In January 1899, at 86 St Stephen's Green, two student debaters from University College Dublin defeated a motion at the Literary and Historical Society which asserted that contemporary English literature had "reached a very low ebb". One was Tom Kettle, who was to become an Irish Parliamentary Party MP before dying at the Somme in 1916. The other was his friend James Joyce, who would make his own outstanding contribution to English literature from European exile in Trieste, Zurich and Paris.
At UCD, Joyce studied English, French and Italian, also teaching himself Norwegian and German to read authors he admired in the original. Like many students at the time, he frequented the National Library, which provided both intellectual stimulation and refuge from a home which his father’s heavy drinking rendered uncongenial. After graduation, he thought the university might employ him and ascribed its failure to do so to alarm at his atheism, though it could also be attributed to his mediocre degree.
Like other writers before him Joyce was unafraid of exile, even embracing the heroic outsider status he felt his rejection of Ireland bestowed on him. His animosity to the country's clerical and lay establishment remained steadfast all his life. When he died in Zurich in 1941 the State made it clear that it did not wish his body to be repatriated.
More recently, Ireland has shown itself ready to celebrate Joyce, and the opening of the new Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI) at 86 St Stephen’s Green this week, with the National Library’s archive of the artist at its centre, is the latest well-merited honour. The Trinity wit JP Mahaffy said he believed Joyce to be a living argument that it had been a mistake to establish a university for Ireland’s “aborigines”. It is a matter for celebration that university and library have now come together at a singularly appropriate venue to celebrate the writer, and writing in general, as Ireland, through MoLI, says an emphatic, welcoming Yes to the man who was probably its greatest literary genius.