The State has no right to take the names of Beckett and Joyce in vain

Until the State learns how to treat its diaspora, it should not have the audacity to name ships after great exiled Irish cultural figures. After all, it wouldn’t even give Joyce a lift home when he was dead


Irish Naval Service ships have traditionally been named after mythological Irish figures – usually women (although Setanta and Ferdia also snuck in over the years).

In 2013, the Cabinet voted to break with that tradition and name the next two patrol ships after Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. I have nothing against breaking with tradition (indeed, I’m a great fan of breaking with tradition); but it depends on how you do it, and in this case the Government is making a balls of it.

Neil Jordan was the first cultural figure to object. In his letter to The Irish Times, he writes: “I am organising a roll call of writers and artists who will refuse to have weaponised naval systems named after them.”

The Department of Defence replied (defensively) that naming ships after “world-renowned literary figures” would “facilitate greater recognition” for the Naval Service “in the international maritime domain”.

So, the names of Ireland’s two greatest writers are being borrowed explicitly to assist with brand recognition for the Irish Defence Forces. Borrowed glamour, borrowed fame. Why is that a problem? Because the State hasn’t yet earned the right to be associated with Beckett and Joyce.

Beckett and Joyce, in exile, scraping by on a pittance, created art that is still acclaimed around the world. The full resources of the State in that period (including the energies of all the Irish writers who stayed at home) were unable to create anything that had the global cultural impact of two guys who were so poor that Joyce once paid Beckett for some secretarial work with a pair of second-hand trousers.

Both men left the country as young men, and didn’t come back. Both wrote their masterpieces overseas, knowing that, thanks to State censorship, their work would not even be read back home.

When James Joyce died, in Zurich in 1941, the State had two diplomats stationed there. Despite Joyce’s global fame, neither attended his funeral. When Joyce’s widow, Nora Barnacle of Galway, asked for the State’s assistance in repatriating her husband’s body to Ireland, it refused. He is therefore buried in a modest grave in Zurich. (His American friend and patron, Harriet Weaver, paid for his funeral.)

There’s unsupportive, and there’s unsupportive. The State wouldn’t even give Joyce a lift home when he was dead.

As for Beckett, he was still having new works banned in Ireland as late as the 1960s, with the Beatles in the charts.What does that say about Ireland? What does that say about Joyce and Beckett? What does that say about the State’s right to borrow their names for a branding exercise?

To make it clear why this matters, let’s broaden the picture to include a great Irish writer who tried to live and work in Ireland. John McGahern’s second novel, The Dark, was the first Irish novel to tackle parental and clerical child abuse. It was published in 1965 and banned by the Censorship Board, and McGahern lost his job as a national-school teacher.

A national literature is the people talking among themselves. Yet the State consistently tried to suppress that conversation.

In the full years of its glory, the Censorship Board was banning 70 books a month. It’s an astonishing list, including most of the best works of 20th-century Irish literature. Liam O’Flaherty, Seán Ó Faoláin, Kate O’Brien, Oliver St John Gogarty, Maura Laverty, Walter Macken, Frank O’Connor, Benedict Kiely . . . It banned Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy in 1958 and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls in 1960. And this is not ancient history: the last book was banned in 1998, and, as bans lasted 12 years unless renewed, the last bans ran out only in 2010.

Punished whistleblowers
These writers were banned for telling suppressed truths about Ireland. Whistleblowers, in other words, punished for telling the truth. It was a chilling message, and it worked.

It was many years, and another generation, before the endemic child abuse in Ireland was finally addressed. If The Dark had been allowed start a national conversation, in 1965, lives now ruined might have flourished.

How many entirely preventable rapes and assaults were committed in the years after The Dark was published and banned? In the silence of that censorship?

(The principal of my own Christian Brothers primary school in Nenagh was eventually jailed, most recently last year, for sexual assaults on nine-year-old boys committed in those years.) So, the State prevented the Irish people from reading their own national literature; but the State also ensured that much of that literature was never written. Who, in the early and mid-20th century, would write an honest literary portrait of Ireland, knowing no Irish publisher would risk it, or if they did, that it would most certainly be immediately banned, with all the attendant costs (financial and social)?

The State essentially did everything it could to destroy Irish publishing and Irish literature. And so, only a handful of exiles, living on charity and borrowings, kept our literary culture alive. It is in this context the naming of these ships has to be considered; and it is in this context that we can see the grotesque wrongness of doing it as a branding exercise.

Failed state
But this is part of a larger problem; the State has not yet earned the right to be associated with its diaspora. As Pat Collins’s excellent documentary, What We Leave in Our Wake, points out, one in every two Irish people born in Ireland since 1800 emigrated. Ireland is a failed state that dumps its young on the doorsteps of other nations.

The moment I was forced out of Ireland, in 2007, I lost my vote, and so the State lost all interest in me. The only time the domestic State got in touch was when I was invited to the Irish Embassy in Berlin, for the launch of the Gathering.

I went with high hopes: the Gathering was, potentially, a spiritually meaningful and healing event, in a country that (after the collapse of Catholicism and the failure of the materialism that replaced it) was in a perilous spiritual situation.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke. He didn’t say, “I’m sorry we couldn’t look after you better”. He didn’t say, “I’m sorry the State we have built is not yet good enough for anyone of ambition to achieve those ambitions there”. Instead, the gist of his speech seemed to me to be: come to Ireland, give us as much of your money as possible and then f*** off again.

No, President Michael D Higgins is the only political figure in Ireland qualified to name those ships. As a young man, he worked on the building sites in England, to earn the money to go to university in Ireland. As President he has reached out to the diaspora again and again, because he was once one of us, writing poetry in his bedsit, in exile, after a day working on the sites, while back home Enda Kenny did the job John McGahern was fired from.

Give me Michael D breaking a bottle of champagne over the ship’s bow and giving a speech that is alive to the complexity of the relationship between the State and its greatest writers, and I’ll cheer the launch of the LÉ Samuel Beckett and the LÉ James Joyce. But if it’s Enda talking s**te about brand recognition, I will pull on my waterproofs and row out to the ships late one night to paint over their names, because the State will not have earned the right to use them.

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