Books aren’t the easiest things to hold civic celebrations around, even when people read them. Yet Dublin tries it every year on this day–”Bloomsday”–in honor of James Joyce and his novel Ulysses, which may be modern literature’s most unread classic. The city holds readings, brunches, and even Molly Bloom look-a-like contests. Dublin does all this even though Joyce himself cast a famously cold eye on his hometown. His works constitute a prolonged meditation on the stagnation and repression that characterized the city–or at least did until 1904, when a stifled and frustrated Joyce left, never to return.
The Irish bear grudges effectively. Don’t ever hazard praise of Britain in a pub–but with Joyce, all is forgiven. He may have spent the last 37 years of his life in Italy, France, and Switzerland. He may have refused to exchange his British passport for an Irish one when it became possible. Yet on Bloomsday, he is refashioned into a proud son of Erin.
Dublin might also choose to honor another one of its native sons–a man who was much less conflicted over his own Irish identity. This particular fellow also happens to be one of Ireland’s greatest authors, arguably its greatest statesman, and without question a hero of the modern conservative movement: Edmund Burke.
As part of the Bloomsday walks commemorating Ulysses, tourists will pass by the main entrance of Trinity College. Today, as in 1904, statues of Burke and Oliver Goldsmith stand there. While Joyce mentions “Goldsmith’s knobby poll,” he does not mention Burke. Passers-by, however, cannot help but see him. They should take a good look, too, because Burke still matters, both in his legacy to Ireland and in his practical influence in the modern world. Writing in The National Interest several years ago, would-be U.N. ambassador John Bolton cited him as an inspiration for a pragmatic American foreign policy–for “his understanding of the importance of circumstances in setting policy, his emphasis on prudence and ‘rational, cool endeavors,’ and his devotion to practicality over abstraction.”
Burke’s efforts for Ireland were aimed at reducing the island’s subjugation to Britain. He advocated Catholic emancipation, improved property rights, and less restrictive economic policies. Although he made his life’s work in Britain, his Irish roots clearly contributed to his political conscience. His father seems to have been a convert to Protestantism while his mother and sister were Catholics; the difficulties of Irish Catholic existence were accordingly near to him. Yet Burke’s advocacy on behalf of Ireland brought him into personal and political conflict with both his constituents and his party. He probably lost his seat representing Bristol in parliament for pushing a bill to give improved trading rights to Irish merchants. In the 19th century, Gladstone considered Burke a role model as he tried to advance the cause of Irish Home Rule. One recent biographer, Conor Cruise O’Brien, says that Burke “did more than anyone else to secure legislative redress for the benefit of Irishmen.”
So where are Dublin’s tributes to Burke? There is the statue in front of Trinity, which commands prime real estate on College Green. Otherwise, the commemorations are not impressive. Trinity has named a basement lecture hall in its exceptionally ugly Arts Building after Burke. Water damage stains the walls inside and the upholstery on the seats is fraying. The room is remarkable mainly for its ability to amplify surrounding noises. The janitors’ vacuum cleaners sound like rocket ships blasting off–far more revolutionary a din than Burke would care to hear.
Elsewhere in Dublin, there’s little to be found honoring Burke. Walking west along the River Liffey to the man’s birthplace at 12 Arran Quay, as I did this spring, will bring only disappointment. The house was leveled for a government building that is architecturally less distinguished than a gas station visible across the river. The Burke family home on Ormond Quay was demolished as well.
Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, has called Burke “one of our famous Irish writers.” This ranks prominently in the annals of understatement. Having already established a day for that other famous author, Dublin could do worse than hold a “Burkesday.” He was born on January 12 (in 1729) and he died on July 9 (in 1797). Either date would suffice. And the chief entertainment is obvious: dramatic readings of Reflections on the Revolution in France. Revelers could even burn effigies of Robespierre and Warren Hastings. But whatever they do, Burke deserves his day. Ireland simply needs to say: “yes I said yes I will Yes.”
–Anthony Paletta is the editor of the Carrollton Record at Johns Hopkins University and a summer intern for NR in Washington, D.C. He spent the winter and spring studying at Trinity College.