How Facebook and reading Joyce’s Ulysses turned me into a crime writer

Book trailed me like a guilty secret for two decades until I finally found a way to read it

James Joyce wouldn’t approve but the truth is, reading Ulysses made me a crime writer. The story begins in Galway with me and three friends, impecunious apprentice solicitors all, in a cheap guesthouse off Eyre Square, a tiny room with shocking-pink slidey nylon sheets and a wash-basin we can’t touch after I wake up to find a drunken stranger using it as a urinal. I scream. He departs. As I recall, we make no other complaint.

It’s Arts Festival time. The town is packed. The room is as good as we’re going to get.

But I digress. The point is, I buy it that weekend. In Kenny’s. I buy Ulysses. The Corrected Text. The mint-green one with the Ha’penny Bridge on the cover. I make a stab at reading it in the ensuing months. I fail. And the book tails me around a succession of flats, houses, cities, countries, for two decades. Like a guilty secret.

Fast forward to November 2012, to the Everyman Theatre in Cork, all gilt and red velvet, where I am to see the Tron Theatre Glasgow adaptation. It’s brilliant. On MacCurtain Street afterwards, I bump into my friend Joe McNicholas. “It was so good, I’d nearly read the book,” he says. “I’ll read along with you,” I say. “But we’ll leave it till after Christmas.”


The next day, I put a call out on Facebook for co-readers. I get a mixed response but enough enthusiasm to ensure that the first meeting of the Ulysses Reading Group is held at the late-lamented Pav pub on Carey’s Lane in Cork on Monday evening, January 6th, 2013, the feast of the Epiphany.

We want to experience Ulysses as a book, as those early readers in 1922 would have, rather than an institution, an industry

We decide on the group rules: 1) an episode a week; 2) no reading ahead; 3) finish by Bloomsday; and, most importantly, 4) come to the book freshly and without baggage: we want to experience Ulysses as a book, as those early readers in 1922 would have, rather than an institution, an industry.

That said, we’re not proud. Once we’ve read an episode, we’re free to seek out whatever deciphering help is available, either online or elsewhere. I choose Ulysses and Us by spirit guide and Joyce-whisperer Declan Kiberd. In my opinion, it’s unbeatable.

In person

After the first meeting, I post a brief summary on the group Facebook page. By that stage, we’ve acquired two London members, a Lisbon member and several Dublin residents and, though technology even in distant 2013 would permit virtual attendance, we never go down that road. All meetings take place in person, minutes posted on the group Facebook page: comments, elucidations and corrections welcome.

We drive one another on. We encourage. We cajole. One member (not me) simultaneously reads Homer's Odyssey

The Facebook postings, nearly always written at top speed on Monday nights and nearly always by me, grow more and more elaborate as time goes on, as do the responses. For reasons I’ve never figured out, the posts are visible to all my Facebook connections and those of other group members, and quite possibly are completely public. I don’t look into it too closely. I don’t have time. Reading Ulysses is a full-time job.

At least, reading with this group is. We drive one another on. We encourage. We cajole. One member (not me) simultaneously reads Homer’s Odyssey. We parse and we analyse. Among our number we have two designers, two visual artists, a credit-controller, a restaurateur, a retailer, a psychiatrist, a solicitor, a primary teacher, a theatre manager.

Only one of us has studied English at university. We have a lot of arguments. We have a lot of fun. Some of that room energy carries into the Facebook posts, strengthening the group’s cohesion, involving and energising our virtual members.

Once you twig that Joyce was Irish, and talked like us, and knew the things we know without even knowing we know them, the book opens to you

All of which is the long way of saying that I urge you to read Ulysses for yourself. Because it’s a great book. It really, really is. But it’s hard. And this is not an accident. Joyce made it difficult. Deliberately. It’s impossible to skim. It forces you to become an active reader, to sit up straight and go on that journey around Dublin, with those unforgettable, utterly contemporary, characters.

Because here’s the thing. It’s easier to read if you’re Irish. Don’t ask me why, but once you twig that Joyce, as well as being a citizen of the world, was Irish, and talked like us, and knew the things we know without even knowing we know them, the book opens to you. The language. The cadences. Some of the references. Kind of. Don’t get complacent. And don’t get me wrong. It’s still hard and it’s fiendishly awkward and there will be times when you will want to give up.

But not when you’re part of a good reading group. Because, together, you’re stronger. You gather momentum and soon, it’s June 16th and you’re on the platform at Tara Street, heading for the Martello Tower and drinking burgundy on the street outside Davy Byrne’s with people from all over the world.

Best days

And that Bloomsday is one of the best days of your life. Because you've climbed the mountain. You've read the book. The book. The one every writer since then copies to a greater or lesser extent, whether they realise it or not.

And, if you’re me, your group members will gather your Facebook posts into printed form and present them to you at Christmas. And a seed will be sown. And the following year you’ll start to write your own stuff: a crime novel about a woman who spends much of her time walking around Cork.

And somewhere along the way, you’ll learn that this walking and writing is called psychogeography. And you’ll thank James Joyce and the members of the Ulysses Reading Group. And you’ll make sure that the last word in your first crime novel is “Yes”. And after that you’ll write a second crime novel. Because that’s what you do now.

Ulysses was first published in its entirety by Sylvia Beach in Paris on February 2nd, 1922. Catherine Kirwan’s novel, Cruel Deeds, is published on February 3rd, 2022, by Hachette Ireland.