The late Frank Callanan has his final say on Joyce and Ulysses

TV review: RTÉ’s 100 Years of Ulysses is a fitting swansong for the barrister and scholar

It’s the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. But is there anything new to say about a book that has already inspired lifetimes of analysis and which has become as woven into the fabric of Dublin’s sense of itself as freshly-poured stout and the Poolbeg Chimneys?

The late historian, barrister and Joyce scholar Frank Callanan thought so and, with 100 Years of Ulysses (RTÉ One, 10.15pm, Thursday), he explores the novel through the prism of Joyce's relationship with nationalism and his European identity.

Callanan died suddenly last December. This engaging treatise on Ulysses and what it says about the Ireland we live in today is a fitting swansong.

The thesis of a thoughtful if occasionally slow-moving film, which Callanan co-wrote with director Ruán Magan, is that Joyce, in positioning himself as a modernist continental writer, anticipated Ireland’s coming of age as a European nation. And that his wariness of nationalism – as embodied by the “Cyclops” character he had based on GAA founder Michael Cusack – was a warning of what would await were Church and State allowed to narrow the horizons of a fledging independent nation.

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This is a fascinating perspective, if not quite enough to sustain a 60-minute film. And so the documentary, narrated by Ann Skelly, broadens out into a beginner’s guide to Joyce.

Here, it sometimes borders on stating the obvious, with Kelly required to talk about the War of Independence “which brought about Irish self-rule” and to describe the first World War as “the most violent war humanity had ever known”. With Joyce and his writing, some hand-holding is inevitable. Still, it feels safe to assume that most viewers are at least vaguely familiar with the first World War and do not need reminding that it wasn’t a tea party.

There are lots of talking heads, though Magan has thankfully looked beyond the usual suspects. Author Eimear McBride paints Joyce as a literary outlaw. “Someone who was writing about sexual desire and itchy arses ... was completely beyond the pale,” she says. The impoverished Dublin conjured in Ulysses is, adds Margaret O’Callaghan, from Queens University Belfast, “a society of limited human possibilities”.

Callanan appears on camera too, to note that the Irish Free State did not take kindly to Joyce’s warnings about the blind alley where nationalism would inevitably lead. “The reaction against Joyce is a recoil bred of exactly the insularity he was challenging … Joyce remained disengaged from the Ireland of the Free State, and the Ireland of the Free State remained distant from Joyce.”

But the the most emphatic line goes to poet Paul Muldoon who suggests Joyce would have been far more at home in 21st century Ireland than in the country into which he was born. "Joyce would be thrilled to think of the modern Ireland," he says "The change that has taken place. He would have been thrilled by that."