In 2019, when my colleague Seán Doran and I became aware of the upcoming centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, what immediately interested us was the European context of the novel and Joyce’s life on the continent. We knew there would be multiple celebrations of the novel in Ireland, but how would Europe celebrate it?
While Joyce’s imagination was consumed by Dublin, his listing of Trieste, Zurich, Paris at the end of Ulysses was very deliberate. These were the cities in which he lived whilst labouring over his masterpiece. His everyday life was played out In languages other than English and European culture fed into his creativity and thinking. This, after all, was the man who in 1901, at 19 years of age, wrote a fan letter to Henrik Ibsen, having already reviewed Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken. Of the main characters in Ulysses, the European presence is also explicit: Stephen Dedalus (a Greek name), Leopold Bloom (Hungarian Jewish ancestry) and Molly Bloom (born in Gibraltar).
Our thinking was to invite a different European city to engage with each of the 18 episodes in Ulysses, inspired by themes from the episodes. We adapted the schemas that Joyce had created (to help his friends better understand the structure of the novel) to create a schema for a new European engagement. In 2020 we invited Claudia Woolgar, (former director of Kilkenny Arts Festival and international programmer of Limerick City of Culture 2014) of Stitching Brave New World Producties in the Netherlands, to join us as co-lead partner.
Those initial conversations with Claudia were shaped by an understanding that our project, in its multi-arts response, must offer a contemporary reflection of Europe. We were conscious of how Joyce saw the city as a civilising influence and of how Dublin’s public spaces become the locations for episodes of the novel: a library, a school, a hospital, a cemetery, the streets themselves. How we encounter and engage with our fellow men and women, was, for Joyce, a litmus test of how we choose to live.
One by one the cities and the creative partners came on board, sometimes with the caveat that they hadn’t actually read Ulysses! But no-one questioned the European locus of the project’s aspiration. Our first city and partner were Dublin and MoLI (Museum of Literature Ireland) who joined at the end of 2020 and as well as the three cities listed by Joyce, Trieste, Zurich and Paris, we also welcomed Athens, Vilnius, Budapest, Marseille, Berlin, San Sebastian, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Cluj, Leeuwarden, Eleusis, Oulu, Lisbon and Derry-Londonderry - 18 cities and 18 partners comprising a range of established and emerging organisations including museums, theatre groups, a civic environmental project, festivals, cultural and tourism government authorities, and independent artists and curators in the visual and performing arts and film.
All great art is continuously rich in the shifting focus it offers to each generation and when we looked within each episode of Ulysses, a novel published one hundred years ago, for a social theme that would have a topical resonance for the city engaging with that episode, we were somewhat surprised (though perhaps we shouldn’t have been) at how easily those themes presented themselves. And so our overall project explores, among others, themes such as migration, democracy, mental health, environmental pollution, gender freedom, co-existence, urban renewal, citizenship, neighbourhoods and freedom of speech.
That connection between the arts and society seemed even more important, considering the times in which we’re living, and so we factored in an Arts & Society symposium to take place in each city, bringing together as broad a representation across society as possible (teachers, doctors, social workers, restaurateurs, small business, civil servants, engineers, public health, academia, unemployed, migrants, youth, etc) to explore that city’s particular social theme.
What role can the arts play in helping to create a better future Europe for all? The symposia have been inspired by Episode 17 (Ithaca), in which Joyce created a catechism of 309 questions and answers and so, from the 18 cities, 309 questions will be gathered from the attendees, to create a new manifesto for the future of arts and society in Europe. The project also includes 30 artist residencies, contributing to the creation of a new book, Europe-Ulysses, alongside 18 new writing commissions, one writer from each city.
We applied to the European Commission’s Creative Europe fund and received a grant of €1.72 million as part of an overall €3 million project. Suddenly our project was a reality.
The project is shaped into three Acts and 18 scenes: Act I (2022); Act II (2023); Act III (2024) and events will unfold in each of the cities in the chronological order of the novel’s day, returning home to Ireland, Dublin (Ep 17, Ithaca) on June 10th-14th, 2024 and Derry-Londonderry (Ep 18, Penelope) June 14th-16th, 2024.
By way of a blessing for ULYSSES European Odyssey (UEO), Dublin and Athens combined in September with Sing To Us O Muse, a performance by Liam Ó Maonlaí and Greek folk singer, Chrysoula Kechiagioglou, who sang in Greek and Gaelic at sunrise in sight of the Acropolis, filmed by Irish director Alan Gilsenan and produced by Arts Over Borders.
Our two-year project began in late September in Athens (Ep 1: Telemachus) at Odyssea, a non-profit organisation that supports young vulnerable people in gaining access to employment opportunities, when Onassis Stegi (part of the internationally prestigious Onassis Foundation), hosted an interactive workshop with the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum to begin collaboration on Seawards, a four-part UEO project exploring movement, youth, citizenship and democracy in the Mediterranean and Europe today. Artists, scholars, Palestinian and Syrian refugees and a civil engineer came together for a fascinating two-day exploration of migration, memory, histories and political and urban landscapes.
On September 29th, Budapest (Ep 4: Calypso) held its first Arts & Society symposium workshop on the role of neighbourhood communities in a post-Covid Europe. The symposium, hosted by the non-profit Budapest Brand, involved a large variety of stakeholders contributing to the launch of the community-based creation of the Budapest Grand Novel.
October 1st saw Marseille’s (Ep 5: Lotus Eaters) artistic event for UEO Act I. Created collaboratively by artists Gethan Dick (Irish) and Myles Quin (UK) and French theatre group ildi! Eldi, ‘We All Fall / Récit’ was a multi-disciplinary participatory performance on the theme of immigration, porosity and integration, set in a city which has offered refuge to more than 100,000 immigrants. Staged at Ateliers Jeanne Barret, near the gateway to the notorious Quartiers du Nord, the performance in which the public were both spectators and co-creators, was a beautiful and moving experience, in which participants’ bodies were transformed into images, ghost figures of the migrant experience. The performance was followed by a shared meal and their Arts & Society symposium exploring immigration, exile and storytelling.
Soon afterwards, on October 3rd, echoing Mr Deasy in Episode II of Ulysses (Nestor), UEO’s Italian partner Commune de Trieste published a letter in their local newspaper, outlining the nature of their symposium, the theme of which is Weight of History. The letter extended an invitation to cross-sectoral organisations within the city to participate.
The project then moved to the Lithuanian capital city, Vilnius (Ep 3: Proteus) on October 7th, where project partners Vilnius Museum and Critical XWhy Agency co-created a symposium exploring the theme of urban renewal and reinvention of the city. The symposium identified the Vilnelė River as a metaphor of the city in perpetual change.
The project’s Act I 2022 events will conclude in Athens in November with a sound installation, film screening and concert. Τhe tradition of hospitality, as celebrated in Homer, is a timeless characteristic of Greek culture. Philoxenia, literally translated as a ‘friend to a stranger’, is the guiding light behind our collective and creative work over the next two years as we come together, strangers all, from across the continent to celebrate Homer, Joyce, Ulysses and contemporary Europe. As Dermot Healy put it in his novel Long Time, No See, ‘the stranger always teaches you something.’