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Consuming Joyce: Charting our strange ambivalence to the great writer

Book review: McCourt’s lively work details how James Joyce has been viewed in Ireland

Consuming Joyce: 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland
Consuming Joyce: 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland
Author: John McCourt
ISBN-13: 978-1350205826
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Guideline Price: £19.99

This book was crying out to be written. That it appears only now is itself a symptom of the condition it describes: the strange Irish ambivalence or reluctance about James Joyce, moving from unwillingness to take him on to outright hostility – less common now, but still not unknown.

John McCourt has meticulously documented the many twists in the Irish reception of Joyce, from the earliest responses right up to the present day. He proceeds chronologically in what one would like to see as a tale of progress, acceptance and enlightenment. To some extent it is, but there are many qualifications to that narrative, many regressions, many strange aberrations.

It was not enough to say that Ulysses was revolting, blasphemous, disgusting etc; Joyce himself was an apostate, a pornographer

The account of the reaction to Joyce before the appearance of Ulysses is interesting, of course, but with that book he became an cause célèbre internationally and therefore also in Ireland. Most people who commented, particularly in Ireland, had not read the book, and had no intention of doing so. They had heard enough to know what they thought.

Most striking is the way Irish commentators leapt from the book to its author: it was not enough to say that Ulysses was revolting, blasphemous, disgusting etc; Joyce himself was an apostate, a pornographer, a maniac, an enemy of Ireland, to name but a few of the terms of opprobrium. It is all so predictable, and so dreary.


More interesting was the reaction of Irish writers. Obviously, after the arrival of Ulysses, the challenge “follow that!” became particularly daunting. One way of handling it was to decide that Joyce was on the wrong track, had betrayed his earlier commitment to realism and become self-indulgent. This was roughly the position taken by Frank O’Connor and Seán Ó Faoláin, and if nothing else it spared them the burden of a direct competition.

The price was a good deal of distortion or of willed misunderstanding of what Joyce was doing. Amid the parched landscape of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, one occasionally comes across an Elizabeth Bowen, an Arland Ussher, who actually do relate to Joyce’s work without the blinkers of prejudice and anxiety – perhaps Bowen’s gender was a help in that respect.

It is true, and McCourt is careful to document that the Joyce of Ulysses was something of a beacon to some among the “revolutionary generation” whose concept of transformative change went somewhat further than shaking off the shackles of British imperialism. The book did appear in 1922, after all. But it must be said that this was such a marginal movement it cannot be plausibly claimed that it constituted a meaningful development in a country whose direction of travel – repression, censorship, the enhanced power of the Catholic Church – was all too clear. And that is what happened, Ulysses or no Ulysses.

McCourt skilfully charts the “evolution” of Irish attitudes through the 1940s up to the legendary first Bloomsday trip to the Joyce tower in 1954. This includes the shameful approach of Irish officialdom to the writer’s death in 1941; the main concern seemed to be to discover if he had died a Catholic, and there was no question of going to the trouble or expense of attending the funeral in Zurich, one of the more classic “own goals” of Irish diplomacy.

McCourt is not afraid to comment as he goes along – this is not just a mere chronicle – and his comments are always well judged, sometimes pithy, sometimes more extensive. Nor is he afraid to be quite scathing when the occasion demands it.

All this time, and throughout the 1950s, Irish academia slumbered on. So did the State when it came to the possible acquisition of Joyce manuscripts and memorabilia. The level of critical engagement with Joyce’s work was deplorable. Academic attitudes were characterised by a deep ambivalence, to put it no more strongly. Even those who did pay attention to Joyce’s work seemed highly conflicted about it.

This was also true of non-academic Irish Joyceans, as McCourt usefully documents. A person such as John Garvin, for instance, a noted authority especially on Finnegans Wake, seemed to entertain a deep dislike for the writer, a strong disapproval of almost everything Joyce did except maybe the writing of the latter work. It is hard to reconcile this contradiction, and Garvin was not alone.

In the public sphere, McCourt devotes much space to the acquisition and opening of the Joyce Tower Museum in Sandycove, the main achievement of the 1960s in this area. Another notable moment was the production of the film of Ulysses by Joseph Strick. Not many Irish people got to see it, as it was soon banned, but the initial reviews are instructive. A Gerald O’Reilly, reviewing for the Evening Herald in 1967, could not believe the “blasphemy” of the very beginning of the work (Mulligan’s parody of the consecration of the Mass).

The reviewer’s shock is genuine, and it would likely have cut little ice with him to tell him that this action is performed by one of the more unsavoury characters in the work. But the reality of this critic’s trauma should not just be laughed at; it is a symptom of a society where protection from everything contrary to established faith and morals was absolutely endemic. Hence some of the difficulties Joyce’s work faced.

McCourt goes on to document in fine detail the gradual acceptance of the writer, with 1982, the centenary of his birth, a particularly important year in the official coming to terms. He notes such strong developments as the founding of the James Joyce Institute of Ireland in the early 1970s, the James Joyce Summer School by Augustine Martin in 1988, and the James Joyce Centre principally by David Norris in the early 1990s.

He also outlines Irish academia’s more confident, more committed approach, partly due to the prominence of post-colonialism. He discusses the four books on the writer produced by Irish academics based in Ireland. (His own, of course, is not among them, as he teaches at the University of Macerata, Italy.)

A very valuable feature of this very valuable book is that it brings the story right up to date. Now, in the centenary year of Ulysses, the picture is actually quite bleak. The most serious case is the house of The Dead – the setting for the short story – on Usher’s Island, which gives every sign of being left to rot. Moreover, nobody seems to want to own the volunteer-run Joyce Tower Museum, a disgraceful situation. The James Joyce Centre has yet to reopen after its first Covid shutdown. The only bright spots are the new Museum of Literature Ireland and the indefatigable Sweny’s chemists.

This summer, it is hoped, many a talking head will descend on Dublin to offload their latest theories around Ulysses. Meanwhile, the fabric of the city which inspired it is in a perilous state. After 100 years, is this the best we can do?

Terence Killeen’s Ulysses Unbound is being republished by Penguin Books in a new edition