Obituary: Frank Delaney

Author, broadcaster and champion of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

Frank Delaney: October24th, 1942-February 21st, 2017. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton

Frank Delaney: October24th, 1942-February 21st, 2017. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton


Frank Delaney, a Tipperary-born author and broadcaster who initially dismissed James Joyce’s Ulysses as unreadable but later spent his career making it accessible to ordinary readers, has died, aged 74.

While Ulysses was his passion – he originated a weekly five-minute podcast to deconstruct the book and wrote a personal Baedeker guide to Joyce’s Dublin – he was also a literary impresario and interpreter who interviewed hundreds of fellow authors and was often solicited to judge book awards, including the Man Booker Prize.

His impassioned delivery and Tipperary inflection during those interviews, as well as in film documentaries on artists, writers and etymology, once prompted NPR to anoint him “the most eloquent man in the world”. His podcasts on Ulysses have been downloaded more than 2.5 million times.

Terence Killeen of the James Joyce Centre, Dublin, said: “Infectious enthusiasm was the rare, special quality that Frank Delaney brought to the work of James Joyce.”

To help readers find their way through the novel’s 260,000 words while making them less forbidding, Delaney, in the first episode of his podcast, invoked the “Peanuts” character Snoopy. He also wrote a rap tribute to Joyce. Some conventional scholars were appalled, to which Delaney parried, “No one hates a populariser more than an intellectual.”

In his weekly line-by-line analyses, he sought to explain that while “every sentence in Ulysses has more than one meaning and sometimes many meanings,” Joyce’s “multitasking in prose” could be contemplated simply. “In the ordinary is the extraordinary,” Delaney said of the book on his blog. “In the particular is the universal.”

In Delaney’s book James Joyce’s Odyssey: A Guide to the Dublin of ‘Ulysses’, he wrote that Joyce “believed that the key to human nature lay in observing the commonest acts of man, ordering a drink, eating a meal, opening an umbrella, folding a newspaper.”

‘The Celts’

Author and former Irish Times literary editor John Banville said of Delaney: “He was one of the media voices which from the 1970s onwards helped to lift fiction up again to its high place in the public’s notion of what literature is and should be. Today’s young novelists owe more to him than perhaps they realise.”

Francis James Joseph Raphael Delaney (he rolled his eyes whenever he repeated his full name) was born in 1942, in Co Tipperary. His father, Edward, was the principal of the national school in Thomastown; his mother, the former Elizabeth Josephine O’Sullivan, was a teacher there.

He worked as a newsreader for RTÉ and then a television reporter for BBC in Dublin. Among his many media roles, he will be remembered for creating Bookshelf and Word of Mouth programmes on BBC Radio and for The Book Show on Sky News. In addition to his much-acclaimed series for the BBC, The Celts, he wrote the screenplay for the 2002 adaptation of Goodbye, Mr Chips, the book, Ireland, a Novel and nearly two dozen other fiction and non-fiction works. In 2002 he left Britain, where he had worked for many years, to go to the US, where he and his wife, Diane Meier made their home in Kent, Connecticut.

He had wanted to be a novelist since childhood, he said in a 2014 interview. “I’ve always relished the power of the tale,” he said, “how it grabs us and then absorbs us, and casts a spell over us, and teaches us.”

He is survived by his wife and frequent collaborator, Diane Meier, a marketing executive; and his sons, Frank, Bryan and Owen.