Ambassador Eamonn McKee and Dr. John McCourt at FestivalBloomsday Montréal, June 11, 2022

I will make it a mid-June habit, if I can, of listening to John McCourt’s lectures. I said that last year when Dr. McCourt spoke for FestivalBloomsday Montréal on the history of Bloomsday celebrations in Dublin. I knew I would be smarter after listening to McCourt on the afternoon of June 11, as sure as that the sun rises in the northwest over the Freeman’s Journal. This year my my enjoyment was greater for the contributions of Irish Ambassador to Canada Eamonn McKee. His Excellency, in addition to his long service to Ireland, is also a historian, and this greatly extended the investigation beyond the normal bounds of literary matters. Finally I will add that Dennis Trudeau was a perfect moderator. He asked short, crisp questions of interest to the general reader and did not interfere with the respondents’ replies. This session was recorded and should you find an opportunity to view it, I’d urge you to seize the BloomsDAY. This discussion ranged to matters relating to colonialism, rebellion, civil war and nation-building, the ongoing influence of the Church, the vision for a new Ireland, the Irish insurgence, and even Northern Irish politics. That is no more than the novel demands. I am seldom called on to act as a court stenographer. Forgive my inability to provide many direct quotations. I will focus on sharing accurate details if incomplete, I invite comments from participants and observers providing additional information. [I will offset my editorialisms and interpretations in brackets].

 

Trudeau began by asking how Ulysses retains “its aura” of attraction for readers. Eamonn McKee replied that Joyce wrote a novel that was “ shockingly intimate” and  “incredably direct.”  “The shock caused outrage” [inspiring initial interest in the novel, but the novel also offers a staying power for the reader that few novels have.] McKee continued, “When a young man, I identified with Stephen; now with Bloom. [Joyce grows with the reader, taking on new meaning as the reader matures.] John McCourt added that Ulysses is a most “human book.” And “more of Joyce’s humanity [may be expressed ] in his book than in the way he lived his life.’

American scholars led the early research in the study of the novel, but there were aspects of the novel that could not be easily understood outside of Irish culture. Now, finally, Irish academics are conducting the work that needed to be done. Joyce wrote thinking that the book would come into its own as scholarly interest in the book matured. It has, but it wasn’t until 1996 that the first academic study of the novel was produced in Ireland by an American on the faculty at Maynooth. Now Irish scholars are at center stage in Joyce studies.

European and American readings of Ulysses were written with “literary theory “ as it primary focus, but American critics were inevitablly tripped up in the complications of Irish politics and other features. Colloqual dialog might have been another obstacle, here Joyce’s skill seemed to keep the novel’s message intact. John McCourt marvels, “While translations [of other novels] done thirty years ago seem dated, Ulysses is as current today as it was one hundred years ago.”

Ambassador McKee offered that the delay in Irish scholastic work on the novel was because “Ireland, overwhelmingly Catholic, did not embrace Ulysses or Dublin or European intellectualism.” Ireland was for decades “officially a Catholic society.” Under DeValera’s vision of the Irish Republic, the government is de facto junior partner to the Church in Ireland. Ireland’s healthcare system, in fact, evolved molded by Catholic rather than medical imperatives. Furthermore, the vision for “Irish nationalism was bucholic” and “the Irish nationalistic framework did not include Dublin.” Unlike overtly secular nations, Ireland found no need to ban Ulysses. Since it “subverted God, institutions and nationalism,” it was shunned by the public. Another historical nugget offered was that John Redmond’s plan for a semi-independant commonwealth nation of Erie would be modelled using the Canadian precedent. 

Dr. McCourt explained that although DeValera’s bucholic Ireland shunned Ulysses, “Dublin always had a relationship with Joyce,” his work, being “extremely political,” had deep roots in the “city that wears the mask of a capitol” Ulysses book was released just after the start of the Irish Civil War. The relative unimportance of literature to the contemporary Irish was understandable. That the Civil War intervened may have been strangely helpful. Irish-Americans wrote reviews reporting on the national importance of Ulysses while the Irish themselves were occupied with the Civil War. Prominent Irish citizens like government minister Jiohn Garvin were able to remain ambivalent about the book under the shadow of the Civil War. Gavin loved the book but feared its subversive elements. The earliest analysis from “symposiats” came not from Irish academics who would not participate for fear of censure but from Americans and some freespirited Irish poets. Ulysses, described by McCourt as “a big short story because so little happens in it” and published under the distraction of the Civil War suffered the same uncanny, luckless timing as Joyce’s other works. Dubliners and Portrait were interferred with by the gathering of the First World War and Finnegans Wake was muted by the Second War.

McKee blended into the mix the uncertainty of the new national identity. DeValera’s vision of a nation of small farms and businesses failed, and, by the 1950s, Ireland’s population dropped below 3 million. The crisis prompted commentary like Fintan O’Toole’s ambivalently titled We Don’t Know Ourselves. Colonialism was not a topic for polite discussion and the Church still exerted a disproportionate influence on social issues. The historian’s view was that it wasn’t until Irish intellectual leaders spoke up for Joyce that politicians felt able to embrace Ulysses. By the 1990s, Ireland was feeling a confidence born of both political and economic accomplishment. This confidence was born of The Peace Accord in the North and the economic roaring of the Celtic Tiger in the South.

Asked about his recent published work Consuming Joyce, John McCourt spoke of the temerity of some Irish clerical academics to introduce Joyce to Irish youth. Joycean works are excluded from the school curriculum in Ireland , ironicly included in Italy. McCourt told of a Christian Brother who may not have been very familiar with Joyce but who discussed the works with his young charges  “encouraged perhaps [simply] because [Joyce] was Irish.” McCourt’s own introduction to Joyce came during the 1980s via a Jesuit who lectured about Sunny Jim and Thomas Merton, the Trappist who wrote Seven Story Mountain. The lessons compared “Joyce and Merton as travelers going in opposite directions through the same territory.”  But he also tells the story of the entrenched tradition exposed in Consuming Joyce of the priest who felt empowered to confiscate a copy of Portrait from a parishioner’s bookshelf. In an even broader social context, the professor added that Ulysses’ power was the result of its service as the “best response to British nationalism.” When there was a timid silence everywhere, Ulysses was “redolent with the voices of the day.”

Ulysses heralded the end of the society that caused Nora to flee Ireland. McKee said, “Nora leaps into the darkness with Joyce.” She declares, “I don’t want to live in this society.” His companion in the conversation said it’s no mistake that in this men’s book “Molly Bloom has the last word and a long word it is.” Bloom is an outsider in native Irish-Catholic culture, “a prediction of the Dublin to come.” Joyce uses foreign names and immigrant characters throughout the novel. These are the new Irish. The diplomatic immigrant to Canada told the perhaps facetious story of Litvak Jews headed for New York who dissembark in Ireland when the thick Irish brogue announces “You’re in Cork” sounding so much like an arrival in New York.

Asked “What does the centenary mean?” McCourt concludes that Ulysses is “radical but still challenges us [Irish society].” He reminds us that the house of Joyce’s great short story “The Dead,” 15 Usher’s Island, a place of pilgrimage, has been allowed to be “left delelict” by the Irish nation. This happened despite the will of Irish readers whose enthusiastic volunteerism staffs the tower at Sandycove year-round [and Sweny’s Pharmacy a less ambitious but equally successful private monument to the novel]. Joyce may be over-praised but under-supported. Still he admonishes that we not “turn [Joyce] into a secular saint.” The effect of Ulysses on the Irish Nationalist spirit might, in some small way, be seen even in the Northern Counties. In the very recent election “Sinn Fein is now the largest party in the North,” adding “That doesn’t mean unification is immiment.” Brexit created obstacles that could not be foreseen but “the nightmare of history” could be brightning under a new dawn

Both panelists forsee the continued popularity of the novel. Certainly from the perspective of scholastics, the future is bright. The first centennial spurs that hope ahead. [The future may however be more dependent on the cultivation of new readers than more research. Global interest from non-English speaking countries and advancements in the translation sciences is the only assurance for a bi-centennial as successful as this centenary].

John McCourt near the conclusion of the event told an amusing story from Bloomsday lore about a trick that caught among others Hugh Kenner, the Canadian Joycean. Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’brien concocted an interview  with John S. Joyce. [Hugh Kenner and John V. Kelleher accepted the bogus interview as authentic. Kelleher later joked about erasures from the magrins of his volume. However, the joke is promulgated by other critics who tell the tale- Ellmann, Scholes and Kain. Margaret Heckard concluded in 1976 that none of these had read the false interview.]

Finally Dennis Trudeau asked about the report from Consuming Joyce that Brendan Behan claimed anyone in Dublin could have written that book but the pubs are open too late. [I think that is, intended or not, more praise for the novel. If any Dubliner could tell the story, speak the words, then Ulysses is indeed “a cry in the street.”]

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