Twenty millions of Irish

Twenty millions of Irish

In Brief

His unrelenting prejudice, bluster, and ignorance notwithstanding, the Citizen voices some patriotic sentiments that Joyce clearly shared. This seems especially true of the paragraph in which he rants about how England has devastated Ireland's economy and population—"our ruined trade and our ruined hearths." He begins with three sentences of disastrous history: "Where are our missing twenty millions of Irish should be here today instead of four, our lost tribes? And our potteries and textiles, the finest in the whole world! And our wool that was sold in Rome in the time of Juvenal and our flax and our damask from the looms of Antrim and our Limerick lace, our tanneries and our white flint glass down there by Ballybough and our Huguenot poplin that we have since Jacquard de Lyon and our woven silk and our Foxford tweeds and ivory raised point from the Carmelite convent in New Ross, nothing like it in the whole wide world." Some of this is over the top, but it is based on mostly accurate information.

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In a 1907 lecture titled Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages, Joyce said that "Ireland is poor because English laws ruined the country's industries, especially the wool industry," and "because the neglect of the English government in the years of the potato famine allowed the best of the population to die from hunger" (167). The Citizen's charges particularize these two generalizations by identifying industries ruined by English laws and quantifying the numbers of people lost to death and emigration. In commenting on them I will quote liberally from Gifford's well-researched commentary in Ulysses Annotated.

"Where are our missing twenty millions of Irish should be here today instead of four, our lost tribes?" This reference to the Great Hunger of the 1840s, which caused the starvation and emigration of many millions of poor Irish, uses pretty good numbers. Gifford remarks, "The population of Ireland in 1841 was 8,196,000; by 1851 it had fallen to 6,466,000. If, however, population had continued to grow as it had in the two decades 1821 (6,800,000) to 1841 (8,196,000), the population at the end of the century would have been approximately 18,000,000. The U. S. census in 1900 estimated that approximately 4,000,000 Irish had immigrated to the United States in the course of the nineteenth century."

In that year, 1900, Ireland held only 3,231,000 people—fewer than the 4 million emigrés, and far fewer than all the people lost when the 1 million starved to death are factored in. The effects of this catastrophic depopulation are still felt today, when the population of the Republic has not yet reached 5 million and Northern Ireland has fewer than 2 million inhabitants. These numbers (6-7 million) are a far cry from what might reasonably have been expected even by 1900 (18-20 million) were it not for the criminally negligent British government response to the famine. Indeed, they do not even come up to pre-famine numbers (8 million). Despite the high proportion of emigrants who succumbed to diseases on the "coffin ships" crossing the Atlantic, the Irish population in America has suffered no such stunted growth!

The phrase "our lost tribes" alludes to the conquering Assyrians' deportation of many members of the kingdom of Samaria (the ten northernmost tribes of ancient Israel's twelve) in the 8th century BC and the Babylonians' deportation of Judeans in the 6th. The two strategic depopulations, sometimes jointly called the "Babylonian captivity," devastated Israel just as the loss of more than half its population in the 19th century devastated Ireland. The equivalence between ancient Israel and modern Ireland implied by "our lost tribes" coheres with symbolic structures introduced in Aeolus, and Cyclops will reinforce it several pages later when Joyce's Jewish protagonist protests that his people too have been robbed, dispersed, "sold by auction in Morocco like slaves or cattle." It is massively ironic, though, that the most fiercely anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist character in the novel should make the comparison. 

"And our potteries and textiles, the finest in the whole world!" Some hyperbole is no doubt involved in the Citizen's claim that Irish pottery and textiles surpassed all others, but the thriving industries that he cites are a matter of historical record, and their abrupt decline in the 19th century is a fit subject for mourning. Slote cites the finding of the Oxford New History of Ireland (vol. 5, pp. lv-lviii) that "Before the Act of Union, Ireland had been keeping pace with England in terms of industrial advance, although by 1900, after a century of union, Irish industries, such as textiles, stagnated." The significance of the Act of Union in this assessment is that from 1801 onward all laws affecting Irish manufacture and trade were made in Westminster, not Dublin.

"And our wool that was sold in Rome in the time of Juvenal." Wool was especially important in earlier centuries, as Joyce observed in his lecture. Gifford notes that "there is little hard evidence about trade between Ireland and Rome, though historians assume that after the Roman conquest of England 'there must have been' a significant increase of commerce, and Tacitus (c. 55-120 A.D.) in 100 A.D. remarks that Irish harbors 'through commerce and merchants' were better known than English harbors. Trade and manufacturing in wool appear to have been of some importance in ancient Ireland, but the continental reputation of Irish woolens was not established until the sixteenth century; and from that time on the English imposed a series of taxes and restrictions in the interest of preventing Irish competition with the English wool trade." (The Roman historian Tacitus lived at almost exactly the same time as the Roman satirist Juvenal, whom the Citizen mentions for some obscure reason.)

As for particular "textiles," the Citizen praises "our flax and our damask from the looms of Antrim and our Limerick lace." Northern Ireland did have a thriving linen industry in earlier centuries. Gifford observes that County Antrim "was the heart of the flax-growing, linen-weaving industry in Ulster as early as the mid-sixteenth century. Linen appears to have been the only Irish manufacture that the English encouraged, but even that encouragement was ambiguous, alternating with measures (as early as the 1690s) designed to suppress the Irish linen industry in favor of its English competition. The linen industry survived, however, to emerge as the most important Irish industry through the eighteenth century." The fine handmade lace produced in Limerick was another industry that declined in the 19th century. Gifford notes that this was "largely as a result of competition from machine-made lace," a casualty which cannot be blamed on British government policy.

The Citizen goes on to menion "our tanneries and our white flint glass down there by Ballybough." Ballybough was a village just north of Dublin, now swallowed up in the suburb of Fairview. Gifford observes that "Some pieces of glass, identified as pre-Norman and therefore associated with ancient Ireland, were found in caves near the village." It seems odd that the Citizen does not mention the famous Irish glass industry in Waterford. Gifford notes that "it flourished from the 1690s until 1745, when it was suppressed, and then again briefly in the last quarter of the eighteenth century." The Waterford Glassworks company resumed production in 1783, manufacturing fine pieces of cut crystal, but it went out of business in 1851, eliminating nearly 100 jobs.

It seems a bit odd to celebrate "our Huguenot poplin," and even odder to say that the country has had it "since Jacquard de Lyon." Poplin is a cloth invented in France and brought to Ireland with the arrival of Huguenot refugees in the late 17th century, so it is more French than Irish, and Joseph Marie Jacquard was entirely French. The loom he invented facilitated the manufacture of poplin, but it came to Ireland more than a century after poplin did.

The list ends with "our woven silk and our Foxford tweeds and ivory raised point from the Carmelite convent in New Ross, nothing like it in the whole wide world." The manufacturing of silk cloth is another industry that Huguenot refugees brought to Ireland in the late 17th century. It too died out, Gifford observes, "in the first half of the nineteenth century (thanks to the technological advantage achieved by English and continental manufacturers during the Industrial Revolution)." Foxford, a village in County Mayo, starting producing tweed in the 19th century. New Ross, a village in County Wexford, has a long tradition of fine needlepoint work. Gifford notes that "The Carmelites at New Ross preserved some examples of ancient needlepoint and imitated them in a small but famous industry."

The Citizen slightly exaggerates the number of people that demographic trends might have produced by 1904 had the famine not happened. He imagines as factual a wool trade with ancient Rome that is only hypothetical. He waxes hyperbolical about Irish goods. And he falsely implies English government culpability in the failure of two or three Irish industries that simply succumbed to more technologically advanced competition. But even after accounting for these sloppy exaggerations one must conclude that his picture of history is largely convincing.

Professional historians could add other telling details to his catalogue. The Citizen mentions "tanneries," for instance, but not the fact that nearly all the cattle raised in Ireland in his time were exported to England, or the fact that the large Catholic majority had long been stripped of their ancestral holdings and confined to the poorest 5% of the arable land, or the fact that government shipping policies in the 1840s had turned a recoverable disaster into a holocaust. All these developments contributed enormously to the depopulation of the island in the 19th century. One can say, with or without prejudice, that English rule was ruinous for Ireland, both demographically and economically.

JH 2021
The National Famine Monument unveiled in 1997 at Murrisk, County Mayo, depicting one of the "coffin ships" that carried Irish emigrants to Canada and the U.S., with human bones as rigging. Source:
2008 photograph by Jnestorius of "the good ship" Jeanie Johnston (no one ever died on it) moored at an easterly quay in Dublin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Rodney Charman's 1970 painting Irish Coffin Ship, Below Deck. Source:
James Tissot's ca. 1896-1902 gouache on board painting The Flight of the Prisoners, showing Babylonians driving Israelites from their homeland. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Ornate medieval pottery jug from Dublin. Source:
Depiction of man dressed in elaborate textiles in an early Irish manuscript.  Source:
Engraving by Francis Holl of a young Ulster woman sitting at a spinning wheel, turning flax fibers into linen thread (men traditionally wove the thread into cloth, but women did that during the Napoleonic Wars). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Kettle drum leaded crystal bowl ca. 1795-1820 from the Waterford glassworks. Source:
Needlepoint lace made at the Carmelite convent in New Ross, County Wexford. Source: