Fingers to stray on Joyce's guitar again after its restoration


“STRINGS IN the earth and air / Make music sweet.” So begins the first poem in James Joyce’s collection, Chamber Music. The strings of Joyce’s own guitar are set to make music sweet again shortly, following a major restoration project.

The guitar has been in the museum at the Joyce Tower in Sandycove, Co Dublin, since 1966. It was donated to the museum by Joyce’s Zurich friend Paul Ruggiero, who had received it from him as a gift. The museum’s then curator, Vivien Igoe, recalls that before he handed it over, Ruggiero played on the guitar and sang for her a Greek love song that he and Joyce used to sing together.

The donation was accompanied by a written statement from Ruggiero testifying that Joyce did indeed play this instrument. It was one of a number of items given to the tower by Ruggiero, to whom Vivien Igoe was introduced by Zurich Joycean Fritz Senn. There is a famous photograph of Joyce playing the guitar in Zurich, taken by his friend Ottocaro Weiss, probably in 1915.

Since its arrival in the tower the guitar has been carefully preserved, but it has not been playable for many years. It is now being restored by English luthier Gary Southwell, using the facilities of the conservation department of the National Museum at Collins Barracks in Dublin.

Southwell has restored guitars for famous artists including Sting and has made guitars for Paul Simon. He said this guitar – a fairly standard 19th century instrument – was generally in reasonable condition, though it required very careful and delicate handling with a view to restoration, rather than just repair.

The project was undertaken by the Joyce Tower Museum’s current curator, Robert Nicholson, in co-operation with Fran O’Rourke, professor of philosophy at UCD, Joyce scholar and keen musician, who first conceived the idea of bringing the instrument back to life. The cost of the conservation work will be recouped by a series of lunchtime concerts to be held during Bloomsweek this year at which O’Rourke will perform Irish songs with a Joycean link, accompanied on the restored guitar by John Feeley, the internationally renowned Irish classical guitarist. It is the first time the guitar will have been heard in public.

Nicholson explained that the aim of the project was not to make the guitar “like new”, but rather to bring it back to the state it was in when Joyce would have played it. Certain alterations that had occurred through actual playing would be preserved.

The fact that Joyce could play the guitar as well as the piano testifies to the importance of music in his life and work. His poem ends with the image of “fingers straying / Upon an instrument.” Fingers will shortly stray again on an instrument where Joyce’s own hands once played.