President Higgins marvels around Joycean Zurich

‘You started quite a while ago when enthusiasm for Joyce was not as strong as now’


Half a century ago, when Fritz Senn organised a James Joyce symposium in Ireland, not all locals were impressed.

This newspaper’s Quidnunc column summed up the attitude to outsiders embracing the Irish author thus: “The Joyce Symposers were at it again yesterday...”

On Friday Dr Senn, who turned 90 this year, brushed off the slight with good grace.

“Ach, it wasn’t so bad,” he said. “We Swiss get on better in Ireland than the American researchers. When they come to Ireland explaining Joyce to the locals, that doesn’t go down well.”

Dr Senn is a major figure among Joyce scholars, along with the James Joyce Foundation he founded in 1985. On the final day of his trip to Switzerland, President Michael D Higgins visited the foundation to pay tribute to Dr Senn’s work.

“You started quite a while ago when enthusiasm for Joyce was not as strong as now,” said Mr Higgins. “You read the signals well, thank you.”

New home

James Joyce and his wife Nora lived in Zurich three times: it offered them a new home after leaving Ireland in 1904 and served as a refuge from the two World Wars.

During his visit to the foundation, Mr Higgins inspected rare volumes of poems and notes to his family of little literary value.

“Please keep tea and something to eat for me. I’ll be back at 5 sharp. Giorgio and Helen please wait, Babbo,” says one.

Other highlights of the extensive collection include scrawled notes – with lines struck through in blue and orange pencil that made their way into Finnegan’s Wake. In the Zurich foundation, locals gather every Thursday evening to explore the notorious work.

“The miracle is that people come – they’re not forced to – to understand the cryptic text,” said Dr Senn.

His foundation, set up with the support of UBS bank and which welcomes private donations, offers readings, workshops and has offered more than 80 scholarships over 30 years.

Treasure trove

The rooms are a treasure trove of Joyce material, from his walking stick and death mask to countless bars of Sweny chemist’s soap and thousands of books with even a tenuous link to the author.

Highlights include The Best Classic and Modern Cat Stories, The True Spouse of Jesus Christ and Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases.

A delighted Mr Higgins strolled through the rooms, marvelling at the wealth of material, including the 1931 British marriage certificate of James Augustine Aloysius Joyce.

As part of the visit the President laid white roses on the gorse-framed Joyce family grave in the Fluntern cemetery overlooking the city.

In the hilly stillness, beside a seated statue of Joyce, Mr Higgins thanked the city of Zurich for maintaining the grave “today and all the days since the 1940s”.

Back at the James Joyce Foundation, the Irish visitors pored over a first edition of Ulysses dedicated by Joyce to his eye specialist, Dr Albert Vogt.

He was well known for supporting artists by treating them in exchange for an art work. Years after operating on Joyce, he was visited by Éamon De Valera.

The author was treated pro bono. De Valera, however, got a bill.