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Come back to Erin?

Anthony J Jordan writes: In June this year President Michael D Higgins paid a historic visit to Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich, where James Joyce is buried. He thanked the Swiss city for maintaining the grave “today and all the days since the 1940s”. A week later, at a Bloomsday event at Áras an Uachtaráin, the president returned to the subject of Joyce, saying

You are all so welcome here this afternoon to Áras an Uachtaráin as we celebrate this most important day on Ireland’s cultural calendar. The 16th June marks, of course, the date of Leopold Bloom’s famous journey around Dublin on a Summer’s day in 1904. Over a century later Bloomsday remains a day when we have the opportunity to celebrate the genius of James Joyce, and his legacy to us. We must never forget on Bloomsday the person, the family, and the sacrifices that gave us the ground-breaking literary inheritance that is celebrated all over the world. Ireland owes a debt to James Joyce. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to lay flowers at the grave in Fluntern, where Joyce has rested since 1941, later joined by his wife Nora Barnacle and other members of his family. I thanked the Zurich authorities and the gardener who have cared with such sensitivity for his resting place.

Those words illuminate modern Ireland and in a real way offer us liberation from a dark passage in our history.

James Joyce’s strategy was to write as an exile from Ireland. That this exile should follow him into eternity was not part of the plan. Since his death in Switzerland in 1941, there have been periodic hopes that his body would be repatriated eventually, like that of WB Yeats in 1948. But his wife, Nora Barnacle’s, wishes for this to happen remained unfulfilled.

At a lecture at the Royal Dublin Society in September this year I detailed how Nora Barnacle’s vain attempts were thwarted by Irish governments in 1941 and again in 1948-49. The minister for external affairs in 1941 was Éamon de Valera, assisted by the secretary at the department, Joseph Walshe. The latter, on hearing of Joyce’s death, contacted the chargé d’affaires in Berne, Francis Cremins, asking “Did he die a Catholic?” and instructing him not to attend the funeral. His wife took soundings on the possibility of repatriation, but the message came back that Joyce had offended too many politicians and priests.

The historical importance of recognising Catholicism as the defining aspect of Irish nationality continued to be stressed by the new coalition government of 1948-1951. At the insistence of Sean MacBride, minister for external affairs, the taoiseach, John A Costello, sent a telegram to the pope which read:

On the occasion of our assumption of office and our first cabinet meeting, my colleagues and myself desire to repose at the feet of Your Holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and devotion as well as our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ and to strive for the attainment of a social order in Ireland based on Christian principles. John A. Costello. Prime Minister.

The repatriation of the remains of WB Yeats in September 1948 raised Nora Joyce’s hopes that her husband’s body might also be then repatriated. An astute American diplomat and bibliophile named John Jermain Slocum made a trip to Europe in 1948, making a courtesy call in June on President Sean T O’Kelly. He later met Nora Barnacle in Zurich, who let him know that she was most anxious to have her husband’s remains returned to Ireland. On his his return to America, Slocum wrote directly to the Irish president, sounding him out as to the possibility of repatriation. He wrote, “I do not think that I or anyone else could ask for a definite answer, but if you were to express to me even a belief that such a return of his body to Ireland was possible, I think that I could start his friends in Zurich, in Paris, in London, in New York and even in Dublin, working on it wholeheartedly.” Slocum never received a reply to his letter.

Slocum’s letter had claimed that an article in the Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano, in 1937, had cited “evidence that the Church itself recognizes Joyce’s contribution to the tradition of Catholic letters”. Valentin Iremonger, private secretary to Sean MacBride, the minister for external affairs in the new coalition government which had followed sixteen continuous years of rule by Fianna Fáil, spent several months challenging this interpretation on behalf of his minister.

MacBride had played a vital part in the earlier repatriation of Yeats’s remains on behalf of his mother, Maud Gonne, and the Yeats family. But neither he nor his mother felt any sympathy towards Joyce. Joyce had earlier mocked Maud Gonne and her husband, Major John MacBride, referring to them as Joan of Arc and Pope Pius X. When Joyce had called to Maud Gonne’s Parisian home earlier seeking assistance, she was unable to receive him. He took umbrage at this and despite receiving a letter of explanation, inviting him to return, he told his own mother that he would not.

When the issue of repatriation came before John A Costello’s government on July 15th, 1949, Sean MacBride refused to support it. A note on the file says “No action” was required. And there the matter has rested officially until earlier this year, when President Higgins made his historic visit to Joyce’s grave and spoke of the debt Ireland owes him.

Anthony J Jordan’s book dealing with this subject is titled Maud Gonne’s Men and is published by Westport Books.

13/12/2018

On Joyce’s death in Zurich see also