Justin Beplate

Dedalus at the Bar

Joyce in Court


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The writings of James Joyce testify to his abiding interest in the law – in both the compressed human dramas of criminal trials and the wider processes of judgement and control. He briefly flirted with the idea of a legal career, attending a few classes in law before drifting back towards his medical studies, and this early interest was constantly refined in and applied to his later writing. While not exactly a litigious man, he was not averse to entertaining thoughts of legal vindication for real or perceived slights. Having fled Dublin for a life of self-imposed exile in Trieste, he imagined himself, in a letter to his brother Stanislaus, as a prisoner at the bar, defiantly answering for his failure to observe the conventions of orthodox Irish morality: ‘To be judged properly I should not be judged by 12 burghers taken at haphazard, judging under the dictation of a hide-bound bureaucrat, in accordance with the evidence of [a] policeman but by some jury composed partly of those of my own class and of my own age presided over by a judge who had solemnly forsworn all English legal methods.’ In later letters he urged Stanislaus, embroiled in one of many disputes with landlords over unpaid rent, to threaten legal action in order to stave off eviction. Stanislaus wisely ignored this rash counsel, observing drily to a friend: ‘My brother has still illusions about the law.’

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