Have we had enough of Joyce? Never!
All is quiet on a sunny morning on Dublin’s North Great George’s Street when I make my way to Number 35. The Georgian building has housed the James Joyce Centre since 1996 when the building was valiantly saved from demolition through the efforts of Senator David Norris, also a resident of the street. The house was once the location of a dance academy run by Professor Denis J Maginni, a colourful Dublin character who appears often in Ulysses, described as wearing a “silk hat, slate frockcoat with silk facings, white kerchief tie, tight lavender trousers, canary gloves and pointed patent boots.”
In the reception, shelves heave with versions of Joyce’s works and already visitors, young, old, and international have begun to arrive. The carpeted staircase showcases various portraits of the writer and in the grand light-filled Kenmare Room on the first floor, the walls are lined with bold prints by Irish printmaker Frank Kiely; vibrant scenes from Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man reimagined in contemporary settings. This is part of the centre’s role: to continue to connect Joyce with contemporary Ireland. The Director of the centre for seven years, Mark Traynor, joins me here to chat about the centre’s role in safeguarding Dublin’s Joycean legacy.
Dublin isn’t just a physical place that you live in; it’s a mental state
Traynor began his involvement with the centre in “a very practical way” – a summer job leading walking tours of the city. “One of the things that drew me to the centre is the emphasis on Joyce’s connection with the geography of the city.”
He had first encountered Joyce’s work in that familiar way, a dusty old book on the family bookshelf. “They always say that the two books that you find in every Irish household are a copy of Ulysses and a copy of the Bible, and neither of them are ever picked up,” he jokes. The works were challenging but “one of the things that sustained me through those attempts was the fact that he was describing streets and places and buildings that I passed every day. There’s something really interesting about an author who is taking such a huge effort to describe your own city in that sort of level of detail, not just in the physical sense but the character of people, the way they speak.”
He went on to study literature, enjoying Joyce’s “sort of snarky attitude about Dublin and Dubliner. His portrayal of Dublin is hardly Failte Ireland-endorsed, but at the same time he gives himself away in that all of his major work is based here.” He recalls a quote from an ambassador who asked Joyce about his fascination with his birth city even though he was living in Paris. Joyce told him that he was connected to Dublin “daily and nightly like an umbilical cord.”
Nevertheless, Joyce’s life was one of “self-imposed exile. He felt that as an artist he could not achieve what he wanted by remaining here. That’s something a lot of Irish people relate to in terms of our history of emigration. Dublin isn’t just a physical place that you live in; it’s a mental state. There’s this psychic geography to the place.”
People are always interpreting Joyce in new academic ways but it is this perennial emotional undercurrent that the centre is keen to tap into. Traynor notes that before 2006, the centre, managed by Joyce’s family, was “pitching itself towards an academic audience.” Now, while recognising the importance of intellectual endeavours, the centre also wants to accommodate those for whom Joyce’s work is about “getting dressed up and going to Davy Byrne’s and having a pint. I don’t see that as being a negative thing. Authors like Joyce or Shakespeare or Tolstoy in Russia, their work is so significant that it boils over into general popular culture.”
Part of the centre’s role is to create a stress-free environment for examining Joyce’s work
Among the 21,000 visitors in 2016, the centre welcomes large numbers of Irish-Americans and Irish-British visitors who relate to Joyce’s idea of exile, but a surprising number of Italians visit too. Joyce spent time living in Trieste, but also, “a lot of Italian children will read Dubliners because it’s on their school [curriculum]. It was one of the earliest works translated into Italian.” The French come because of Joyce’s Parisian years, the Scandinavians because of Joyce’s support for Ibsen. As for the locals, “Bloomsday is the period where suddenly more Dubliners are involved, and we run a lecture series during the year which appeals to locals just as much.”
The Centre has also made “a concerted effort to do events that aren’t off-putting for people. With writers like Joyce, there’s often a barrier that you have to step over for people.” In keeping with this, the centre is “activity-based…the walking tours would be a really big draw, offering readers something tangible.”
The global appreciation of Joyce is unlikely to falter. “What he said about Ulysses was that he wanted to keep the professors guessing, which ensures the legacy of the work,” Traynor says.
And what would Joyce make of the dressing-up and horseplay of Bloomsday? “On one level he presented himself as being above self-promotion, [believing] the work should speak for itself, but if you look into his life he was a shrewd self-promoter. Most people look at the first Bloomsday in Dublin in 1954 (with Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien. You can watch snippets on YouTube). But actually the first celebrations in Paris are mentioned in letters in the 1920s, and then there is the organised lunch in 1929, in which he was involved.
There’s a sense that he was playing it cool but if you look at the letters from that period he is wondering if the book is ever going to have a readership, is it just going to be something a small group of people appreciate and then die off. He had those anxieties and recognised that one aspect of legacy is allowing the work to flow out into popular imagination.”
With authors like Joyce or Shakespeare or Tolstoy, their work is so significant that it boils over into general popular culture
Joyce felt strongly that ordinary Dubliners would be able to open up Ulysses and say ‘Oh I get what that’s about, or I know who that is’. They would recognise the political and musical references. “The books don’t exist in an academic vacuum. They have to be anchored in popular imagination.”
And part of the centre’s role is to create a stress-free environment for examining Joyce’s work. “One of the most successful things we’ve done for the last few years is an evening course called Ulysses For All.” This structured reading group starts on Joyce’s birthday in February and runs through to the week before Bloomsday, working through the whole book.
Traynor sees the social element as key. “The interesting thing about Joyce’s work is you can read Joyce by yourself in bed but eventually, particularly with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, you will need to make contact with other people. With these groups, you have twenty people in a room reading a text. At some point people are going to get stuck but one person’s particular background may be able to solve a problem, someone who has Italian might be able to say, oh that’s just a combination of this word and this word.”
Joyce’s works are almost designed to make people talk to one another. “If you ever go to any Finnegans Wake discussion, people say, you don’t read the book, the book reads you. The text is so open to your interpretation that everyone brings their own knowledge to it and it’s shaped in that sense. You don’t do that alone, you do it in groups.” And that’s where the centre comes in; it’s a connecting point, a hub.
After our chat, I explore the building. On the top floor, the blinds are drawn and the floorboards creak as I wander around a subtle exhibition, which allows a visitor to bring their own quiet thoughts to the space. Here, a recreation of Joyce’s study in Trieste. There, the furniture from the apartment of Joyce’s friend Paul Leon, the gleaming table where Joyce sat with friends and supporters working on translations of Finnegans Wake.
Through interactive computer installations, you can explore Joyce’s biography or Ulysses episode by episode. Or sit quietly and watch the documentary films that play out in a darkened room where Joyce’s stark death mask by sculptor Paul Speck looks out from a lit glass cabinet. On the walls, quotes loom large from Ulysses, “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”
And then the piece de resistance in the courtyard on the ground floor, the door to 7 Eccles Street, the residence of the fabled Leopold Bloom. Rescued from a skip after the house itself was demolished, here it is set into a wall under a glass roof. Sunlight pours in on the weathered ghostly relic. It looks like a door to another world.