In a word . . . Joyce

It was spring 1999 and we were high in the hills near the Macedonian capital, Skopje, looking for Nato troops. War was raging in nearby Kosovo, and Albanian Kosovar refugees were streaming into Macedonia where they were not wanted but were being sheltered in huge camps built by Nato troops near Skopje.

They were Muslim, and it was feared in Macedonia they would lend support to those who wanted the creation of a greater Albania that would include part of Macedonia. Besides, the great majority of Macedonians were Orthodox Christians who barely concealed their sympathy for the Serb forces then wreaking havoc in Kosovo.

This sympathy was restrained, because Nato headquarters during that conflict was in Skopje, and Macedonia had ambitions – as it still has – to join the EU, which also opposed the Serbian assault in Kosovo. Nato would later bomb Serb forces in Kosovo.

Word had got around that authorities in Skopje feared there might be riots in the city over the bombing of Serb forces in Kosovo and that Nato troops were on manoeuvres in the hills nearby, rehearsing plans to deal with such riots. So, with my trusty local guide and driver Igor Sokolovski, we ventured into the hills.


We found Italians. They almost laughed at questions about their preparations for riots in the city and decided we had to enjoy their hospitality. They produced an astringent spirit which, out of courtesy, we felt obliged to down in one fell swoop. One officer discovered I was from Ireland. He was beside himself as he uttered two words with unmistakable Italian feeling: "James Joyce".

He was from Trieste, where Joyce spent much of his continental life before 1915, and had a passionate interest in the writer. He had even visited Dublin and many of the places depicted by Joyce in his writings. Such was the connection we established through Joyce that I knew he was telling the truth when he said their forces were not preparing for or expecting any riots in Skopje. No story. More spirits.

Were he alive, Joyce would be 134 tomorrow. Happy birthday Jimmy Joyce.

As a surname, Joyce is believed to be derived from the Old French Josse, itself from the Latin Iudocus, believed to be a Latinised form of the Breton Judoc, meaning "lord".