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Reasonable Doubt

Frank Callanan

Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law, by Adrian Hardiman, Head of Zeus, 336 pp, £12, ISBN: 978-1786691590

Adrian Hardiman left an indelible impression on all who encountered him. In the Literary and Historical Society at University College Dublin, polished and incisive periods issued forth in ringingly clear and unwavering cadences from a slim and slight boyish frame. Of strenuously anti-statist economic views, he was the scourge of the college left. They were bewildered when, having seized their bastion of the presidency of the Students Representative Council, he delivered an attack on the Soviet Union at a student congress in Bucharest and was garlanded with the hospitable approbation of the Soviet-hating Ceausescus. He was, as his friend Gerry Danaher recalled, “almost Haugheyesque in his capacity to provoke a reaction”. He studied history in Group VIIIB (“pure history”) and read for the bar at King’s Inns. As an advocate he was resourceful, remorselessly competitive, brilliant and alarmingly formidable. He flirted with politics. He achieved a larger public prominence when he brought a forensic liberalism to the pro-life and divorce controversies in a series of television interviews and debates. He was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court in 2000. A marked philosophical constancy did not mean his views did not develop – his liberalism became more pronounced and rounded, though not at the expense of a somewhat visceral nationalism. What his career as a judge made clear was the degree to which his views were always – personal injuries actions apart – rooted in a solidarity with the beleaguered individual in contest with powerful institutions. His legacy is his incisive and broad-ranging judgements, and this book on Joyce and the law. Setting out from a curiosity about the many Irish legal personae and cases in the literary work, he developed a deep and sympathetic understanding of Joyce’s relationship to Ireland, and to justice.

Hardiman gave much thought to the relation of trials to Joyce’s work:

A notorious trial presents epistemological issues in an acute, concrete and accessible form. It exhibits the classic dramatic unities, of place, time and action. Every trial is, or involves, an inquiry into past events. Nearly all trials are locally rooted and reveal the texture of the society which gave rise to them very accurately, often precisely because they do so randomly. This is very much of a piece with Joyce’s literary technique in Ulysses. He makes no assertions, proclaims no theories; he chronicles the varied events and episodes of a single day, in such number and variety as to baffle a casual reader. He allows his characters to react to them, comment on them and most of all to live through them. He approaches the universal through the local and the specific.

Hardiman’s great theme is Joyce’s embrace of juridical doubt as part of a larger questioning of conventionally received facts, which also marked his treatment of history. I recall him addressing a Joyce conference in York in which he broached the subject with trenchant elan. Here he writes:

His legal concerns are in part an oblique but persistent assertion of the need for philosophical and judicial doubt as a proper, moral and humane reaction to the inadequacy of evidence. Joyce’s epistemological concern was centred on how the law resolved the uncertainties of a case.

It is a cause of great sadness that Adrian did not live to develop this theme further, as he would have done, driven in part by his competitive response to more theoretical treatments of the subject, but chiefly by his own ever-deepening response to Joyce’s work.

It is a book notably free of judicial harrumphs. The expositions of the Maamtrasna murders and trials, of the Great Wyrley case (the wrongful conviction of George Edalji) in England, and of the Childs murder case are gracefully lucid. What also takes it out of the category of legal commentary is Hardiman’s deep affinity with Joyce’s sense of the précarité of life in Dublin, principally among the lower middle classes. “Financial insecurity, the strategems and ploys of those struggling to maintain a foothold in the lower-middle classes, were a pre-occupation of Joyce’s.” This informs his innovative treatment of life insurance policies (which could be borrowed on) in Ulysses. One also senses he was reining himself in a bit, as he was conscious that many of Joyce’s characters belonged to a class with which the Marxist left felt little sympathy.

His strictures on the exorbitance of literary critics and theorists will raise hackles. This leads him to emphasise – and the phrase is perhaps a little judgesque – the importance of “hard facts”. Hardiman states his purpose to be to release some of the facts “of which Ulysses is composed from the limbo of academic criticism to which certain critics have consigned them”. One would have to say a word for Margot Norris, by reference to whom he at one point illustrates this argument. Norris may well be the greatest living critic of Joyce; while what he quotes is a little silly, her approach elsewhere (notably in Joyce’s Web) is not so far removed from Hardiman’s own. It is hard to dissent from his basic argument: “My premise is that if the actual, historical, facts of Joyce’s references are teased out, they help to clarify Joyce’s work and intent.”

The matter of intent is important, and critically unfashionable. In the assessment of Joyce’s politics, for example, there is often little attempt thoroughly to elucidate his actual contemporary thinking, which tends to be treated in a blandly generic way (“anti-imperialist” and so forth). It is of course true that what a writer writes creatively stands on its own and is not to be treated merely as an emanation of what can be discovered from his life and non-fiction writing. However a great deal of what Joyce writes does correspond to convictions expressed by him elsewhere. It is not a fluke that those luminous convictions have stood up remarkably – one might almost say preternaturally – well.

It is not acceptable for critics to posit something close to a tabula rasa, to pretend that Joyce did not articulate a clear response to many contemporary issues both in his fictional writing and in his non-fiction and other pronouncements and to erect theoretical constructs as if he had not. Joyce’s own treatment of the relationship of text and extra-textuality is complex, and attended by a large measure of cunning and mischievous dissembling. He incessantly plays with the relationship of life to art. An instance is the survival of his correspondence with Stanislaus, the most important source for the thinking of the early Joyce. This was down to Stanislaus’s doggedly awed conviction that his brother was a great writer in the making, but it is of critical importance that Joyce knew in composing his letters that they would be safe. This is the second sense in which Stanislaus was “my brother’s keeper”. Extra-textual they might be, but Joyce never intended that his letters would be lost.

There may be a retaliatory attempt to sideline Joyce in Court as an anecdotal narrative of law and lawyers in Joyce’s Dublin. It is very much more than that.

The publication of this book, incomplete at the time of its author’s death last year, was made possible by the perseverance of Neil Belton, and the editorial endeavours of Patrick Geoghegan, and Luca Crispi, who was Adrian’s Joycean consigliere.


Frank Callanan is a senior counsel and a historian. He is currently writing a book, to be entitled The Shade of Parnell, on the influence of Parnell and the Parnell split on James Joyce, and on Joyce’s treatment of the Parnell myth.



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