June 16th is Bloomsday, the date when James Joyce’s Ulysses is set. One of Leopold Bloom’s encounters is with the terrifying Cyclops, the obsessive Fenian anti-Semite Citizen, who baits the Jewish hero mercilessly. But another creative Irishman, James Barry, had used the Odyssey long before to make a point about conflict between him and a compatriot.
|Permanent Collection of Cork's Crawford Gallery|
Barry’s Portraits of Burke and Barry in the characters of Ulysses and a Companion fleeing from the Cave of Polyphemus (c. 1776) is discussed in my forthcoming book with Henry Stead, A People’s History of Classics. Barry was born to a Protestant father, who operated a cargo coaster out of the Port of Cork. But he enthusiastically adopted the faith of his Catholic mother.
He was saved from working as a sailor by fellow Irishman Edmund Burke, no less. Burke was still most famous as the author of A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful rather than for his trenchant conservative Whiggery.
Burke spotted Barry’s talent, and had him trained in the workshop of James ‘Athenian’ Stuart (who was also the son of a sailor, and suffered a near-destitute boyhood in Ludgate). Burke paid for Barry to study in Rome. But Burke disagreed with Barry’s politics and attitudes to authority. The much poorer, younger man loathed having to appease patrons.
Polyphemus represents the rapacious British establishment, and the sheep its chattel-like Irish subjects. Burke (Ulysses) is trying to silence his companion. Barry knew that Ulysses’ lieutenant Eurylochus later becomes mutinous, complaining that Ulysses was himself responsible for the disaster on the Cyclops’ island.
Barry was appointed Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy in 1782. But his Irish vernacular, slovenly clothes (he was sometimes mistaken for a beggar) and what an insider called his ‘avowed democratical principles' culminated in his expulsion from the Academy in 1799 and death in abject poverty seven years later.
His inability to embrace the British artistic and political establishments, as the increasingly reactionary Burke urged, is the fundamental message of this fascinating pre-Joycean Irish allegory of the Odyssey. It is one reason why Barry was so admired by Blake, Turner, and Watts. But, despite his endlessly reproduced and beautiful pictures of the suffering Philoctetes, Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida, etc, far too few of us are aware of his radical classicism today.