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Ulysses at 100: ‘Joyce gets up people’s noses and that’s what a great writer should do’


James Joyce with Sylvia Beach, who published Ulysses

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach, who published Ulysses

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach, who published Ulysses

Many Irish people, myself included, feel that simply by living in Dublin they have already got “the gist” of Ulysses. We’ve heard about the snotgreen sea, Leopold and Molly Bloom, eating kidneys and thinking about sex more or less all the time.

But Joycean scholar John McCourt says it’s important that Joyce does not become a “harmless literary leprechaun”.

In his new book, Consuming Joyce: 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland, he examines “how Ulysses was read or not read in Ireland” and explores our shifting attitudes to the author. Joyce moved from persona non grata in his native land to becoming an icon.

“In the 1920 and 1930s, Joyce was a name you couldn’t mention,” McCourt says. That had changed by the time of his death in 1941. “Frank O’Connor said he was almost relieved when he heard James Joyce died because space opened up for him,” adds McCourt, who founded and directs the annual Trieste Joyce School.

Joyce has become part of Dublin’s landscape, from the museum in the Sandycove Martello Tower that provided the opening setting of Ulysses, to the statue off O’Connell Street, to the pavement plaques marking locations from the novel.

“The danger today is that we don’t just turn him into some sort of literary leprechaun, that he becomes a symbol emptied of meaning.” McCourt warns. “Very often when you put someone up as a statue, it means they have become harmless. And I don’t think Joyce is harmless at all.”

Joyce is divisive, he says. “He gets up people’s noses — but that’s what a great writer should do.”

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McCourt is one of the contributors to RTÉ’s forthcoming TV documentary 100 Years of Ulysses. Devised by late historian and senior counsel Frank Callanan and directed by Ruán Magan, it is based on Callanan’s 20 years of close study of Joyce. It emphasises the writer’s complex relationship with his home country and his involvement — or non-involvement — with Irish nationalism in the first decade of the 20th century.

“Callanan isn’t saying that Joyce was a raving nationalist,” says contributor Dr Margaret O’Callaghan of Queen’s University. “The thesis is that Joyce was intimately involved in all the political debates of the time”.

She describes the author as “a certain kind of nationalist” who “despised the sort of cartoon nationalism”.

She is referring to the Cyclops episode of Ulysses, in which the character of The Citizen is believed to be largely based on GAA founder Michael Cusack.

Like pretty much everything in Ulysses, Joyce’s standpoint is a complex one. While Dr O’Callaghan thinks he remained invested in Irish politics, McCourt believes it would be more accurate to describe him as “patriotic” than nationalistic.

He points out that Ulysses came out in 1922, the year of the foundation of the Irish Free State, but believes the novel conveys a much more modern vision of Ireland than the one that took shape in the 1920s.

“It was almost like he was a bit of a prophet of times to come,” he says. “Joyce deeply cared. He wanted to hold up his ‘cracked looking-glass’ so by reading his books, people could see a vision of their country as it was and as it might be. So I think that was a hugely patriotic act that took us decades to understand… At the time, he was seen as some sort of antichrist, whereas now he is seen as someone who was perhaps ahead of his time.”

Ulysses has inspired a vast amount of academic literature. In his poem Who Killed James Joyce?, Patrick Kavanagh claimed that the endless close analysis of the text can detract from the work itself.

“Well, of course there is some truth in that,” McCourt says. “However, without the army of academics, we would be far less able to read Joyce’s work… and I think Kavanagh enjoyed having a bit of a rant.”

Part of the reason that Ulysses is analysed so much is because there is so much in it, says McCourt: the author was proud to have filled it with enigmas and puzzles.

“It is a complete revolution of what the novel should be,” he says. “It breaks all the rules. And it is a book that you can never finish or exhaust. It’s a book you read one way when you are 22 and a very different way when you are 52 not to mention 82. It has new things to say to each new generation.”

‘100 Years of Ulysses’ airs on Thursday, February 3 at 10.15pm on RTÉ One

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