Ulysses, race and the new Bloomusalem

Paper presented at the Global Ulysses seminar, 14 June 2022

One of the Hebrew language books I took from my parents’ Haifa home when I came to Ireland with my late partner Louis Lentin was מלחמת האירים לעצמאותםThe Irish War for their Independence written by a Jewish emigrant from Ireland, one Efraim Schwartzman, who gifted it to my parents. He was my grandparents’ neighbour in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Talpiot, in my native mandatory Palestine.

The book, published in 1947, is dedicated to Schwartzman’s sister and her family who were killed in the Romanian ghettos of Transnistria, where many members of my own Bucovina Jewish family had been exiled to during World War II.

These two serendipitous points – Schwarzman’s northern Romania Jewish family, and his Irish origins – must have been the fateful omens that led me to Ireland, a country I was barely aware of prior to meeting Louis in Israel television. Arriving in Dublin in 1969 – jumping from the Israel-Palestine frying pan to the Northern ‘Troubles’ fire – was made easier by taking Bloom as my flanneur-stroller guide through the estrangement of late sixties Catholic Irish society. Under Louis’s guidance I spent my first year – in a rented apartment in the ironically named Zion Road – reading Ulysses complete with guidebooks and concordances…

Irish Jews make great copy. After all, as the late David Marcus asks, ‘Who has ever heard of an Irish Jew?’ Schwartzman’s book deals only briefly with the history of the Jews in Ireland and came out after Bernard Shillman’s A Short History of the Jews in Ireland (1945). Since then there were quite a number of books, articles, theses and television documentaries about the Irish Jewish community. Quite apart from David Marcus himself who returned obsessively to what he called his hyphenated Jewish identity, in Next Year in Jerusalem (1954), A Land not Theirs (1986), Outobiography: Leaves from the Diary of a Hyphenated Jew (2001), and Buried Memories (2004), there were Louis Hyman’s The Jews of Ireland(1972), Dermot Keogh’s Jews in Twentieth-Century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust (1998), Cormac O’Grada’s Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History (2006), Ray Rivlin’s Shalom Ireland: A Social History of the Jews in Modern Ireland (2003), Memory of an Irish Jew by Lionel Cohen, Rory Miller’s The Book of the Irish: Irish Jews and the Zionist Project, 1900-1948 (2011), and the outlying Irish Sephardim- A Memoir from Ireland’s Hidden Jews, by Kelly Gill Seymour (2016) – definitely not an exhaustive list. And I cannot count the number of times I have been asked for interviews for magazine articles, television programmes and postgraduate dissertations. So yes, Irish Jews are great copy, clearly a tradition established by Joyce.

I suppose I should have consulted Schwartzman’s book in writing my chapter. For instance his claim that the names of the first three Jewish people arriving in Ireland in the year 1600 after the expulsion from Spain were Freira and Faro – Murano Jews who had escaped the Spanish Inquisition and who registered as Protestants when they arrived yet continued to stealthily keep their Jewish religious customs. Indeed, many of the early Jews in Ireland were Sephardi – only later was the community made up of Lithuanian pogrom refugees. He also recounts that in 1689 forty five rich Jews contributed 45,000 pounds towards funding the English invasion of Ireland; and that the Jewish community in Dublin was the second largest in Britain after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. He describes the Irish liberation movement’s sympathy for the Jewish people and cites the founder of the Zionist movement Theodor Herzl describing himself in a 1895 diary entry as the ‘Jewish people’s Parnell.’ But perhaps most sensationally, Schwarzman claims that Parnell’s mother Dalia Tudor came from a Jewish family, who had been exiled to Spain…

My chapter begins with the following refutation of Bloom’s Jewishness:

A graffito somewhere on a Dublin brick wall reads “Bloom is a cod.”  Modernist literature’s most famous Jew is indeed a cod. Joyce’s Jew Leopold Bloom – whose father, a Jewish migrant from Hungary named Virag, converted to Protestantism and had his son, born to a non-Jewish mother, converted too – is no Jew in the halachic sense. Joyce took it upon himself to position what the Jewish-British Marxist Isaac Deutscher called a “non-Jewish Jew” at the centre of Ulysses. Deutscher explains a “non-Jewish Jew” thus: “If it is not race, what then makes a Jew? Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am internationalist… I am a Jew because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my own tragedy; because I feel the pulse of Jewish history; because I should like to do all I can to assure the real, not spurious, security and self-respect of the Jews.” Today, Joyce would have been questioned by critics of cultural appropriation as to his right, as a non-Jew, to cast a Jew as his protagonist, who, with yet another pinch, could be regarded as Deutscher’s heretic Jew who transcends Jewry, yet belongs to a Jewish tradition.

However, even though Schwartzman’s book may have signalled my future Irish life, my chapter for this book deals only partially with Bloom’s double alienation as a non-Jewish Jew, forever the outsider both in his native Dublin and in the Jewish community. As Louis Lentin has written: “Although Bloom carries with him bits of his Jewish heritage, Joyce has created in him a man adrift, Irish only by birth, Jewish only by inclination. Yet Bloom belongs only in Dublin, a Jew yet not a Jew; a Christian, of course not. Mulligan calls him the wandering Jew, but in many ways Bloom is more wandering than Jew.”

Before I turn to the broader argument of my chapter, which you may or may not agree with – that Ulysses is the classic modernist novel about race and white dominion, and that Joyce – no race scholar he – understood both race and Ireland’s multi-ethnic composition as early as 1907 when he delivered his lecture ‘Ireland, island of saints and sages’ – let me say something about the other reason Joyce set Ulysses in 1904. As Louis Lentin argued, Joyce, well aware of Ireland’s antisemitic tendencies, must have known about the 1904 virulent outburst of Catholic antisemitism that decimated the small Limerick Jewish community. Having returned to Ireland in 1903 while the attacks against Limerick’s Jews were in full flight, Joyce makes just one oblique reference to the Limerick pogrom when he has Bloom say, in the present tense, “and I belong to a race too, that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant… sold for auction in Morocco.” The latter reference, Lentin suggests, via the French term for Morocco – Le Maroc – being a possible, though tenuous reference to Limerick. Might this explain Joyce’s anti-racist choice of a Jew-ish protagonist, I wonder?

When I started teaching race and racism in Trinity in the 1990s, the mantra was of Ireland just turning from an emigrant nursery to an in-migration destination and from a monocultural to a multicultural society. Ireland, however, as Joyce already knew in 1907, had never been monocultural.

Though Ireland has always been good at vigorously denying race and racism, I propose that claiming Irish monoculturalism is total nonsense. Quite apart from historical waves of in-migration, once the Protestant/Catholic difference is recognized, Ireland, from 1169 onwards, cannot but be thought of as “bi-cultural” rather than “monocultural.”

Indeed, Joyce was acutely aware that Ireland had never been that “monoculture.” In his 1907 lecture he traced the history of various waves of invasion and migration into Ireland, arguing that the three centuries that preceded the English colonization included invasions by black (Danish) and white (Norwegians) foreigners. Both groups were gradually assimilated, forming what Joyce described as the “curious character of the modern Irishman.” He was contemptuous of what became known as the “new Celtic race”, which, he argued, was actually an amalgam of “the old Celtic stock and the Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman races.” Irishness, he insisted, was also made of Protestant settlers who “had become Hibernis Hiberniores, more Irish than the Irish themselves, urging on the Irish Catholics in their opposition to the Calvinist and Lutheran fanatics from across the sea, and the descendants of Danish, Norman and Anglo-Saxon settlers championing the cause of the new Irish nation against the British tyranny.”

Vincent Cheng links Joyce, race and empire, writing about the colonization and racialization of the Irish by the English, ironically citing Britain’s Jewish Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli dubbing them a “wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race,” the “them” who were everything the English “we” were not. The Irish, Cheng quotes Joyce as writing, are “a very mixed race,” and very much a complex mix of racial and cultural strains operating within a fluid contact zone. Prophetically, both In Ulysses and in Finnegans Wake, whose protagonist H. C. Earwicker, “Here Comes Everybody” – a term of racial inclusion if ever there was one,Joyce self-consciously blurs both the racialized demarcations between a dark other and an imperial self, and the Irish myth of pure racial origins. Joyce, Cheng proposes, attempted to engage in the “spiritual liberation of my country” and to “create the uncreated conscience of my race” by representing Ireland in “my nicely polished looking-glass”, a representation not mirrored in the haze of a Celtic twilight.

So – Joyce clearly knew already in 1907 that if there ever was such a thing as an Irish nation, a “monoculture” it was certainly not. It is not the nation, but the modern state that must be thought of as racial, as argued by race scholar David Theo Goldberg. Despite all denials, not unlike the British colonizer, the post-colonial Irish racial state, like other modern nation-states, is a state of power, asserting its control over those within the state and excluding others from without the state by using governmental technologies from constitutions, citizenship and migration regimes to invented histories and state memory. Ireland’s racial regime was consolidated by the 2004 27th constitutional amendment that replaced the jus solis citizenship entitlement to all children born in the island of Ireland with a jus sanguinis citizenship entitlement only to the children of Irish citizens.

Remember that race is not about biology or culture, but rather, following race scholar Alana Lentin, a technology for the management of human difference, the main goal of which is the production and maintenance of white supremacy. Remember also that Joyce’s Ireland was the whole island, and his work addresses Ireland and Irishness before partition, in his 1907 lecture as in Ulysses, set during the twilight years of Britain’s colonial rule, and published during the partitionist civil war. However, the racial state of Ireland I am speaking of is the independent Free State and later Republic – a partial analysis that does not take on board what Robbie McVeigh calls the northern racial “statelet.”

With these caveats out of the way, and bearing in mind Joyce’s understanding of “the Irish” as anything but a monocultural homogeneous whole, it was not until the arrival of a relatively small number of migrants, mostly in response to the Republic’s labour shortages during the “Celtic Tiger” boom years, that the discourse of the disruption of that alleged “monoculture” began surfacing. With it came both the awareness and the denial of race and racism, and of Ireland’s racial plurality.

But denial is actually a paradox: when a person says “I didn’t know,” they actually do know about what they claim not to know. The disavowal of race as a technology of state power, and the claim that racism had not existed in post-colonial Ireland before migrants started arriving were exposed by Robbie McVeigh, the first to outline the specificities of Irish racism. Besides British colonial racism, the famine and forced emigration, racism was imported from Britain and by returning Irish emigrants; racism was also perpetrated against Ireland’s indigenous group – Irish Travellers, and was rampant in the Irish diaspora as documented by Noel Ignatiev in his How the Irish Became White in the US, but also in Australia and elsewhere, and, as McVeigh argued recently, in Ireland too, in the face of its ever changing racial landscape. Today McVeigh would situate the specificity of Irish racism more directly in terms of the complex relationship between Britishness, Irishness and colonialism, as argued in his 2021 book with Bill Rolston, Ireland, Colonialism and the Unfinished Revolution.

I would add to McVeigh’s initial specificities of Irish racism the Direct Provision regime that dehumanizes asylum seekers and denies them freedom and dignity. The twenty first century Republic of Ireland hides asylum seekers from public view and disavows their existence just as post-colonial Ireland had disavowed the past regimes of coercive incarceration of unwed mothers and their hapless children in Catholic-run Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalene Laundries and industrial schools.

But disavowal, as Freud writes, often leads to repression and repressed pain is not really forgotten and always returns to haunt, and with it the awareness that Ireland is not, and has never been a racial monolith.

My key argument is that the denial of race and the refusal to admit Irish state racism derives from disavowing the role played by Irish people as both colonized and racialized by the British and as involved in the racialization of colonized others. Moreover, denial and the government’s insistence that its immigration and asylum policies have nothing to do with race constitute racist violence.

This matrix of denial characterizes the racialization of Irishness which is evident in Joyce positioning Bloom as a double racial outsider in the city of his birth, where Jewish people are often targeted by antisemitism. Irishness and Irish people, as Joyce understood, benefited from their role within the British Empire while also remaining subordinate within imperial structures. In both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake Joyce engaged with race as a product of colonial relations and as a wider disputation with nationalism, capitalism and modernity.


I have been writing about racial states in Ireland and in my native Palestine-Israel for many years now and any optimism I might have had has waned.

Joyce’s Bloom was a lone “other” in the Hibernian metropolis, but in today’s Dublin we can no longer ignore the increasing presence of racialized people whose visible Otherness is changing the city’s landscapes.

I propose that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake mirror what a multi-racial Dublin looks like. And this makes me wonder whether, had Ulysses been written today by another Dubliner, say Roddy Doyle, Bloom would have probably been a son of an African, rather than a Jewish migrant. I also wonder whether Joyce would support the Palestinian rather than the Jewish cause and join the 1400 plus Irish artists in signing the cultural boycott of Israel…

When challenged about belonging, Bloom insists Ireland is his nation, his birthright, and even though he is constantly mocked by his fellow citizen, he insists that “it’s no use… force, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life… Love.”

Likewise, today’s migrants and asylum seekers insist on their right to humanity. As Bulelani Mfaco, spokesperson of the Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) said during MASI’s appearance in the Oireachtas in May 2019: “We are human beings, like everyone, like all of you. All we ask is that we be treated as such. The very fact that people have to ask the government to treat them humanely should shame all of you.”

Despite being pilloried by his fellow citizens, Bloom voices his utopian dream of a life without racism:

“A new era is about to dawn, I, Bloom, tell you verily it is even now at hand. Yea, on the word of a Bloom, ye shall ere long enter into the golden city which is to be, the new Bloomusalem in the Nova Hibernia of the future.”

Although Bloom’s dream was not to be, as Irish Jews continue to emigrate and experience antisemitism – as I know well from personal experience, Travellers are continually racialized and discriminated against, and as asylum seekers still languish in Direct Provision, Joyce did carry forward Bloom’s raceless visions into Finnegans Wake, where the voice of Shem was sounded, and where “everybody” was welcomed to Anna Livia’s plurabelle post-metropolitan Hibernia.

And like Bloom, Ireland’s racialized others continue to stake their claims as the city and its spaces – hospitals, schools, businesses – are becoming less homogeneously Christian and white. In occupying new spaces, the racialized are telling “us” – just like Bloom told his citizen friends – what “we” already know. Ireland – denial, disavowal and all that jazz notwithstanding – is not, and never was, racially “pure,” as new racial (and gendered) landscapes are changing its geographies of exclusion in diverse ways which render  Dublin as an imagined white “Irish” space totally obsolete.