Travelling right – An Irishman’s Diary on John Joyce’s journey

Mount Athos: the goal of John Joyce’s journey

Mount Athos: the goal of John Joyce’s journey


One day in June 1952 a young Irishman knocked on the door of Stanislaus Joyce in Trieste. The young man bore the auspicious name John Joyce, but in fact he was no relation of Stanislaus. John Joyce, a 20-year-old engineering student, had decided to embark on a three-month hitch-hiking tour of the Balkans and Turkey, and Trieste was a natural starting-point. He had been attracted to the idea of visiting the Balkans, Greece and Turkey by reading an account of the monastery of Mount Athos, and the summer was the obvious time for this venture.

Stanislaus was very taken with the audacity of the project; he accommodated and entertained his unexpected guest in Trieste, introducing him to friends and showing him around the city. At the time, Stanislaus was working on transcribing some of the letters of his brother James for the first edition of his correspondence, and on his book My Brother’s Keeper, and he told John Joyce about these labours.

John Joyce then moved on from Trieste, on the first leg of his journey. Enterprisingly, he wrote an account of his travels which was serialised in The Irish Times from January 6th to January 17th, 1953. His main problem was that he had the splendid sum of £25 to fund his journey – and even in those days that amount was pretty minimal. He was reliant on hitch-hiking to get around, particularly problematic in then Yugoslavia, due to the dearth of cars in the country.

But in fact he managed in general to obtain lifts, finding people there very generous with transport, food and accommodation – and he was also helped by the very low cost of living in the countries he visited.

John’s account of ex-Yugoslavia is perhaps the most interesting part of his journey, if only because the society he encountered there no longer exists. Perceptively, in view of later developments, he wrote that Yugoslavia was “a purely political concept”, its peoples being vastly divergent in culture, religion and history. It was of course a communist country, even though its leader, Marshal Tito, had broken with Stalin some years previously.

John Joyce's 'Road to Ephesus' in 'The Irish Times'

In general, despite his status as a rare independent traveller, he had no great problem with the authorities, though on one occasion, when he got into minor trouble over taking photographs in Sarajevo, he was surprised to find how much information the police had on him in their files. He remarks on the difficulties of life in the federation, on how hard the people had to work – “Women push trucks on rails and carry trays of materials up ramps” – for very meagre returns. He also comments on the drabness of the appearance of both people and buildings. The young Irishman was also aware, however, of a genuine spirit of optimism pervading the country, especially among the young, and there was also a great deal of pride in Tito’s semi-independent foreign policy. Despite all the hardship, he was very struck by the welcome and the friendliness he encountered everywhere he went.

From Yugosalvia, John Joyce moved on to Salonica, in northern Greece. In this part of the country a foreign visitor was an unusual sight: “Everywhere I was a focal point of attention and the object of prolonged discussion. Crowds would collect around me and from all sides questions would come. My thinness was always remarked and always provoked the anxious enquiry of whether I was hungry.” Again, he recorded a way of life that is now long gone.

Having visited some of the Aegean islands, John Joyce made his way to the monastic complex of Mount Athos, the goal of his journey. Here he encountered a way of life that is certainly not gone, since conditions at Mount Athos have not altered at all since 1952, most notably in the continuing complete exclusion of women from the complex.

As he writes, the complex is a “theocracy” under religious rule which is recognised by the Greek government, and, more recently, by the EU.

At the time of his visit, Mount Athos was on the brink of a decline in numbers, but it has since revived and now has about the same number of monks – 2,000 – as it had when he visited.

John Joyce writes with sensitivity and understanding about the strange, almost bizarre, modes of living that the celibate complex embraces: hermits, anchorites, postulants, governors, and others. He writes as a fascinated outsider, aware of the spiritual dimension that underlies this strange way of life and eager to learn more of its inner workings. The determination and enterprise he showed even in getting there are impressive in themselves.

After moving on to Turkey, where he was struck by the tension between Ataturk’s reforms and the traditional way of life, and visited in particular the strange cone country of Cappadocia, John finally arrived in Ephesus, which he had decided would mark the end of his semi-spiritual journey. Ephesus also, happily, has not changed, save that its vast extent has been even further expanded since through new excavations. Thereafter, he made his way back home, mostly via one lift that took him from Trieste to Brussels.

It was good that The Irish Times of the day saw fit to carry the diary-like account of his travels in the Balkans by this exceptional young man – and even better that John Joyce had the gumption to write it up and present it for publication.

It is now available in book form, with accompanying photographs, entitled The Road to Ephesus, though at present only from Amazon and Hodges Figgis. Following graduation as an engineer, John Joyce worked for Siemens in Germany. He now lives in a faithfully restored old house in Bamberg. The record of his youthful odyssey is a valuable testament, both to the time and places of his visit, and also to the adventurous spirit that inspired it.

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