better half." The John Wyse Nolan of Ulysses is based on a real person, John Wyse Power, whose wife Jennie owned and ran a food business at 21 Henry Street. Both spouses were ardent nationalists, and in April 1916 seven members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood met in Jennie Power's establishment to sign the Proclamation of independence whose public reading several days later initiated the Easter Rising. It is quite possible that Bloom does more than purchase dairy products on Henry Street.

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Jane or Jennie O'Toole was born into a staunchly nationalist family in Baltinglass, County Wicklow in 1858 and grew up in Dublin. She admired Charles Stewart Parnell, and in 1881 she became active in the Ladies' Land League that was agitating for the rights of Ireland's tenant farmers. In 1899 she founded the Irish Farm Produce Company, which ran a dairy products shop, and, on the same premises, a restaurant with tea and lunch rooms specializing in vegetarian dishes. Advanced nationalists—Arthur Griffith, John MacBride, Constance Markievicz, Seán O'Kelly, Thomas MacDonagh, and doubtless many others—met regularly at her house in Henry Street, and it was under regular surveillance by government undercover agents.

Jennie Power, as she was known after her marriage in 1883 (she winningly left out the Wyse, telling people she had no wisdom), was also a passionate feminist and suffragist, and a passionate advocate of buying Irish agricultural and manufacturing products. In the early 1900s she took on central roles in both Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann, or Daughters of Ireland, a nationalist women's organization founded by Maud Gonne. In 1914 she helped subsume the latter group into Cumann na mBan, The Women's Council, and then led this republican paramilitary adjunct to the Irish Volunteers, over 100 of whose members were imprisoned after the Rising. After the establishment of the Irish Free State, she was one of four women nominated to the Senate, where she continued to serve until 1936. Like Joyce, she died in January 1941. She is buried in Prospect Cemetery.

Jennie Power's political activities might seem to bear little relevance to Bloom buying a jar of cream in the IFPC, but her shop is nearly a mile from his home, and the context in which his action is disclosed invites scrutiny of his motives. Everything that the aptly named Nosey Flynn says about Bloom comes with an air of suspicious distrust. Here, at the beginning of his exchange with Davy Byrne, he has not yet made any anti-Jewish or anti-Masonic insinuations; he only defames Molly for being plump ("She's well nourished, I tell you. Plovers on toast") and her husband for solicitously seeing to her needs and somehow being able to afford expensive groceries ("He doesn't buy cream on the ads he picks up. You can make bacon of that"). But he mentions Bloom "coming out of that Irish farm dairy" as if he perhaps caught him in something illicit.

Given the climate of clandestine observation, paranoid secrecy, and omnidirectional suspicion that attended militant nationalism in 1904, Bloom's emergence from a well-known fenian redoubt might well be remarked upon as possibly surreptitious. And there the matter would rest, in the realm of faint possibility, were it not for another report about Bloom from another pub-dweller several chapters later. Cyclops presents the seemingly outlandish revelation that Bloom may have something to do with Sinn Féin, and the source, amazingly, is none other than Jennie Nolan's husband: "John Wyse saying it was Bloom gave the ideas for Sinn Fein to Griffith to put in his paper all kinds of jerrymandering, packed juries and swindling the taxes off of the Government and appointing consuls all over the world to walk about selling Irish industries."

This sentence raises questions of tone and substance. Does John Wyse Nolan, whose voice is not heard directly, present Bloom's initiative sympathetically or derisively? Does he list the specific "ideas" that Bloom has suggested to Griffith, or does the unnamed narrator of the chapter infer nefarious and improbable things like gerrymandering, packed juries, and tax evasion? In the militantly nationalistic atmosphere of Barney Kiernan's pub it seems unlikely that an association with Sinn Féin would be seen as reprehensible, and the goal of promoting Irish industries abroad is entirely consistent with the program of economic decolonialization advanced by Jennie Power. Perhaps the best way of resolving the contradictions here is to assume that Wyse Nolan has been favorably impressed by Bloom's involvement in fenian politics—and that the misanthropic narrator has found a way to turn even that into an indictment.

However one may respond to this puzzling sentence, the basic claim made by Wyse Nolan seems credible. Arthur Griffith was frequently to be found at the IFPC. Jennie Power worked closely with him, and became an important officer of Sinn Féin. Bloom admires Griffith, and pays attention to what his newspaper, the United Irishman, is saying. Bloom knows newspapers and thinks throughout the day about how they get messages across. And Sinn Féin, in 1904, was a considerably less radical organization than it became by 1916. It is by no means inconceivable that the cautious, prudent Bloom could have advanced ideas for Irish independence to Arthur Griffith in Henry Street.

Why, if so, reflections on these matters would never cross Bloom's mind on June 16 is another mystery. Perhaps the Irish habit of evading spies and informers has become so ingrained in him that he does not even allow himself to spend much time thinking dangerous thoughts. He thinks elsewhere in Lestrygonians, "Never know who you're talking to. . . . Egging raw youths on to get in the know all the time drawing secret service pay from the castle. . . . James Stephens' idea was the best. He knew them. Circles of ten so that a fellow couldn't round on more than his own ring. Back out you get the knife. Hidden hand." Whatever the reasons may be for Bloom not thinking about his ideas for Sinn Féin on June 16, it would be entirely in character for him to purchase some cream, conspicuously displayed "in his hand," to cover his visits to a known hotbed of republican activists.

Thanks to Vincent Altman O'Connor for getting me thinking about the political affliliations of "John Wyse Nolan's wife" and her shop on Henry Street. 

John Hunt 2019
Photographic portrait of Senator Wyse Power in the 1920s. Source:
Historical plaque in Baltinglass, commemorating the town's native daughter. Source:
Jennie Wyse Power's grave in the Glasnevin cemetery. Source: