United Irishman

In Brief


The "United Irishman" was a weekly newspaper founded by Arthur Griffith and William Rooney in 1899. It appeared every Thursday until the government shut it down with the pressure of a libel suit in 1906. (It was reincarnated as Sinn Féin, which lasted until the government shut that down in 1914.) In a 6 September 1906 letter to his brother Stanislaus, Joyce remarked that this nationalist publication was the only Irish newspaper of any "pretensions" to real value, but he attacked Rooney's poetry in 1902, and his parody of Griffith's writing in Cyclops is at best ambivalent.

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When Alice Milligan and Anna Johnston closed their monthly paper, the Shan Van Vocht, in 1899 they gave Griffith and Rooney their subscription lists, so The United Irishman became a kind of successor to that earlier vehicle of passionate nationalism. The new paper did not represent so-called advanced nationalism, i.e. militant advocacy for a separate state. Instead it advocated returning to something like the state of affairs before the Act of Union: an Ireland governed by its own Parliament but loyal to the British King.

In the complacent landscape of turn-of-the-century Irish newspapers, this counted as a fairly radical position. Griffith strongly opposed the second Boer War and Britain's recruitment of Ireland's young men to fight that war. In Lotus Eaters Bloom admires the paper's willingness to take on the (non-)curfew policy that allowed British soldiers to cruise Dublin's streets at night looking for sex: "Maud Gonne’s letter about taking them off O’Connell street at night: disgrace to our Irish capital. Griffith’s paper is on the same tack now: an army rotten with venereal disease: overseas or halfseasover empire." The paper also advocated for the development and protection of an independent Irish economy, continuing one major theme of the anti-colonialist Shan Van Vocht.

William Rooney died young in 1901, and in 1902 Griffith published some of his patriotic poems in the United Irishman. Joyce penned an unsympathetic review of those poems which appeared in the 11 December 1902 Daily Express, referring (amidst much other less memorable criticism) to "those big words which make us so unhappy." This irreverence perhaps carried over into the reading that Joyce has the Citizen perform in Cyclops: "Did you read that skit in the United Irishman today about that Zulu chief that's visiting England?" A long paragraph is given over to a funny and winningly anti-imperialist, but also deeply racist, account of a meeting in England between some Manchester cotton traders and the "Alaki," the king of a Nigerian tribe.

John Wyse Nolan asks, "Is that by Griffith?" "No," replies the Citizen, "It's not signed Shanganagh. It's only initialled: P." Gifford notes that Griffith "did write 'skits' of the sort quoted," at first under the pseudonym "Shanganagh" (which may mean "a friendly conversation," according to P. W. Joyce in English as We Speak It in Ireland), but also later as "P" ("for the spirit of Parnell?," Gifford speculates). If one reads these details as suggesting that Griffith did author the piece, its racism makes sense in light of the fact that Griffith supported black slavery. (The Citizen is no better: after he and his cronies abhor the horrors of Belgian imperialist practices in the Congo, he proceeds to refer to Bloom as "that whiteeyed kaffir.")

But the "skit" presented as a feature in the day's United Irishman in fact never appeared in that paper, or any other. Joyce constructed it as a parody of the kind of thing that Griffith might write, but he took the incidents from stories in another newspaper, the outspokenly pro-Empire London Times. As John Nash notes in "'Hanging over the bloody paper': newspapers and imperialism in Ulysses," an essay collected in Modernism and Empire (Manchester UP, 2000), ed. Howard J. Booth and Nigel Rigby, "The Times carried several reports of the Alake's visit to England in May-June 1904," and many details in those reports show up in Joyce's anti-imperialist parody (190-91). Nash observes that the skit's "peculiar mix of fact and fiction displays Joyce's careful moulding of the imperialist Times into its direct opposite, a humorous and anti-imperial newspaper" (189).

The humor and anti-imperialism may perhaps be seen as honoring Griffith, but the racism almost certainly cannot. Bloom's poignant experience of racial prejudice in Cyclops, and his refusal to think in such terms himself, provide a powerful counterweight to supposing that the text is asking its readers to join the pub crew in laughing about a blub-lipped, fancy-dancing, sycophantish, cannibalistic, "dusky potentate." It must be said, however, that the totality of representations of black people (and white imitators of black people) in Ulysses makes this judgment open to question.

JH 2018

The first issue of The United Irishman in 4 March 1899, founded by Arthur Griffith upon his return from covering the Boer War. Source: www.nli.ie/blog.
William Rooney in the 1890s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.