Joe Chamberlain

Joe Chamberlain

In Brief

The Boer War of 1899-1902 aroused intense nationalist emotions all across Ireland. In December 1899 it prompted the worst outbreak of political violence that Dublin had seen in a long time, when a leading British MP named Joseph ("Joe") Chamberlain came to town to accept an honorary degree from Trinity College. Protests, counter-protests, and police crackdowns produced a highly volatile atmosphere.

Read More

In Lestrygonians Bloom watches two squads of constables near the "Trinity railings," site of a confrontation between policemen and protesters of Chamberlain's visit that soon moved west to Dublin Castle, and then north across the Grattan Bridge. Bloom recalls being caught up in the violence that erupted at the far end of this turbulent procession, and the angry shouted protests: "— Up the Boers! / — Three cheers for De Wet! / — We'll hang Joe Chamberlain on a sourapple tree." Christiaan de Wet was a general in the citizen army of the Boers who became its foremost practitioner of guerilla warfare. He returns in Circe, as does the reviled Joe Chamberlain.

Chamberlain had been despised in Ireland since 1886. Ferociously antagonistic to Gladstone's plans for Home Rule, he helped defeat that legislation and resigned from the Liberal Party, causing its government to fall. His new party, the Liberal Unionists, formed an alliance with the Conservatives, and when this bloc came to power in 1895 he was given the office of Secretary of State for the Colonies. Although he had once been outspokenly anti-imperialist, he used his new position to pursue an aggressively militaristic policy toward the Dutch republics in South Africa and effectively directed the war effort from London. At first the war went badly for the British: the towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberly were besieged, and large battles at Stormberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso were lost in the short span that came to be known as Black Week. The Irish, who knew a thing or two about imperial suppression of small republican nations, greeted the dark news with unbridled joy.

Chamberlain fought opposition to the war with persuasive speeches in Parliament, with personal attacks on Liberal politicians whom he cast as all but traitors, and with a trip to Dublin that many people supposed was designed to show Ireland's support for the war effort. If this was indeed his intention, it was a terrible miscalculation. Even before the start of hostilities Irish nationalists were enlisting to fight on the side of the Boers in a unit called the Irish Transvaal Brigade led by Major John MacBride—one of three Easter Rising leaders executed in 1916 who had fought in South Africa. After returning from South Africa, where he had worked in the Transvaal mines from 1896 to 1898, Arthur Griffith worked to form a political counterpart called the Irish Transvaal Committee, which was housed in an office on Lower Abbey Street that in 1900 birthed Cumann na nGaedheal, the precursor of Sinn Féin. Nationalist leaders affiliated with the ITC, including Griffith,  Maud Gonne, Michael Davitt, the young socialist organizer James Connolly (also executed in 1916), and the old Fenian leader John O'Leary planned a pro-Boer protest rally in Beresford Place, not far from Trinity College and site of another pro-Boer demonstration on 1 October 1899 that drew 20,000 people. The authorities planned a massive police response. The resulting turmoil put paid to any notion that the Irish public largely supported the British imperial program.

In a book titled Forgotten Protest: Ireland and the Anglo-Boer War, 2nd ed. (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2003), the Durban-based historian Donal P. McCracken provides a lively summary of the Chamberlain protest, starting with the effect that news of British military setbacks had on Dubliners: "The crowds would thrill with excitement and men, radiant with delight, would stop strangers in the street and express their pleasure. Dublin witnessed scenes akin to those which were to take place in London when Mafeking was relieved." (Stephen refers in Scylla and Charybdis to the huge "tide of Mafeking enthusiasm" released in England when the siege of that town was lifted.) According to the Freeman's Journal, "In two brief months, the bravery of the little people has destroyed the military prestige of the British Empire, demoralized their troop of enemies, and amazed the world with the spectacle of what men who prefer death to the destruction of their nationality can accomplish" (53).

With the news that Chamberlain would be visiting Dublin to receive an honorary degree on Monday, December 18, plans were hatched to hold a protest rally in Beresford Place on Sunday, December 17. On Saturday the authorities in Dublin Castle issued a proclamation banning the gathering. Griffith threw his copy into the fireplace. Hundreds of policemen were deployed on the streets beginning at 11 AM the next day, and a large force of mounted police armed with sabers was assembled in the courtyard of the Castle as a reserve force. At about noon "a brake, or long car," pulled up outside the office of the Irish Transvaal Committee and at least a dozen leaders including O'Leary, Griffith, Gonne, and Connolly got in. Connolly took the reins and "smashed the brake through a police cordon to get into Beresford Place. The brake was followed by a mass of people waving Boer flags and cheering for the Boers" (54-55).

The occupants of the car were briefly arrested, but upon their release from a nearby police station the brake, followed by a huge crowd, crossed the O'Connell Bridge, went up Westmoreland Street, and assembled on College Green outside the "railings" of Trinity College—the spot where Bloom thinks in Lestrygonians, "Right here it began." Police attacked with batons drawn, forcing the crowd to move west along Dame Street. After speeches and tauntings of the policemen at points along the way, the crowd came to the end of the street, where, since it seemed lightly guarded, Connolly proposed capturing Dublin Castle. Cooler heads prevailed—fortunately, since hundreds of armed horsemen were still assembled in the courtyard, unseen. The brake and its attendant crowd moved north, down Parliament Street toward the river, followed by the mounted police who had issued from the Castle after they passed.

When the crowd was across the Grattan Bridge, the officer in charge ordered his men to charge with sabers drawn. "What followed was one of the most violent scenes Dublin had witnessed in a generation. A pitched battle took place . . . It is said that Arthur Griffith disarmed a mounted policeman. After the initial shock of the first charge—the police used the flats of their swords—the crowds retaliated by throwing whatever they could find. The mounted police were joined by constables on foot, wielding batons. In the confusion the brake escaped along Capel Street and turned into Upper Abbey Street. It is interesting to find that Maud Gonne makes no mention of this riot in her autobiography" (56).

Back at the office on Lower Abbey Street, "a packed and jubilant meeting was held," though Davitt was fearful that Joe Chamberlain might be attacked. McCracken concludes, "The day was a victory for both sides. From the point of view of the authorities, they had stamped on a major threat to their control of the city. It was no accident that Dublin experienced no more pro-Boer demonstrations of this magnitude. The police had shown their determination to stand no nonsense. In the short term, though, the victory was with the Irish Transvaal Committee. Its prestige now soared in the minds of many. It was widely, and most likely correctly, believed that Chamberlain's real motive for visiting Ireland was to 'identify Ireland with the war.' The events of that Sunday afternoon cast strong doubts on the success of such a mission. . . . / In fact Chamberlain's visit was a political and security blunder of the first magnitude . . .  no amount of cheering from the undergraduates of Trinity College could disguise the psychological victory which the Irish Transvaal Committee had won" (56-57).

In Lestrygonians Bloom recalls running from the mounted police, only to see one of them fall from his horse: "That horsepoliceman the day Joe Chamberlain was given his degree in Trinity he got a run for his money. My word he did! His horse's hoofs clattering after us down Abbey street. Lucky I had the presence of mind to dive into Manning's or I was souped. He did come a wallop, by George. Must have cracked his skull on the cobblestones." This detail, confirmed by contemporary accounts, places Bloom near the climactic battle that engulfed the quays and Capel Street, at a time when citizens were desperately fleeing the mayhem. (Manning's pub was at 41 Upper Abbey Street, on the corner of Liffey Street.) Had he wandered west from the newspaper offices near O'Connell Street, or did he join the protest somewhere on its route from Trinity College to Capel Street?

Wherever his involvement started, it seems that an accidental encounter with some TCD students brought it about: "I oughtn't to have got myself swept along with those medicals. And the Trinity jibs in their mortarboards. Looking for trouble. Still I got to know young Dixon."  Joyce modeled "young Dixon" on a real-life Joseph F. Dixon who received a medical degree from TCD in December 1904, so presumably the other "medicals" Bloom thinks of were also attending that Protestant ruling-class institution. Slote, relying on Patridge's dictionary of slang, identifies "jibs" as first-year undergraduates. It is almost inconceivable that any Trinity students, much less freshmen, would have been demonstrating against Chamberlain. There are no contemporary accounts of them doing so, and it is well known that some did mount pro-Chamberlain rallies, so the students with whom Bloom got "swept along" must have been "Looking for trouble" in the form of violent confrontations with the mostly Catholic nationalists. 

However Bloom may have come to be swept up in the chaos, the way he praises the great many Irishmen who fought in the British armed forces when accosted by two policemen in Circe suggests that he feels defensive about having held pro-Boer, anti-Chamberlain views. Bloom tells the constables that his father-in-law fought in "the heroic defense of Rorke's drift," an 1879 action in Zululand, but his sycophancy is met with an anonymous jeer: "Turncoat! Up the Boers! Who booed Joe Chamberlain?" In reply, he makes himself a veteran of the Boer War: "I'm as staunch a Britisher as you are, sir. I fought with the colours for king and country in the absentminded war under general Gough in the park and was disabled at Spion Kop and Bloemfontein, was mentioned in dispatches." Sir Hubert Gough helped lift the siege of Ladysmith in February 1900. Spion Kop was the site of a Boer victory in January 1900. Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, fell to the British in March 1900.

Erected in 1907, the notorious Fusiliers' Arch that guards the Grafton Street entrance to St. Stephen's Green embodies the contrary emotions expressed in Bloom's defensive rant to the constables. It commemorates the courage and sacrifice of four battalions of Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Second Boer War, with inscriptions recording the major battles in which the Fusiliers took part and the names of the 222 men who died. Nationalists, however, quickly bestowed a new name on it: Traitors' Gate, the water entrance through which political prisoners were long ferried into the Tower of London. Remarkably, this triumphal arch remains, in McCracken's words, "one of the few British-erected monuments in Dublin which have not been blown up" (148).

JH 2020
1896 oil on canvas portrait of Joseph Chamberlain by John Singer Sargent, held in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Detail from a 1904 Bartholomew map showing Lower Abbey Street and Beresford Place (blue arrows), Trinity College (orange), Dublin Castle (red), and the streets (purple) traveled clockwise by the protesting crowd: Westmoreland Street, College Green, Dame Street, Parliament Street, Capel Street, and the crossing of Upper Abbey Street and Liffey Street where Bloom dives into a pub. Source: John Hunt.