‘A Nation Under the Influence’ – Lara Marlowe on Joyce-inspired events in Paris

An Irishwoman’s Diary

Each of Deirdre Brennan’s 18 photographs corresponds to an episode of Ulysses, including a portrait of John Byrne, the homeless man who jumped into the Liffey to save a rabbit. Photograph: Deirdre Brennan

Two volumes lie side by side in a glass case, beautifully crafted 100-year-old relics. The cover of the first edition, on loan from the Princess Grace Library in Monaco, is a vibrant teal blue, not the snotgreen of Dublin Bay described by Buck Mulligan.

It took Sylvia Beach another seven years to produce the French translation of Ulysses in 1929. The typeface on its cover mirrors the original. Its aged white cover does not resemble a slab of ocean, but the distinctive blue-green is mirrored in the title. The French version, the 67th of 170 numbered copies, is the proud possession of Ambassador Niall Burgess.

The books are the anchor of an effusion of Joyce-inspired art, performances, lectures, and music celebrating the centenaries of Ulysses and the Irish Free State at the Irish College in Paris until June.

"We wanted to pull the three strands of colonialism, nationalism and the Church out of Ulysses and see how they influenced Ireland, " says Rosetta Beaugendre, the curator of the main exhibition, A Nation Under the Influence: Ireland at 100.


The exhibition consists of four videos and two installations. Anne Maree Barry’s Leisure with Dignity evokes Monto, the red-light district in the Circe episode of Ulysses that was “cleansed” by post-colonial, Catholic Ireland.

Aine Phillips's In the Robing Room shows a woman struggling to fit into a misshapen dress, symbolising the difficulty of obtaining redress for those who were virtually imprisoned in industrial schools, children's homes, mother and baby institutions and the Magdalene Laundries. "Why were you put in there? For what reason were you put in there? Nuns called it 'falling away' when you get pregnant", says testimony on the soundtrack.

Ailbhe Ní Bhriain analyses the colonial mindset that regarded Irish and other cultures as inferior. Mairéad McClean’s video includes a 50-year-old news interview with her mother when her father, a civil rights campaigner, was arrested in 1972 and interned without trial.

Installations by Northern Ireland artists Jennifer Trouton and Alison Lowry evoke the power which the Church retained over women's bodies. On close examination, there are religious scenes and female genitalia camouflaged in the flowery wallpaper of Trouton's homey, early 20th century sitting room. Blood drips from an embroidered map of Mater Hibernia. A suitcase awaits travel abroad for an abortion.

"We have a tendency to blame everything on the British," says Beaugendre. "But the Church-State partnership has a lot to answer for. The ambience that Jennifer Trouton has created is the reason James Joyce left Ireland."

Deirdre Brennan, a former New York Times photographer, used Joyce's novel as a map for "Following Ulysses", which was ten years in the making.

Her photographs are displayed on tall, three-sided metal totems in the garden of the Irish College. Each of 18 photographs corresponds to an episode of Ulysses. There's a portrait of John Byrne, the homeless man who jumped into the Liffey to save a rabbit, with his dogs. "I think he is a character whom Leopold Bloom would have talked to," says Brennan.

To illustrate the Penelope episode, Brennan photographed a transgender Brazilian holding a bouquet of lilies. “He told me that he came to Dublin to find freedom. He would not have found it in 1904 ... I think that James Joyce would be very proud that we allow people to love whom they want, and give women freedom to choose their reproductive rights,” Brennan says.

Nora Hickey, the director of the Irish College, shows me Oonagh Young's ten-metre-long LED display ticker-tape along the courtyard wall. "It takes several weeks for the entire text of Ulysses to run by," Hickey says. "We want to encourage people to read the book."

The World Congress of the Irish Race, organised in Paris in 1922, focused on culture because politics was too divisive in the run-up to the civil war, says the historian Pierre Joannon, Ireland's consul general on the Côte d'Azur. Joannon recalls that "Joyce wanted his books to Europeanise Ireland and Ireland to Hibernicise Europe. "

The Irish College is Ireland's flagship cultural centre in Europe, and Hickey has emphasised the European character of Ulysses through collaboration with the cultural centres of Greece, Hungary, Italy and Portugal this season. The programme drives home the extent to which Joyce's novel has permeated world culture. Leo JM Koenders, for example, a Dutch bibliophile and Ulysses fanatic who died in 2011, commissioned artists from all over the world to create works inspired by Ulysses. Selected works from Koenders's collection are on show in the Irish College.