Saturday 24 March 2018

Joyce should join Yeats in the Irish soil

It would be appropriate for the remains of James Joyce to lie in the country of his birth, writes Ulick O'Connor

THIS month is the 70th anniversary of James Joyce's death. He died in Zurich, Switzerland, on January 13, 1941 and is buried there in Fluntern Cemetery.

Recently there have been suggestions that his remains should be brought back to Ireland as Yeats' were after his death in the south of France just before the Second World War. Nine years after his death, Yeats' remains were brought back on the Irish Naval Corvette Macha and today his body is buried at Drumcliffe Churchyard in Co Sligo.

As Yeats is widely recognised as the finest poet of the 20th Century and Joyce as its outstanding prose writer, it would be appropriate if both their graves were in the country of their birth.

There is no doubt that Joyce's feelings for his own country were extreme. "I am attracted to it daily and nightly like an umbilical cord" is how he put it to Sean Lester, the Irish Secretary of the League of Nations, only a fortnight before he died in Zurich in 1941. Lester learned from Joyce that he listened to Radio Eireann every day.

During their meeting, Joyce was quite excited as he had just heard a Radio Eireann broadcast of Question Time in which one of his books had been mentioned by an Irish labourer as his favourite one. He told Lester that he was so moved he got up and bowed to the radio. During the conversations that they had, Joyce was ravenously hungry for news of Dublin.

I met Joyce's son Giorgio in the Sixties and found him friendly and good company. He would laughingly discuss the difficulties of being the son of a great writer. Giorgio himself was a successful opera singer, and though he had grown up in France and Italy still had a trace of an Irish accent, which he had acquired from his parents. I have a pleasant memory of him in the garden of the painter, Arthur Power, on Sandymount Avenue (Power makes an appearance in Finnegans Wake under the name Gas-Power) praising John McCormack as the greatest tenor in the world. When Power disagreed vigorously with him, Giorgio, to prove his point, proceeded to sing Mozart's Il Mio Tesaro to demonstrate McCormack's unique breathing control.

Power's reaction was to put his hands over his ears, murmuring "I can't stand it", to which Giorgio replied, "You're wrong, Power, McCormack was a corker".

Later I visited Giorgio in Zurich where he lived with his wife, Asta Jahnke-Osterwalder. On one occasion I tried out the idea of having his father's body brought back to Ireland. I had already talked to Jack Lynch, the Taoiseach at the time, and was able to say that the Irish government would have James Joyce's body brought back to Ireland in a naval corvette and buried with full State honours if the family agreed.

Giorgio Joyce was hugely enthusiastic about the project but wanted a letter of confirmation from the Taoiseach himself. This was provided and it seemed that in a year or two Dublin Bay into which Joyce's beloved Liffey flows might receive a ship carrying the remains of James Joyce.

Shortly afterwards Giorgio became unwell and circumstances made it difficult for him to undertake the project. He died in 1976.

I had attended in 1957 the funeral of Joyce's closest friend when he was a young man, Oliver St John Gogarty, whose body had been brought back from New York for burial in Ireland. A lone swan graced us with his presence on the lake below Ballinakill graveyard in Connemara, as Gogarty's coffin was lowered into the grave.

It seemed not inappropriate, as Gogarty had presented two swans to the Liffey in thanksgiving for escaping assassination by anti-Treaty forces in 1923.

Joyce christened the Liffey Anna Livia Plurabella, describing how it "side slipped out by a gap in the Devil's Glen". Will he somehow now sideslip into the country from which he got the inspiration for his four mighty books?

Sunday Independent

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