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The political formation of Joyce at a fiery King’s Inns debate
Frank Callanan SC

23 Apr 2021 / Ireland Print

Political formation of Joyce at fiery King’s Inns debate

Frank Callanan SC spoke last night (22 April) as part of the Green Street lecture series on barrister John Francis Taylor’s famous speech at the King’s Inns in 1901 and on how it relates to Ulysses. 

The barrister was a renowned public speaker and the Irish stringer for the then Manchester Guardian. He was described in 1916 by Yeats as “an obscure great orator”.

Quoted in Ulysses

Taylor’s celebrated speech before the TCD Law Students’ Debating Society on 24 October, 1901 encouraged the learning of Irish and was quoted (or misquoted) in Joyce’s Ulysses.

The tables of the law, graven in the language of the outlaw’ was the title of Frank Callanan’s talk last night, and he spoke about the “wonderful rhetorical flight that won the speech its renown”. 

Taylor was described as “an itinerant nationalist orator, if mostly within the confines of the two canals of Dublin”.

But Taylor’s geographical confinement was mitigated by social reach, Callanan said, despite his irascible temperament.

“He was marginalised during Parnell’s ascendancy, not on account of his admiration for Isaac Butt, but by reason of the refractory independent-mindedness to which the tier of the leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party, below Parnell, was acutely alert,” Callanan said.


During the O’Shea divorce crisis, Taylor initially rallied to Parnell before reversing into alignment with Liberal leader Gladstone, though after the leader’s death he became estranged from the anti-Parnellites.

By the time of the famed 1901 debate in the King’s Inns, he was close to Arthur Griffith and a contributor to the United Irishman.

The 1901 debate, with conservative Lord Justice Gerald Fitzgibbon, was defined by its moment in political time, Frank Callanan explained.

When he spoke, the unionist Fitzgibbon played on the economic interests and career opportunities of Irish graduates. 

Irish unionists at the time were gratified by the enfeeblement of nationalism brought about by the Parnell split.

However, the success of Irish nationalism under Parnell had “deeply unsettled  … Irish unionists, so that their hegemony in Ireland was marked by persisting unease, masked by the sedulously-maintained posture of confidence,” Callanan said.

JF Taylor spoke at the King’s Inns debate after the auditor’s paper and welcomed its reinforcement of personal and national dignity.


Taylor continued that he did not know of anything more humiliating than to see intellectual Irishmen going from one country house in England to the next “turning their poor country into ridicule”.

“If this new movement, the Irish language revival, did nothing more than make these men ashamed, it would be a gain,” Taylor bellowed. 

Taylor’s speech was of supreme political intelligence, Callanan said. It invoked Moses and drew comparisons between the Irish and the Jews. 

Fitzgibbon had argued that the Irish language had not survived as a viable means of communication, and that every language must either be growing or decaying.

“[Taylor’s speech] was a masterclass in political nationalism, and almost imperceptibly, a rebuke to a younger generation of nationalists infatuated with the revival of the Irish language, for some of whom it was almost a credo in itself,” said Callanan.

Grizzled audacity

“With grizzled audacity, Taylor appropriated the idea of the revival of the Irish language to deliver a magnificent restatement on political grounds, a political argument for Irish nationalism, that owed very little to revivalism,” Callanan said. 

The 1901 Inns debate was a contest between unionist and nationalist conceptions of Ireland.

These concepts were to shift in the ensuing two decades, when the Irish language became a defining sign of radical political nationalism, and a prominent feature of the self-presentation of the Irish Free State.

Taylor was never a revivalist of the Irish language and his reservations were close to those of writer James Joyce, who was also suspicious of it, but held back from creating a rift with his own generation, Callanan explained.

Joyce was susceptible to Taylor’s argument, which married Ireland’s artistic and historical heritage with high nationalism.

This capacity for “calculated restraint” is not easily accommodated within the conventional understanding of Joyce, Callanan added.

'Enhanced fidelity'

Callanan doubts that Joyce was present at the speech, though his biographer Richard Ellman assumes that he was, because of the “enhanced fidelity” of Taylor’s speech as rendered in the ‘Aeolus’ episode of Ulysses.

Joyce certainly read the copious newspaper coverage, Callanan said.

“His recall reflected how attentive he was to Irish politics, political figures, journalism, and the issue of the language revival, which hit his cohort in University College, like a great wave, while he was still in Dublin,” Callanan said.

“That is the Joyce of whom we have lost sight,” he said.

In Ulysses, Joyce reworks the speech and “sets it within an intricate, interpretative frame through a diversification of perspectives,” Callanan explained.

Part of it is set in the office of the Evening Telegraph, the sister evening paper of the Freeman’s Journal, the main nationalist paper, with a “broken-down barrister” as one of its habitués.

Joyce renders JJ O’Molloy as a figure with a dual existence in the novel – both a character in his own right and a reflection of JF Taylor, who had died two years before the date on which Ulysses is set.

Fractious persona

“This dual aspect enables Joyce to render him as a figure quite at odds with the fractious persona of the real-life Taylor,” Callanan said.

For Joyce, Taylor’s speech revealed the possibility of invoking politically the culture of ancient Ireland and ancient history in a way that was distinct from the Gaelic League and essentialist cultural nationalism, without denying altogether its impetus.

“The contemporary élan of the Gaelic revival could be captured and redirected as Taylor had contrived to do in the dining hall here [in the King’s Inns],” Callanan said last night.


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