How do you keep alive the fire of a dead hero?
This is a straightforward story about the legacy of Charles Stuart Parnell, twenty years after his death. Parnell was a charismatic Irish politician of the late 19th century, who nearly achieved Home Rule, but was brought down by an absurd adultery scandal. Joyce idolized him and was particularly bitter that the Irish people and clergy destroyed him, doing the English colonialists’ dirty work for them. “Ivy Day” refers to the anniversary of Parnell’s death, October 6, which his followers commemorated by wearing an ivy leaf on their lapel.
The story takes place in a “committee room,” or local political office, in which seven men sit around, tend the fire, come and go, drink stout, gossip, and listen to a poem about Parnell. As in much of Joyce’s work, not much happens. Everyone’s physical relationship to the fire (and its light) signifies.
A typical old Irish fellow, he lackadaisically tends the fire, raking “the cinder together with a piece of cardboard.” Not exactly a real go-getter; he doesn’t even use a poker on the “whitening dome of coals,” but rather a piece of cardboard. He has a bad relationship with his 19 year old son, who he beat when he was younger, and who now “goes boosing about” and “takes th’upper hand” of the old man whenever “I’ve a sup taken.” Another worn-out, drunken, abusive father and a bad father-son relationship. “Welcome to Ireland,” Joyce is saying.
A canvasser for Richard Tierney, a Nationalist (Home Rule) candidate for municipal office; he sports an ivy leaf in his lapel. Theoretically, both he and his boss are carrying Parnell’s legacy, but he’s not working very hard at it. He is a grey-haired young man, with a face disfigured by blotches and pimples. Mostly he spends his time “meditatively” rolling, undoing, and re-rolling a cigarette. He sits at a table, not near the fire, literally in the dark (as Hynes mentions twice). He seems very interested in getting paid, or at least compensated with a bottle of stout.
A canvasser for the rival candidate, Colgan, Hynes also wears an ivy leaf and does his best to keep the Parnellite flame alive. In contrast to O’Connor, he’s a tall, slender young man with a light brown moustache, who we see “advancing into the light of the fire,” or leaning against the mantel piece (i.e. close to the fire). But if his banal paean that he reads at the end of the story is the best he can do, then the legacy of Parnell is fading away. It’s a cardboard poem. He earns the only unqualified “Pok!” from the bottles.
Henchy is the only one of the group with any initiative, any industry, any energy. He is “a bustling little man,” who “walks quickly over to the fire,” (but doesn’t seem to stay there very long. He’s the only one to suggest that Old Jack, the caretaker, fetch some more coals for the fire. He knows the trick of opening stout bottles by placing them on the fire until the cork pops. No three-gun salute for the dead Parnell, just a few bottles of stout, going “Pok!” on a dying fire. He’s the only canvasser to even claim to have gotten a few votes for the candidate.
But despite his 21st Century pro-active nature (this guy is right out of “Seven Effective Habits”), he has wholly betrayed Parnell’s legacy. “Mr Henchy snuffled vigorously and spat so copiously that he nearly put out the fire which uttered a hissing protest.” He’s a hypocrite and a gossip, only interested in commercial values. Like O’Connor, his main interest is in getting paid, and he’s fine with the upcoming visit of King Edward VII which he thinks will promote Ireland’s economy.
He and Hynes are the yin and yang (Hin and Hang?) of Ireland, each one representing some of the good qualities the country would need, but each one utterly lacking in the other’s talents. Hynes has the heart, but no head; Henchy the head, but no heart.
Described as an “enigmatic” figure, he is dressed in black clothes, “impossible to say whether he wore a clergyman’s collar or a layman’s.” He only stays around long enough to look for a politician (Mr. Fanning) and to deny his need for any light. The Catholic Church was heavily involved in Irish politics and the clergy figured prominently in Parnell’s downfall. Joyce doesn’t think much of this.
Another cameo, who serves to give us another view on father-son relationships, booze, and hypocrisy.
Crofton is an out-and-out Conservative (i.e. a Unionist and a Protestant), assigned by his party to work for Tierney. He is a “very fat man, whose blue serge clothes seemed to be in danger of falling from his sloping figure.” He considers his associates in the room beneath and doesn’t say much. I don’t judge Crofton too harshly though. While a citizen of Ireland, he is not and never was part of the nationalist, Catholic community that Joyce feels betrayed Parnell. Crofton is naturally sympathetic to the English; he is just a fact of political life.
He merits a “tardy Pok!” from his bottle.
In Ulysses, we meet him again, more fully identified as Freddie “Bantam” Lyons; here he is another unenergetic Tierny canvasser, whose bottle only gives him an “apologetic Pok!” He questions Parnell’s fitness to lead, because of his alleged immorality.
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There’s a lot more to “Ivy Day …” than these eight characters. Many other characters are mentioned. You’ll need some good footnotes (or Wikipedia searches) to understand the references to Charles Stuart Parnell, his affair, the upcoming visit of the King, Irish political parties, etc.
About this same time, Jack London wrote a famous short story, “To Build a Fire.” Perhaps an alternative title to “Ivy Day … ” could have been “To Keep a Fire.” While nothing much happens to the people here, if read as the story of that mundane little fire, you can see all the elements of drama: exposition, conflict, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement.