Next week, several hundred Joyceans will gather in Dublin (Trinity and UCD) for the biannual International James Joyce Symposium. It will be a great joy to return once more to Dear Dirty Dublin in this centenary year of the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses — a book which, although never officially banned in Ireland, could not yet only be bought with great difficulty when the first symposium was held in the capital in 1967, just months after 7 Eccles Street – the fictional home of Leopold and Molly Bloom –
Author Hugh McFadden recalls trying to buy Ulysses in 1962, first from Hodges Figgis, then from Fred Hanna, and finally from George Webb on the docks: “You could buy a copy there , upon request, if one appears to have reached the age of majority, provided the request is made in a sufficiently calm and deep voice. It would be picked up from a back room and supplied in a brown paper bag, much like a “cookie cutter” reluctantly slipped by a “curate” to a regular at the side door of McDaid’s after hours, he was first checked by the irritable ‘vicar’ that the way was clear.
Paul Durcan remembers going to buy it as a youngster at Joyce Tower in Sandycove, where poet Michael Hartnett was a curator. He remembered Hartnett as “the Chinese-eyed curator” who “offered to share with me/A leftover carafe of vodka/From a literary evening the day before./It was the day after Bloomsday./Monday, June 17 1963”.
It was from the poem, Ulysses, which describes 18-year-old Durcan taking the 46A bus to the tower after an argument with his father who refused to give him 21 shillings to buy his first copy of Joyce’s great novel. His father was shocked at this “scandalous amount of money” for such a “notoriously immoral book” and swore, “I will not partake in subsidizing this scoundrel / bringing works of blasphemy into this house”.
However, unlike many parents of the time, he relented and followed his son to the tower where he bought the novel from the “ever courteous” curator who agreed to “wrap the novel green and satanic” in brown paper “only the night before”. had carried bottles of vodka”. Durcan senior took the trouble to read Ulysses before passing it on to his son who admits having “found it as strange as my father / And as discordant”. It wasn’t until four years later “When a musician friend/Gave me my first lessons/Ulysses started singing for me.”
For Durcan, as for many, Ulysses is an acquired taste and its linguistic pyrotechnics demands an unprecedented level of reader engagement. It does, however, repay our commitment in spades. As the New York Herald put it in a review published in April 1922: “It is this convincing display of verbal virtuosity that will inspire many readers to read again and again, even when the meaning escapes them. There is in Ulysses a sorcery of words that courts.
At the time of the first symposia (1967 and 1969), visiting Joyceans were viewed with suspicion by Dubliners (and even Dubliner Joyceans) who doubted foreign critical witchcraft and an attempt to remove Joyce from his contexts Irish. Donagh MacDonagh worried that “the sunny Jim Joyce of Dublin has become the Yams Yoyce of international scholarship”, while Mary Manning asserted that “criticism in this field is no longer criticism, it is is vivisection. Only you wouldn’t do it to a dog.
In The Irish Times, Quidnunc (Seamus Kelly) shrugged off the first symposium which took place at the Gresham. He wrote of “Joyce posers (or symposers)”, which “were hot and heavy again on Thursday night”. He said he was puzzled that Joyce attracted so many misguided literary tourists: “But an Englishman or an American can’t understand him, any more than they can make sense of a family joke.” The Rock Jamsie Joyce wrote for the Irish and no one else. I would like Americans to learn this simple fact. They would be happier if they did. Joyce would be “enormously annoyed if he had the gift of foresight to foresee that his books would take the reverence that is given to the Talmud.” Joyce is now a source of income for hoteliers in Dublin and if he turns up in his Zurich grave, I wouldn’t be very surprised.
I, on the contrary, would be very surprised. Joyce would be delighted that his novel was the center of American critical attention in the 1960s and even more delighted that today Irish critics have caught up with their American and continental counterparts and that his Irish readership continues to grow. Like all great works of literature, Ulysses continues to be relevant in changing times. Published at the end of the First World War in a Europe traumatized by conflict and in the aftermath of the Spanish flu, 100 years later, its extraordinary evocation of ordinary life – of the demand for justice, dignity and mutual respect — is needed today with as much urgency as it has always been.
John McCourt is President of the James Joyce International Foundation and author of Consuming Joyce 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland (Bloomsbury)