by James Joyce
Characters in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room"
Mr O'Connor (Mat)
Don't Go, O
A worker in Richard Tierney's election campaign, Mat O'Connor is the only character in "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" who doesn't leave the room during the course of the story. While Jack leaves to get coal, and the other characters either enter and stay (Henchy, Colgan, and Lyons), arrive and leave (Father Keon, the boy), or arrive, leave, and then return (Hynes), Mr O'Connor just sits there, not wanting to go outside into the cold and wet.
All About the Benjamins
Mr O'Connor, then, is also a little bit stuck, just like Old Jack. He's stuck in the room for one thing, but he's also stuck between two positions. On the surface, he's a little upset at his boss for not paying him, and this issue of money keeps popping up in the first part of the story: "I hope to God he'll not leave us in the lurch tonight," he says (Ivy Day in the Committee Room.31). So it definitely seems like this dude's all about the dough.
On the other hand, Mr O'Connor is really into the big picture of Irish politics. Like Hynes, he is a partisan of Parnell, and that actually may help us understand all his other actions. Unlike Mr Henchy, O'Connor likes Joe Hynes, even though he may work for the other candidate, and may even be spying on his boss' campaign. That's because Hynes also likes Parnell (and wrote a poem about Parnell's death that O'Connor really likes). And because O'Connor believes in Parnell, he opposes the visit of King Edward VII to Ireland.
So maybe he has nobler motivations than money. Or maybe he just likes a good political argument. Either way, it's clear there's more to this dude than his plopping down inside for hours on end would suggest.
Poems Get Me in the Gut
At the very end of the story, Mr O'Connor reacts very strongly to Hynes' poem, "The Death of Parnell," which he has been talking about the whole story. It's so strong that he needs to "hide his emotion."
First, it's important because each character in this story has a different relationship to Parnell. Without getting too detailed about Parnell, imagine that it's like the way an American citizen might talk about the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. The parallels aren't exact, but both men were political figures controversial not only for the changes that they wanted, but also for the styles of their leadership and the personal lives they led.
The way that Mr O'Connor gets emotional about Parnell's death in response to the poem, Henchy yells in excitement, and Crofton reluctantly maintains his composure—all of these responses represent different reactions to the most important figure in Irish politics of the day.
If Mr O'Connor gets emotional, it's both a sign that everything he does relates to Parnell, and a sign that his emotions haven't yet found a way to be transformed into action. Remember, it's "Ivy Day," the anniversary of Parnell's death, but still Mr O'Connor has spent most of the day sitting inside.
Mr Joe Hynes
Okay, it's a little bit of a contest between O'Connor, Henchy, and Hynes as to who's the main character of "Ivy Day," but you can make a pretty good case that it's Joe Hynes. Why does he show up in the Committee Room in the first place? Where does he go when he leaves and comes back? Why has he written the poem, "The Death of Parnell" that takes up so much of the story's ending?
When Hynes first walks into the Committee Room, he seems to want to stir things up, even though he's friendly enough. He asks if Tierney has paid Mr O'Connor, and goes on a little bit of a rant about how "the working man" deserves a place in Dublin politics as much as anyone. And especially more than someone like Tierney. Even though the Committee Room is reserved for Tierney's campaign, it seems like Hynes might be on the other side. This is exactly what Mr Henchy says about Hynes: "I think he's a man from the other camp. He's a spy of Colgan's if you ask me" (Ivy Day in the Committee Room.86).
Ivy League Man
Joe's wearing an ivy leaf in his lapel, though, and wins some points for that. Not only does Mr O'Connor defend him at the beginning of the story because he knows that Hynes was loyal to Parnell, it's this same loyalty that brings Mr Hynes to recite his poem on "The Death of Parnell" at the end of "Ivy Day." (Fun Fact: The poem he has written is a lot like one that a young James Joyce wrote when Parnell died, and which was published in a small newspaper.)
One of the questions that this character makes us ask is, just how divisive is politics, anyway? Are there some things we can all agree on? When Hynes reads "The Death of Parnell," it does, at the very least, keep the room quiet for a little while. After all that conversation, and all the political and historical debate, the poem's like a breath of fresh air—a reminder of what they're all doing there.
Well, it's a breath of fresh air for some people. But it's also pretty hard-hitting. In fact, it lays the blame very squarely on "modern hypocrites" for killing Parnell and ruining Ireland's chances of achieving independence.
There's another way to tell the story, which the more conservative Irish men in the room would probably favor: Parnell's adultery was the last straw for his flawed leadership, and his demise was his own fault. Hynes' poem won't tolerate a bit of that viewpoint, and that might be why he's so nervous to read it. Remember how he says, "that's old now," which might mean that he's developed a little bit more complicated view of the situation. (Same thing would happen if someone asked you to read a love poem you wrote in middle school.)
Joyce gives us just enough details to figure out the effect of reading this poem on the gathering. After initial applause, there's an awkward silence. No one knows what to say. It's like Hynes' poem comes out of nowhere. Maybe even O'Connor forgot that it was going to be this strongly worded; Joyce doesn't record O'Connor's response, which is pretty significant, since he's the one who wanted it read aloud. Only Henchy, who's been pretty combative all along, decides to test out the conservative Mr Crofton by asking him how he liked such an anti-conservative poem.
See, you just can't talk about it around a table the same way you can talk about your drunk son or your terrible boss. Even though the last lines of the poem instruct Dubliners to "Pledge in the cup she lifts to Joy" that they will remember and mourn Parnell, the only cup that our characters raise to their lips contains the stout provided by their boss, a corrupt politician.
Mr Henchy (John)
Another Tierney campaign worker, Mr Henchy's a little less polite than O'Connor and Hynes, and is a lot more worried about both money and stout than those two. He also speaks with a lot more Dublin slang, so it can be difficult to understand him. When he says "Musha," "Usha," and "Moya," for example, he's using Irish expressions that convey an ironic sense of surprise (sort of like saying "no way" very sarcastically).
He and Corley (from "Two Gallants") share the habit of talking mostly about their own conversations, which today means talking about his successful day of campaigning for Tierney. He also makes some harsh accusations that border on conspiracy theories. First, he accuses Mr Hynes of being a spy, and then he speaks more generally about his belief that England has planted lots of spies among the Irish nationalists.
Old Jack is the "caretaker," or janitor, of the Committee Room in Wicklow Street. He tends to the fire, fetches coal, and hands out the bottles of stout when they arrive. Sometimes, he joins the political conversation. Even though he's a minor character, he speaks at three significant moments:
(1) He talks to Mr O'Connor in the opening pages of the story, when we find out that he has an alcoholic son, and says "it's hard to know what way to bring up children"
(2) Shortly after, he agrees with Hynes that the "working-classes," and not just the rich, should be represented in government.
(3) Finally, after Henchy claims that Hynes is spying for the opposing candidate, Jack seems to take back his earlier agreement. He says to Henchy and O'Connor that Hynes should "work for his own side and not come spying around here."
Jack's role in the story is important not because he's a particularly chatty or powerful guy like some of the others (Henchy is talkative; Crofton seems powerful even though he's quiet). It's almost like he's significant because he's so minor. Jack's always there, in the same room, but he's just the janitor, so he stands out.
In fact, Hynes uses his presence to make a point. When Mr Hynes and Mr O'Connor are talking about whether Tierney will pay Mr O'Connor, Hynes thinks to bring Jack into the conversation: "—What do you think, Jack? said Mr Hynes satirically to the old man." Now, it's a satirical, or meaningfully humorous question for several reasons.
First, Jack doesn't really have any way of knowing whether Tierney will pay Mr O'Connor. But second, as a lower-class worker, Jack's really the one who should be worried about money, not Mr O'Connor. The fact that Hynes asks him about money is his way of drawing attention to this fact. It's a little bit like bankers arguing about their bonuses in a fast food restaurant when one of them turns to the burger flipper and asks what he thinks about the matter, just to make the other guy look bad.
Not that Jack lets it go this way, though. Instead of saying anything about his own situation, he decides to compare the candidate Mr O'Connor is working for with the "other tinker." Jack says that the other candidate, Colgan, doesn't have any money, unlike Tierney, and this gets Hynes started on a long explanation of the role of the working-class in government. At the end of this, Jack's convinced by the argument.
At least until Hynes leaves and the men he works for fight back a little bit. And then Jack, because he's tending their fire, makes it known that Hynes "doesn't get a warm welcome from me when he comes," even though a warm welcome is a pretty accurate description of what Old Jack gave Hynes's argument.
In the end, though, we see Jack as sort of sadly, if insignificantly, stuck between the man he really agrees with and the men he works for. He doesn't really talk much the whole rest of the story, but when the bottles of stout arrive, we get an even better sense of how futile his position really is. Without a corkscrew, Jack doesn't know how to open them, and relies on Henchy's tricks—opening beer by heating it up in the fire—to do his job.
He's the messenger who brings in the bottles of stout for the men in the room. He's seventeen, and when he accepts an offer to drink one of the bottles Old Jack claims that this is how alcoholism starts.
Yet another campaign worker for Mr Tierney, Mr Crofton is a man of few words. Mr Henchy claims that he mostly "stands and looks at the people while I do the talking" (A Mother.155), and when he enters the room during the last part of the story we learn that he is "silent" because "he had nothing to say" and because "he considered his companions beneath him" (Ivy Day in the Committee Room.167). In other words, the dude's a real winner.
When he does speak, though, it's very important. First, Mr Crofton responds to the controversial conversation about Parnell by saying "Our side of the house respects him because he was a gentleman" (Ivy Day in the Committee Room.384). It's a gesture of kindness on Crofton's part, but it's also very clear that he doesn't care one bit for Parnell's politics.
It's very similar the second time Crofton speaks. The last line of "Ivy Day" reports Mr Crofton's response to the poem, "The Death of Parnell." "Mr Crofton said that it was a very fine piece of writing" (Ivy Day in the Committee Room.217). It's sort of a backhanded compliment, right? He doesn't say that he agrees with what it says, just that he thinks it's written very well. Now this could be a nice thing to say if your poem is about flowers and birdies, but when it's a passionate piece about a revered political leader, it's hardly a compliment at all. His haughtiness, however, prevents him from even saying this.
A brief appearance from this defrocked priest confuses almost everyone in the room, including us. Who is he? What does he wear such shabby clothes? How does he make his money if he's "a black sheep" and not really a priest? (Ivy Day in the Committee Room.117). None of these questions gets a solid answer, and it seems like this soaking wet, mysteriously religious and anti-religious figure who shows up looking for someone who isn't there symbolizes the strangeness of Dublin. We think.
Like Crofton, Mr Lyons is a conservative. He enters the Committee Room along with Mr Crofton and immediately starts yakking up a storm. Unlike most of the people present, he doesn't want King Edward VII of England to visit, but it's not because he's such a strong nationalist. He disapproves of Edward's own immorality. This leads him to say that he also doesn't respect Parnell all that much, since Parnell was also involved in an adultery scandal just before he died. "Do you think now after what he did Parnell was a fit man to lead us?," he says (Ivy Day in the Committee Room.381). This sentiment almost gets everyone up in arms.