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The year of Ulysses: 2022 marks centenary of Joyce’s experimental masterpiece

Beloved by millions, incomprehensible to millions more, the novel is now firmly embedded in Irish culture

Shortly after James Joyce took possession of the first copies of Ulysses in his Paris home on February 2nd, 1922, his 40th birthday, it became clear the world was not ready.

In Britain, the director of public prosecutions ordered the book burned due to its "unmitigated filth". In the United States, customs officials were so vigilant that elaborate smuggling schemes were devised by readers and retailers.

So stringent were the international curbs that the fledgling Irish Free State did not even ban the book, merely adding it to the customs blacklist. Not, mind you, that Ulysses was likely to find a wide audience in Joyce’s devout homeland.

One periodical, the Irish Monthly, approvingly remarked that his work was “little read by sane people”. What a difference a century makes. This year, 2022, will be the year of Ulysses.

It will mark the centenary of Joyce’s experimental masterpiece about Leopold Bloom’s day-long odyssey through Dublin on June 16th, 1904. Irish State bodies and cultural institutions are in the vanguard.

Celebrations will take place across Europe and the US, testament to the novel's enduring influence and transnational appeal. There is even a Japanese manga comic version. "Ulysses is still so much a living thing," says Senator David Norris, "Its themes are universal."

The exiled Irish author spent eight years writing his opus, struggling with failing eyesight and living in grim poverty in Trieste, Zurich and Paris

But 100 years after Ulysses transformed literature, it still can provoke debate. Even as the book feted at home and studied around the world, some wonder whether Joyce’s revolutionary volume is being treated as a safe cultural commodity, useful for attracting visitors but losing its relevance as it does so.

If nothing else, the centenary will be hard to miss, thanks to the volume of events planned. Here, the anniversary is being spearheaded by the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI) in Dublin.

“Ulysses for us is really a spur to create new artwork,” says MoLI director, Simon O’Connor. A digital hub run by MoLI, Ulysses 100 will collate and record Joycean events at home and abroad.

Notre Dame University will organise symposiums in Paris, Rome and Dublin under the banner Global Ulysses, while the occasion is being marked in the US, too, with major Joyce exhibits in Texas and New York.

Unsurprisingly, books make up a key element in the anniversary, with highlights including Consuming Joyce: 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland by John McCourt, and James Joyce: A Political Biography by the late Frank Callanan. The book's impact is examined on screen too, with RTÉ One broadcasting Ruan Magan's documentary, 100 Years of Ulysses, on February 3rd, while BBC Two shows Adam Low's film, Arena: Ulysses at 100, on June 16th.

Having once been contraband, Ulysses is firmly embedded in Irish and world culture.

Such an outcome was not foreordained when Joyce's publisher, Sylvia Beach, brought him that first printing of the novel. The exiled Irish author spent eight years writing his opus, struggling with failing eyesight and living in grim poverty in Trieste, Zurich and Paris with his muse and later wife Nora Barnacle and their two children. Set on the day that Nora and he had their first flirty date, the book was notorious even before its publication: after American magazine the Little Review serialised excerpts, its editors were convicted on obscenity charges. Such infamy meant that when the book finally appeared, it was difficult to obtain, as court cases and book burnings dogged would-be publishers in Britain and the US for years. It was only after a New York court ruled in 1933 that Ulysses was not pornographic that the novel became more freely available.

In the beginning, Joyce was anathema to the Irish establishment... He was seen as anti-Catholic and anti-Irish

In Ireland, however, the book's controversial reputation persisted. Though the writers Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O'Brien and Anthony Cronin boozily recreated Joyce's odyssey for the first Bloomsday in 1954, Joyce was still viewed with suspicion. Norris says that the situation today, when Ulysses has received the imprimatur of official Ireland, is "unrecognisable" from when he first started doing his own Bloomsday recreations in the 1960s. "In the beginning, Joyce was anathema to the Irish establishment," Norris recalls. "He was seen as anti-Catholic and anti-Irish."

Gradually, attitudes shifted. The centenary of Joyce's birth in 1982 proved a turning point, exemplified by Seán Ó Mórdha's acclaimed RTÉ documentary on the author, while Bloomsday revelries became a fixture in the Dublin calendar. But other obstacles remained, in the form of the novelist's grandson Stephen Joyce, who exercised ferociously tight control over the estate. The centenary of Bloomsday in 2004 proved a low point, with Stephen Joyce threatening to sue the State for staging a reading of Ulysses.

"I would say he took his responsibilities so seriously that it tipped into being unreasonable," says Katherine McSharry of the National Library of Ireland, whose 2004 Joyce exhibition omitted all Ulysses quotes to avoid litigation. Stephen Joyce summarised his approach more pithily in a 2006 interview: "It is better to be pissed off than pissed on." Since EU copyright on Joyce's works expired in 2012, the situation is easier for scholars and curators alike. (Stephen Joyce died in 2020.)

Ulysses is so ripe for expression, it could be celebrated in a much different way, whereas what we see seems so limited and underwhelming

Once a pariah, James Joyce is now more like a poster boy for Ireland. "Bloomsday is a great asset for Irish tourism, because it gives us something unique to talk about," says Mark Henry of Tourism Ireland, highlighting the date's appeal for "culturally curious" visitors. While the pandemic makes planning difficult, the tourism body aims to generate overseas interest through viral videos – its YouTube clip on Bloomsday has had four million views – and travel stories on the centenary, particularly the June 16th festivities. "What's most valuable to us is the publicity opportunity around that," Henry says, while noting that literary tourism is still a niche market. The Department of Foreign Affairs has also identified Bloomsday as a unique Irish selling point, helping co-ordinate centenary events internationally.

But in focusing on the pageantry, are we underselling Joyce's vision? "Ulysses is so ripe for expression, it could be celebrated in a much different way, whereas what we see seems so limited and underwhelming," says Aiden Grennelle, creative director of Ebow, who has worked on previous Joyce projects. Describing the book as an "uber-brand" – "Everyone has an opinion on it" – Grennelle would like to see the novel's "saltiness and bravery" highlighted as well.

The novel's Dublin setting might allow for more imaginative approaches. Darina Gallagher, director of the James Joyce Centre, is grateful for the official support that has helped create a "lovely connectivity" between Joyceans worldwide, particularly during the pandemic. But as director of the north Dublin centre founded by Norris in 1996, in buildings he helped save from demolition, Gallagher also hopes for a local focus to the centenary. "I want to show the real places of Joyce," Gallagher says. "I love this gorgeous grassroots feeling people have, I don't want to lose that."

Ultimately, such is the scope of Joyce's novel that there's room for Edwardian costumes, serious scholarship, ribald creativity and grassroots activity. "Ulysses is so broad, you're bound to find something that will resonate," says writer Nuala O'Connor, whose novel Nora reimagines the life of Joyce's wife. (She is also curating a MoLI show on Joyce's family.) Despite its age, O'Connor says the book's intimate frankness still gives it currency in the Ireland of Sally Rooney. "Joyce described Ulysses as the epic of human body," she says, "That shows it's a very relevant book for today, it's so contemporary in its bawdiness."

If Ulysses means many things to different people, that’s in keeping with its protean breadth. Having taken decades for Ireland to fully embrace Joyce’s epic, its vaulted status now is a reason for celebration in itself. “I don’t know of any other countries where there’s a city-wide party to celebrate a fictional day,” says Simon O’Connor. “Does that divert from the book’s artistic achievement? Anything that’s encouraging people to engage with the book is really important.” A century on, that’s what the author would have wanted, thinks Norris. “James Joyce really wanted Ulysses to be read by everyone.”

Mick Heaney

Mick Heaney

Mick Heaney is a radio columnist for The Irish Times and a regular contributor of Culture articles