As it turns out, by the 1920s “shrieks of silence” was a familiar expression in Ireland, America, and Britain. The Irish Independent of 18 April 1913 reviews a performance of Strindberg’s The Stronger at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin:
Miss Elizabeth Young was Madame X, and has a nice speaking voice, but one would lik to have heard more of it. Miss Una O’Connor dressed the part of Mdlle. Y, sneered, jeered, smiled, scoffed, blazed anger from her eyes, and blew smoke rings in the air. But never spake a word. "The Stronger" is described as a comedy. Its "humour" provoked shrieks of silence. (p. 7)
Evidence for the expression derives frequently (though not exclusively) from reviews of stage shows, when the audience greets the performer with less enthusiasm than might be hoped. But it is found in other contexts. In 1905, an Australian newspaper, the Southern Times (Bunbury, Western Australia), sneaks it into the report of a formal meeting:
Mr. Johnson […] referred with touching pathos to the old condition of the roads before the Board was formed […] He had been their Chairman from the start and he was beginning to think it was time that someone else drove the team – (A Voice: Never.) – and there were those who could very well take up the duty that devolved upon the chair. (Shrieks of silence). (p. 5)
But it is from the variety stage that the expression appears to owe its origin. The earliest reference yet discovered dates from the Music Hall and Theatre Review of 29 June, 1894. Cliff Ryland was a (self-designated) “eccentric” songster and comic from America with a talent for patter and dramatic understatement. Although advertisements for his shows might refer to his “funny songs, which made everybody shriek with laughter”, he was not averse to laughing at himself:4
You should hear the audience keeping quiet. Shrieks of silence, and rounds of drinks.
Ryland appeared at Dan Lowry’s Star Theatre of Varieties in Dublin in 1895, and made various other outings to Dublin and Belfast in the early years of the twentieth century, so his talent was not unknown in Ireland.
It was not unusual for Joyce to be influenced by the world of light opera and the music-hall. “Shrieks of silence” certainly predates Ulysses, and perhaps it was an expression that chimed with Joyce’s penchant for the theatre and popular musical entertainment.