The Influences of Irish Diaspora on Modern Writing. An Exemplary Study of James Joyce's Dubliners and Colm Toíbín's Brooklyn

Essay, 2017

8 Pages


From the onset of the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century, millions of individuals emigrated from Ireland in search of a better life (Miller 1988). Emigration was largely regarded as a matter of forceful exile in which families were being torn apart and estranged, and Ireland was losing its most valuable assets in its citizens (Cullingford 2014). It is, however, important to appreciate that the subject and experience of emigration is one of great complexities, and largely individual experience. Cullingford (2014 :p.63) states that:

The pain of departure combines with the challenge of freedom, and the psychic dislocation caused by geographic displacement may be balanced by the potential richness of multiple languages and identities.

Thus, implying that the experiences from mass waves of emigration were not all stories of trauma and distress, in fact there was evidence of success, and ‘’countless smaller tales of adaptation, compromise, and making do’’ (Cullingford 2014:p.63).

For the most part, Miller (1988:p.5) contrastingly argues that individuals who left Ireland actually did so voluntarily, however, despite this willingness to depart their homeland they still suffered ‘’acute homesickness’’. In addition, despite the importance of the Irish during the industrial and commercial revolutions within America, their role was ‘’ambiguous, turbulent, even tragic’’ (Miller 1988:p.3) as they struggled to acclimatise to the changing environment that thrust them between their homeland and their climate in America. This essay will therefore seek to explore different types of exile, in addition to different perspectives and experiences of exile within James Joyce’sDubliners(1914) and Colm Toíbín’sBrooklyn(2009), two authors who both underwent exile from Ireland themselves.

With regards toDubliners, it is important to note that betrayal and exile are two terms that coexist. As explored by Fraser (2016) It is through betrayal that ‘’Joyce finds a way to negotiate an embattled state of Irishness that is consoling, challenges hypocrisy, has a political charge, and is narratively satisfying’’ (p.6) withDublinersfocusing on the ‘’forces of Irish self-destruction the necessity of exile [and] the historical force of betrayal’’ (p.92). Additionally, Joyce viewed ‘‘interpersonal betrayal as a necessary constituent of any relationship’’ (p.90), thus leading this essay to the matter of two short stories fromDubliners, namely ‘Eveline’ and ‘A Painful Case’.

‘Eveline’ opens with the protagonist ‘’sat at the window watching the evening invade’’ (1993:p.23), desperately longing to escape from her life, but still trapped within Ireland due to the fear of betraying her alcoholic father, her dead mother, and the Catholic Church. Her home is described as ‘’yellowing’’ (p.23) and harbouring the ‘’odour of dust cretonne’’ (p.23) suggesting decay and stagnancy, whilst religious motifs are present through the photo of the unnamed priest hanging on the wall, next to ‘’the coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque’’ (p.23) highlighting the constant presence of Catholicism in twentieth century Ireland. Although the matter of Eveline leaving home reoccurs throughout the text, as she plans to move to Buenos Aires ‘’to explore another life with Frank’’ (p.24) her fiancé, there are moments in which she still seems hesitant as ‘’now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life’’ (p.24) suggesting an underlying resistance to the idea. This could perhaps be due to the fact that her father ‘’was becoming old lately’’ (p.25) in addition to the promise that she made to her dying mother ‘’to keep the home together as long as she could’’ (p.25), which Eveline appears to carry as a burden, which in turn paralyses her. In order to understand the weight of familial responsibility that Eveline carries, it is beneficial to revise the fourth commandment that focuses on the relationship between parent and child. Porras (2014:p.2) explains that:

Divine paternity is the source of human paternity […]; this is the foundation of the honor owed to parents (cf.Catechism 2214).‘’Respect for parents(filial piety)derives from gratitude toward those who, by the gift of life, their love and their work, have brought their children into the world and enabled them to grow in stature, wisdom, and grace. ‘With all your heart honor your father, and do not forget the birth pangs of your mother. Remember that through your parents you were born; what can you give back to them that equals their gift to you?’’ […] The fourth commandment reminds grown children of their responsibilities toward their parents. As much as they can, they must give them material and moral support in old age and in times of illness, loneliness, or distress” (Catechism 2218).

Consequently, it is evident that Eveline is reluctant to disobey this religious scripture, ultimately sacrificing her chance of freedom and happiness due to her overwhelming fear of betraying the promises made to her mother, in addition to the guilt she would face should she relinquish her role as her father’s support. This story, therefore, suggests that although exile would almost certainly grant Eveline a better life, the paralysis of guilt prevents individuals from doing so, as they are already too damaged by strict and unforgiving religion. Eveline’s choice to leave appears to make her feel as if she is damaging her relationship with religion, whilst the connotations of a funeral mass could signify the paralysing fear of breaking the promise she made with her deceased mother.

In ‘A Painful Case’, there are similarities to ‘Eveline’, as the stories protagonist, James Duffy, also finds himself trapped ‘’in an old sombre house’’ (1993:p.77). His ‘’uncarpeted room’’ (p.77) is however ‘’free from pictures’’ (p.77) whilst his bedroom contains ‘’a black iron bedstead’’ (p.77) and ‘’iron washstand’’ (p.77). This succinct description creates a sense of impersonality and coldness to his desolate home, which is somewhat microcosmic of his own personality. He is said to live ‘’at a little distance from his body’’ (p.77) whilst ‘’have an odd autobiographical habit’’ (p.77) which leads to him thinking of himself ‘’in third person’’ (p.78). This unusual description of Mr Duffy suggests that he is suffering from ‘inner-exile’, which Wondrich (cited by Jenkins 2008) explains as the suffering experienced by those who are incapable of leaving their country for whatever reason and therefore estrange and distance themselves from it as far as is possible. Mr Duffy wishes to be ‘’as far as possible from the city’’ (p.77) of Dublin, but still remains trapped within the suburbs. Thus, leading him to desperately detach himself mentally from his homeland. His inability to leave the paralysing country leads to him living a rather morbid ‘’spiritual life without any communion with others’’ (p.78) seeing relatives only at Christmas or when ‘’escorting them to the cemetery when they died’’ (p.78). This is until he meets Mrs Sinico, whom he builds a rare relationship with. As the pair spends more time together, there are evident changes in the character of Mr Duffy in the text:

Her companionship was like a warm soil about an exotic. Many times she allowed the dark to fall upon them, refraining from lighting the lamp. The dark discreet room, their isolation, the music that still vibrated in their ears united them. This union exalted him, wore away the rough edges of his character, emotionalised his mental life. Sometimes he caught himself listening to the sound of his own voice […], he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognised as his own, insisting upon the soul’s incurable loneliness. (pp.79-80)

This passage reveals that through his kinship with Mrs Sinico, Mr Duffy almost achieves his longed-for exile, as describing her company as ‘’like a warm soil about an exotic’’ suggests that she is a form of escape from his dreary and desolate life of solitude. Additionally, it is apparent that the couple share the same wish for exile, as Mrs Sinico is unhappily married to an absent husband, and consequently both souls are ‘’united’’ in the ‘’dark discreet room’’. Poignantly, Mr Duffy hears ‘’his own voice’’, contrasting his habitual ‘’third person’’ perspective, thus implying that through Mrs Sinico, he has found a place of belonging, however he has a deep rooted reluctance, or fear, of companionship and change to his life, meaning that he rejects her affection. Considering this tried but failed relationship with Mrs Sinico, there is a clear point of comparison between ‘A Painful Case’ and ‘Eveline’, in that both characters are granted the opportunity to escape. Whilst Eveline has the chance to physically leave Ireland and build a new life with Frank, Mr Duffy has the prospect of uniting with Mrs Sinico, a woman he shares interests with, and a character who is understanding of his rigid way of life. Both characters are, however, severely emotionally paralyzed by their deeply engrained trepidation, with Mr Duffy fearful that his solitary and distanced life will be disturbed, and that he will sooner or later have to reconnect with himself. Ultimately, as the story comes to a rather ambiguous conclusion following Mr Duffy learning of the death of Mrs Sinico, he realises the significance that she had in his life as he once again ‘’felt that he was alone’’ (p.84). This circular narrative connotes entrapment, helplessness and a sense of ambiguity. Through this method of narrative, Joyce is able to represent the cyclical and unprogressive nature of life in twentieth century Ireland, filled with crippling fear and guilt.

Colm Toíbín, born in Enniscorthy, Ireland in 1955, revealed that his main ambition when he was young was to escape from the restraints of Ireland, and his family (D’Erasmo 2011) and eventually succeeded in his self-imposed exile, moving to Barcelona in 1975. His novel ‘Brooklyn’ (2015) rejects the classic portrayal of emigrants arriving in America, by creating a protagonist who did not actually choose to emigrate herself (Savu 2013), however through the journey of the tales protagonist, Eilis Lacey, Toíbín ‘’reconfigures ‘home’ from being a static, concrete place that grounds the immigrants identity to a constant negotiation of the boundaries between Ireland and America’’ (Savu 2013:pp.250-251).

This notion of reconfiguring the ‘home’ is evident upon Eilis’s return to Ireland from her organised exile to Brooklyn. Following her sister, Rose’s, death she is urged to return home by her brothers, though distraught, she experiences a certain anticipation to be returning to Enniscorthy. Her feelings of excitement quickly turn to disappointment as ‘’her bedroom’’ (p.204) now ‘’seemed empty of life’’ (p.204) and she was frightened due to ‘’how little it meant to her’’ (p.204) thus signifying how Eilis now feels emotionally distanced from her original home. Furthermore, the relationship with Brooklyn and her husband, Tony, begins to dissipate as the physical distance between them seems to cause an emotional distance in return. This is depicted in the novel when:

Upstairs on the bed Eilis found two letters from Tony and she realized, almost with a start, that she had not written to him as she had intended. She looked at the two envelopes, at his handwriting, and she stood in the room with the door closed wondering how strange it was that everything about him seemed remote. And not only that, but everything else that had happened in Brooklyn seemed as though it had almost dissolved and was no longer richly present to her. (p.231)

This passage implies that Eilis is largely influenced by wherever she currently inhabits, and essentially cannot relate or commit to either Brooklyn or Enniscorthy. Additionally, these letters bear further significance as when Eilis is pondering whether to tell Jim Farrell, her Irish suitor, that she is in fact married to a man in Brooklyn. She glances at ‘’the letters from Tony’’ (p.242) and realises ‘’there would never be a time to tell him’’ (p.242), then declaring ‘’she would have to go back’’ (p.242) to Brooklyn, presumably for good. As she departs for the final time, the reader is left questioning what her future holds due to the ambiguity of this ending. She may not remain with Tony, or she may continue their marriage, however, one clear message does become apparent. Although neither location may offer Eilis a complete and emotionally fulfilling ‘home’, Brooklyn is a place of escape and freedom where she can make her own choices away from the closed-minded eyes of paralysing Ireland, therefore making the portrayal of exile one of positivity and opportunity overall.

Considering these interpretations of Joyce’sDublinersand Toíbín’sBrooklyn,it is evident that both authors have strong opinions on the effects of exile. Though each text offers significantly different insights into the matter of exile and emigration, they both highlight the consequences that it can have on different individuals. Furthermore, the repeatedly ambiguous endings suggest that exile is a largely unpredictable and personal experience, which cannot and should not be generalised.


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The Influences of Irish Diaspora on Modern Writing. An Exemplary Study of James Joyce's Dubliners and Colm Toíbín's Brooklyn
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Liv Zare (Author), 2017, The Influences of Irish Diaspora on Modern Writing. An Exemplary Study of James Joyce's Dubliners and Colm Toíbín's Brooklyn, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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