by James Joyce
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
In "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," Mr. O'Connor wears an ivy leaf pinned to his jacket in honor of "Ivy Day." Everyone in the room, and on the streets, would have seen it and known something very important about Mr O'Connor's beliefs.
What's Ivy Day, you ask, and how have I missed the fireworks every year? Well, it's the holiday that could have been called "Charles Parnell Memorial Day," and it happens in Ireland every October 6th, which is the date of his death way back in 1891.
The Scoop on Charles
Charles Stewart Parnell was an Irish politician. But he wasn't the boring kind. He was, for many people, a popular hero and a legend because he fought for "Home Rule," a major step toward Irish independence. See, Ireland had been controlled by England, its next-door neighbor, for hundreds of years, and part of that control was that English businesses, English money, and English people got rich in Ireland while a lot of Irish people stayed very poor. Totally unfair, right?
Well, Parnell worked to change things from a very young age. He was a member of the British parliament, and tried to enact laws that would make it easier for poor Irish citizens to own their own land and pull themselves out of poverty. One of the most radical things he did was tell poor peasants not to pay their rent to their English landlords. It was basically a boycott of England on a large scale, and Parnell went to jail for his involvement.
Obviously, this only made him more popular—in Ireland. As his life went on, he fought for the Irish Nationalist cause in lots of ways. And because it was politics, his efforts weren't without discord: even some people on the same side of the big issues disagreed with his tactics.
But the strange thing is, the big scandal that made Parnell's life a real mess, and might have contributed to his death, had nothing to do with politics.
From Politics to the Personal
It all started with a divorce. William O'Shea divorced his wife, Kitty, in 1889 because he claimed she was Parnell's mistress. And unfortunately, she definitely was. Parnell had three children with Kitty on the sly. It totally ruined his reputation, even among his followers. Suddenly, the man Hynes calls "our Uncrowned King" was on the outs. Less than two years later he was dead, with the bitter memories so fresh that his legacy would forever be tainted by them.
Except, that is, among his diehard followers, who tried to convince people that Parnell's legacy in politics was more important than his personal life, which is an argument that's all too familiar these days. This crowd gained some traction as the causes Parnell fought for found some success.
And "Ivy Day" was their day. They wore ivy leaves in their lapels as a symbol of Parnell, and here's why: when Parnell died, a poor woman from the countryside sent an Ivy Wreath for his grave, saying that it was all she could afford. Her story spread, and Ivy came to represent Parnell's commitment to Ireland's poor (and their commitment to him, too, we might add)
In "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," no one talks too much about ivy leaves. The important thing is that almost everything they talk about, all the politics and campaigning and money, would have been taking place in a room where a few people sporting ivy leaves faced off against a few people without them. Imagine a tense face-off between two rival gangs: no one has to say anything to know who's who, but everything depends on the difference.