On Ivy Day, a group of political canvassers working for a mayoral candidate in the city council elections gather in the National Party committee room to warm up from the cold, drink together, talk politics, and await their wage payment. Ivy Day, October 6, commemorates the politician Charles Stuart Parnell’s death in 1891, and Parnell’s presence pervades this story. Mat O’Connor, one of the canvassers, sits and smokes as Old Jack, the porter of the building, tends to a dwindling fire and tells O’Connor about his son. Both men are employed by Richard Tierney, a pub owner who is running for the office of Lord Mayor in the upcoming elections. Another man, Joe Hynes, joins the two men, but he does not work for Tierney. He is deeply critical of the candidate, suspecting him of being sympathetic to the British even though he runs as a Nationalist, the party that supports an independent Ireland. Another canvasser, John Henchy, also joins the group. He coolly acknowledges the presence of Hynes and reviews the day’s campaigning efforts with O’Connor before he too launches into a critique of the candidate, though for his tardiness in paying employees like himself rather than the candidate’s political leanings.
Hynes leaves, and following his exit Henchy expresses his suspicions that Hynes is an informer for Colgan, the working-class candidate running against Tierney. O’Connor gently deflects the comment, but, encouraged by Old Jack, Henchy continues with his conspiracy theory that such informers probably work for the British. He makes a connection between Hynes and the infamous Henry Charles Sirr, an Irishman who, as an officer in the British Army, helped to suppress Irish uprisings against the British in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Another man, Father Keon, soon appears in the doorway looking for someone who is not in the room, and scurries off to Tierney’s pub to find the man. Henchy and O’Connor chat about the priest, who has a reputation for being a “black sheep,” unattached to any church or institution.
The men then turn the talk to drink, and Henchy complains that Tierney had promised to send some stout to the room that has yet to arrive. Soon thereafter, though, a boy appears bearing bottles from the pub, and Henchy exclaims that Tierney keeps to his word. Two more canvassers named Crofton and Lyons arrive. Henchy turns the discussion back to politics, making clear his support of Tierney’s catch-all approach of supporting “whatever will benefit his country,” even the welcome of the English king, which, he argues, would boost the local economy. O’Connor counterargues, noting that the National Party under Parnell would never place capital over political theory, a point that Henchy meets with a simple “Parnell is dead.” Lyons backs O’Connor, as does Crofton, spurring Henchy to laud Parnell as well. At this moment, Hynes returns, and O’Connor asks him to read a poem he wrote, entitled “The Death of Parnell.” The poem celebrates Parnell and paints him as a man betrayed by treachery. All of the men applaud the recitation.
“Ivy Day in the Committee Room” mourns the state of Irish politics and people’s inability to maintain consistent beliefs. The group of men gathering in the once-active and promising room of the National Party, which used to be Parnell’s headquarters, show little enthusiasm for the candidate they apparently support, but instead bicker about trivial things. The “Committee Room” in the title connects this scene of atrophy to the betrayal of Parnell. The Committee Room in London was where Irish politicians chose not to support Parnell as a leader in December 1890. This event destroyed Parnell’s career, and, this story suggests, the morale and hopes of the next generation as well. Yet these men, particularly Henchy, demonstrate wavering beliefs that show they too are guilty of betrayal. “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” reveals how the past shapes the present, but also how those living in the present fail to correct or atone for past wrongs.
The men in the story dwell on the past so much that almost no constructive action takes place. The story opens with Old Jack telling O’Connor about his drunken, disloyal son, which from a broader perspective suggests that the political successors to Parnell do just that to their political “father”: complicate and disregard rather than support. The commemorative title of the story highlights that on this special day, these men remain inactive. Ivy Day honors Parnell’s death and takes its name from the loyal Dubliners who, at Parnell’s funeral, wore the ivy growing by his grave in their lapels. In the story, both O’Connor and Hynes wear ivy in memory of Parnell, but they involve themselves only in petty politics, if they involve themselves at all. Hynes turns up in the room to critique Tierney and plant seeds of dissent, and O’Connor shrugs off his job. He canvasses—or, rather, fails to canvass—for a candidate he seems to care little about, since he sits inside to avoid promoting in the inclement weather. O’Connor also lights his cigarettes by burning the information cards he is meant to hand out, even when offered a match. His dedication to supporting Tierney, the new Nationalist candidate, could not be any weaker.
The men in the committee room, the story suggests, are paralyzed in a cycle of inactivity and equivocation. Henchy, by far the worst offender, harshly criticizes Tierney, whom he calls “Tricky Dicky,” and also supports him energetically. Henchy continually switches his allegiance. At one moment he bemoans Tierney’s empty promise to send beer, while in the next moment he defends Tierney’s sense of honor and recites his promotional speech, in which he lauds Tierney for being attached to no political party. The appearance of Father Keon indicates that this inability to devote oneself to a cause also applies to religion. Looking like “a poor clergyman or a poor actor,” this ambivalent, ambiguous figure hovers on the threshold of the door, neither committing himself to the room nor removing himself from it. The priest, unattached to any church and uncertain of where he stands, suggests the distrust that exists in any belief system, whether spiritual or political. The story, set in the wake of Irish political collapse, hints that uncertainty defines the times.