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James Joyce

On the 2nd February 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in Paris by Shakespeare & Co. It was promptly banned in many places, including in the UK and the US, considered to be obscene. Funnily enough, it was not banned by the Irish Censorship Board - not a sign of an enlightened interlude in the early Free State. There was an assumption that it would be banned anyway so no attempt was made to import it.


I thought I should reflect on his perambulations across Europe and wonder what he made of nationality and would it be fair to call him a great European.


Writing in 2019, current Irish Ambassodor to the US, Daniel Mulhall, wrote that “there is no doubt that James Joyce wanted Ireland to become more European. This makes me conclude that he would have been happy with Ireland’s more recent evolution as a dedicated member of the European Union, and that he would, like the vast majority of Irish people, be supportive of Ireland’s continued EU membership.”


I couldn’t honestly make the case that Joyce would have been a supporter of the EU.


He was a disrupter and couldn’t tolerate the asphyxiating atmosphere of religion and nationalism in the Ireland of the time.


In his late teens while a student in UCD, he was learning French and Italian as well as Norwegian because of an interest in the books of Ibsen. He also worked on a translation from German of the work of Gerhard Hauptmann.


As many people will know, Joyce left Ireland in 1904 to return only very briefly thereafter. He spent the rest of his life in various cities across Europe.


He does not appear to have been even slightly tempted to take part in the First World War in the way that Beckett volunteered in the Second World War or Hemingway and Orwell in the Spanish Civil War.


Joyce spent some time in Pula, which is now in Croatia. He also spent a signficant amount of time before the First World War in Trieste, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


He was also very short-sighted and experienced the world more through sound than vision.


Unlike so many intellectuals of his time, Joyce was not anti-Semitic. Bloom is a Jewish man and an everyman. The Citizen is a nationalist extremist and portrayed as narrow-minded.


Trieste was his and Nora’s home for 11 years. It was a melting pot of langauges and ethnicities. At the time, Trieste was part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. He would have heard Italian, Serbo-Croat, Magyar and German in the streets of the city. There was even a local dialect he knew, Triestan.


Just prior to settling in Trieste, Joyce spent some unhappy months in Pula which is in modern day Croatia. Of Pula, Joyce wrote to his aunt, “I hate this Catholic country with its hundred races, thousand languages governed by a Parliament that can transact no business”. He may have been trying to entertain his aunt with his outrageous opinions.


When he left Ireland, he was 22 and spent many of the years that followed in relative poverty. He took up all sorts of jobs across Europe including bank clerk (Rome), shipping agent, cinema proprietor (Dublin), teacher (Paris, Dalkey)


He was I would say European by temperament. Britain obviously loomed very large in Irish political and cultural consciousness. He was attracted to continental Europe not just because of its sounds but because of its rich culture.


Whatever about the relative attractions of Britain or continental Europe, he was certainly motivated by push factors in Ireland - religion, nationality and language.


As far as reading Ulysses is concerned, the advice I got was to just keep going. There are parts of it that are swamp like in complexity. Most people don’t get past the third ‘chapter’ or ‘episode’ as they are known. This consists of the impossible to follow meandering thoughts of Stephen Dedalus.


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