“I loathe Ireland and the Irish.”

In the Irish Times, Brian Cosgrove takes up temporary residence in An Irishman’s Diary in the hope that, with the lifting of European copyright restrictions on James Joyce’s major works, a greater familiarity with Joyce’s “sometimes ruthless realism” may change the nature of the “annual Edwardian charade” that is Bloomsday.  From the Irish Times

The devastating cultural effects of the Ireland in which he had come to adult consciousness are amply dramatised in many of the short stories in Dubliners . These deal with unfulfilled lives and frustrated impulses, and the anger, dependency and demeaning parasitism of those trapped in an impoverished post-Parnellite culture. True, of course, that the last and finest story in Dubliners , ’The Dead’, can be read as a celebration of Dublin’s hospitality, musical culture and conviviality; but it is nonetheless significant that the comment from the letter above was written some two years after the completion of that story.

As far as Ireland was concerned, particularly in the early decades of its independence, the feeling was, arguably, mutual. Ulysses , for example, may never have been banned under the censorship board established in 1929, but only because people were afraid to import it lest they found themselves embroiled in an expensive legal battle. And as late as 1958, in a notorious episode, An Tostal were obliged to cancel a proposed dramatisation of Ulysses at the behest of Archbishop JC McQuaid.

It is easy to argue that Ireland, having looked askance at Joyce in his lifetime, was rather less than generous after his death. It is still shocking to learn that apparently our then government under De Valera instructed the Irish chargé d’affaires in Zurich not to attend Joyce’s funeral. And when his wife Nora expressed a willingness to permit the repatriation of his remains, the offer was turned down by that same government. There was at least one major consequence: an unforgiving Nora insisted Harriet Weaver donate the the manuscripts of Finnegans Wake, not to the National Library in Dublin, but to the British Museum.

On the other side, even after Ireland had gained its independence, and a mature Joyce had left behind the repressive experiences of his youth, the extent of his allegiance to Ireland remained questionable. Gordon Bowker, in his recent biography, notes that in 1940, when Joyce in France was faced with imminent German invasion, the official at the Irish legation repeatedly “offered him and [son] Georgio Irish passports”, which would have allowed them to leave occupied France when they wished. The offers were declined, and Joyce “clung doggedly to his British passport”.

We should not here jump to conclusions; but we know that Joyce was not enthused by the new Irish Free State (or as he preferred to call it, the “Irish Free Fight”), finding its nationalism regressive. He was particularly unimpressed by the ambition to restore the Irish language – a response that need not surprise us, given that Joyce, through his brilliant mastery of the English language, had engaged with a worldwide readership for his depictions of Irish experience.

How then do we reconcile Joyce’s antipathy with a lifelong fascination with Ireland and especially with Dublin? There is no ready answer, and in this as elsewhere Joyce’s attitudes were complex or ambivalent.

Read the whole thing.

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