independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Ulick O'Connor: Real-life 'Ulysses' character who caused a literary stir

Ulick O'Connor recalls his first contact with the Joyce industry and a landmark legal case

THE copyright on James Joyce's Ulysses has expired. This means that the most famous book in the English language of the 20th Century can now be published without permission from the Joyce estate.



The rights had been administered by Joyce's son, Giorgio, until his death in 1976 when it passed into the hands of Giorgio's son, whom it was felt by some did not do his grandfather any favours by his handling of the estate.

One day in the Law Library in Dublin, when I was practising as a young barrister, I got a call from Reuben Dodd, a solicitor by profession, who asked me would I undertake a libel case he was involved in. I told him he would have to get a solicitor and then I would see what I could do. When we met with Jim Cawley, solicitor, at his office, I learnt that the client was upset about a broadcast on the BBC which had contained reference to him. Apparently he had been listening to the radio trying to get the racing results when to his astonishment he heard his own name referred to in a scurrilous context

When we obtained the script from the BBC, it was found that the context in which the objectionable passage appeared was a radio version of James Joyce's Ulysses. It did indeed refer to a Reuben Dodd as a central figure in the story that was going around Dublin at the time. The suggestion as relayed by one Martin Cunningham was that Reuben was being deported to the Isle of Man by his father after having trouble with a girl.

"Suddenly young Reuben got loose and over the wall with him into the Liffey."

After a boatman fished Reuben out "by the slack of the breeches", he was handed back to the father "more dead than alive". The father gave the rescuer a florin (two shillings) for saving his son's life.

"O, he did," Martin Cunningham affirmed, "like a hero."

"One and eight pence too much," Mr Dedalus said

Reuben Dodd proceeded with the case on the basis that his worth had been valued at no more than four pence.

The case was looked on in the Law Library as a bit of a joke. In fact, my Master, whom I devilled for, Felix Sherry, referred to it as "O'Connor's cod case". However, I persevered and ended up with a leader of the bar, Ernest Wood, as Senior Counsel.

Though they held out for a considerable length of time, the BBC at last admitted in court that the passage could be seriously defamatory of our client. They settled for what was a considerable sum in those days. Reuben was delighted at this substantial financial contribution to his later years. He felt that Joyce had it in for him. They had both been at Belvedere College together and served mass in the school chapel.

"I never liked Jimmy Joyce. He used to drink the altar wine," was Reuben's view

I asked him had he ever read Joyce's Ulysses. He looked at me in a way he had, straight on without expression, and said nothing.

After the success in suing the BBC, Reuben Dodd seemed to have an excellent chance of winning an action for defamation against the publishers of the book. Proceedings were started. Reuben became a cult figure. I was contacted by the well-known biographer Richard Ellmann, who was doing a biography of Joyce, and asked if he could possibly meet this real-life character from Ulysses.

I was a little nervous that Reuben Dodd might have felt apprehensive in the presence of an academic author like Ellmann who had written a biography of Yeats and had a world reputation. As well, Reuben was, some years after his BBC coup, quite old and in St Kevin's Hospital, James's Street. From his bed, he listened to Richard Ellmann as he discoursed on his achievements as a biographer. At the end of a somewhat lengthy presentation, Reuben looked at Ellmann with unblinking eyes and just said, "How's your father." This is an old Dublin trick if you wanted to upset someone. Poor Ellmann looked blankly and said, "But you don't know my father."

Reuben said nothing. Game, set and match.

The Reuben Dodd case did cause a stir among publishers. Many people appeared by name as characters in Ulysses and a precedent had been established as to the right to sue if they could show that they had been defamed.

It may even have sent a shiver among the publishing profession which would cause them to take extra care when bringing out new editions of the book in future as Ulysses was known to contain the names of many living people in Dublin. For instance, Ulysses: The Corrected Text by Hans Walter Gabler, published in 1984, changed the name of one of the characters in the book from HW Thrift to H Shrift. I was most disappointed to see Harry Thrift thrown out as he lived opposite me and he was one of my heroes when I was at school. He held the Irish record for the hundred yards and played rugby for Ireland on the wing, as well as being Vice Provost of Trinity College and a selector for the British Lions touring team. A true Trojan without which any version of the Ulysses tale is incomplete.

As for Reuben Dodd. Anyone who could take on the BBC on the subject of James Joyce's novel and win, surely deserves their place in literary history.

Ulick O'Connor has written a one-man play, 'Joyicity', performed in London, New York and Sydney with much success. He has also written 'The Joyce We Knew' as well as a biography of Joyce's companion, Oliver St John Gogarty

Sunday Independent

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