James Joyce and Dublin: Our complicated relationship with Ireland's best-known author

It is, perhaps, the greatest short story in English literature. ‘The Dead’ – the evocative tale that concludes James Joyce’s Dubliners – continues to resonate powerfully with discerning readers and those who have watched John Huston’s remarkably faithful film adaptation.

The setting – a “dark gaunt house on Ushers Island” south of the Liffey and close to the Guinness factory – is there to this day and largely unchanged from the building that Joyce knew in the early years of the 20th century.

But No 15 Ushers Island has been a source of huge controversy of late with plans submitted to Dublin City Council by developers Fergus McCabe and Brian Stynes to develop a 56-bedroom hostel there. The plan involves the gutting of the interior and the construction of a four-storey annexe at the back.

The proposals have met with almost universal condemnation, especially among those who feel that bricks and mortar associated with the works of Ireland’s most-celebrated writer should be preserved.

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Joyce himself felt underappreciated in Ireland in his lifetime and despite being a fundamental reason why Dublin has UNESCO World City of Literature status as well as a veritable tourist attraction in his own right, the city of his birth continues to have a complicated relationship with his legacy.

Several of the buildings that appear in his best-known work, Ulysses, have been demolished. The home of its ‘hero’, Leopold Bloom, at 7 Eccles Street, was torn down in 1967 and the site is now occupied by the Mater Private Hospital.

And yet, around the time that the story broke about the proposed development at Ushers Island, it was reported that two Dublin City Councillors, Dermot Lacey and Paddy McCartan, had suggested that the remains of Joyce and his wife Nora Barnacle be moved from Zurich – the Swiss city where the couple had lived for much of their lives – to Dublin as a way to celebrate the writer as we approach the centenary of the publication of Ulysses in 2022.

Switzerland’s James Joyce Foundation was among those aghast by the idea, especially as Joyce had not expressed a wish to be buried in the city of his birth. Its director Fritz Senn said there would be resistance in Joyce’s adopted home – where his grave is something of a literary tourist attraction – especially as the Irish government had failed to send a representative to his funeral in 1941.

His widow had wanted him to be repatriated to Ireland at the end of the 1940s – following the transfer of the remains of WB Yeats to the country – but the state had little interest in complying with those wishes. The poet had served in Seanad Éireann and was a Nobel Prize winner; Joyce – to at least part of the Official Ireland of the time – was someone who had abandoned his country and wrote dirty books.

And yet, contrary to popular opinion, Ulysses was never officially banned in Ireland. Its publishers simply didn’t submit it for consideration, knowing it would inevitably be prohibited. Consequently, it wasn’t for sale in this country for decades after publication.

They had good reason for not submitting the novel, considered by many to be the finest of the 20th century. After all, this is a book with one chapter set entirely in Monto, Dublin’s huge red-light district in the north inner city, which the Legion of Mary was doing its damnedest to eradicate around the time of its 1922 publication. And, famously, its final chapter centres on central female character Molly Bloom pleasuring herself sexually while sharing the most intimate details of her fantasies.

Cruel irony

It’s certain that neither the business of Dublin prostitutes or a depiction of guilt-free masturbation would have got past the arch-conservative, all-male committee that comprised the Censorship of Publications Board, an organisation that had emerged from the Committee on Evil Literature which was established in the early years of the Irish Free State.

For literary lovers, it is a cruel irony that this most Dublin of books was not openly available to buy in Ireland until the 1950s and even then many book shops refused to stock it.

But that dark decade of mass emigration was the start of a new-found appreciation for Joyce in his native land. In 1954, on the 50th anniversary of the fictional events of June 16, 1904 – the date on which Ulysses is set – a small gathering of Ireland’s greatest writers set out on a Leopold Bloom-inspired pilgrimage of all the major sites named in the novel.

They were Brian O’Nolan – better known by his noms-de-plume, Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen; Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh; fledgling critic Anthony Cronin; AJ Leventhal, the Registrar of Trinity College; artist, publisher and publican John Ryan; and, Tom Joyce, a cousin of the great writer.

Bloomsday was born, although it wouldn’t be until the 1980s – and the 1982 centenary of Joyce’s birth – that it really took off.

Today, Bloomsday is a week-long festival heavily promoted by Fáilte Ireland and the sheer commercialisation would have bemused not just Joyce but the likes of O’Nolan and Kavanagh, too.

There is a dizzying array of events for all the family including special Edwardian breakfasts, pub crawls, theatre events and public readings of Ulysses. The organisers – with the support of multiple stakeholders including Dublin City Council – have attempted to make the celebration as accessible as possible. Bloomsday can be enjoyed without having read the best part of 1,000 pages of frequently difficult prose.

Joyce’s legacy is also commemorated in one of Dublin’s newest visitor attractions. The Museum of Irish Literature – branded MoLI in deference to Molly Bloom – features a significant exhibition devoted to Joyce.

Opened on St Stephen’s Green this summer, MoLI is one of several museums that Joycean scholars can frequent on their visits to Dublin: the James Joyce Centre in Sandycove’s Martello tower – the setting for the opening chapter of Ulysses – remains a must-visit for admirers of the book.

Quite what Joyce himself would have made of all the fuss is anyone’s guess.

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