Consuming Joyce: 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland, by John McCourt, Bloomsbury, 304 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-1350205826
The “Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses, set in the National Maternity Hospital, traces the growth of the English language from its conception as Anglo-Saxon through various iterations mirroring the nine-month maturation of the foetus in the womb of Mina Purefoy, about whose difficult, three-day labour Leopold Bloom is, for some reason, concerned enough to pay the hospital a late-evening visit. There he encounters Stephen Dedalus for the first time that day. At her baby’s birth, we see Mrs Purefoy “in the first bloom of her motherhood” as “her loving eyes behold her babe”.
The birth of James Joyce’s great novel, seven years in the making, was beheld by its author with eager eyes in Paris on February 2nd, 1922, when it was delivered to him by its publisher, Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the Shakespeare and Co bookshop. Thus, this year Ulysses attracts the equivalent of the centenarian bounty awarded to Irish citizens on their hundredth birthday. This Ulyssean bounty comes in the form of multiple publications and a range of celebratory activities (full disclosure: I have made my own addition to the bibliographic stockpile). John McCourt’s contribution, Consuming Joyce: 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland, is, in effect, an Irish biography of Joyce’s masterwork, tracing the trajectory of its reception here from the fractured early responses to its more recent storied status.
Not many books attract such vaunted centenary attention and fewer still would warrant this kind of biblio-biography. While a century-old novel might easily be an antiquarian artefact, Ulysses is anything but. In his concluding assessment, McCourt fittingly describes it as “an enduringly rewarding work of literature and an extraordinarily rich compendium of life and language”. He boldly predicts that it will “give at least as much to Ireland and the world in its second hundred years of life as it gave in its first”. There is, it seems, plenty of life in the old dog yet.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is a big book and there’s a lot going on in its 700-plus pages. It’s a famously encyclopaedic novel that even contains tips for aspiring reviewers. In the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, set in the National Library, Buck Mulligan mockingly chides Stephen Dedalus for not playing the flattery game with “that old hake Gregory”. As an ebullient Mulligan puts it, “She gets you a job on the paper and then you go slate her drivel to Jaysus.” This mirrors Joyce’s own experience. Lady Gregory secured him a position as a reviewer with the Daily Express and was repaid with an uncomplimentary review of her book Poets and Dreamers. At that stage in his life, Joyce had a dismissive view of the literary revival and no amount of helping hand would blunt his critical pen. He had after all published an abrasive student essay, “The Day of the Rabblement”, in which he accused Yeats and his school of pandering to the tastes of an untutored reading public. In “Scylla and Charybdis”, Mulligan goes on to ask Stephen “Couldn’t you do the Yeats touch? … The most beautiful book that has come out of our country in my time. One thinks of Homer.” Yeats, as he strove to build a revival literature in the 1890s, had a coterie of broadly like-minded writers who could logroll each other’s work. Joyce clearly did not have that kind of “Yeats touch”.
Joyce, of course, had literary admirers aplenty, Ezra Pound, TS Eliot and Yeats included. There were also a number of strong-willed women who supported him. I was reminded of that aspect of Joyce’s experience when I spoke recently at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center and visited its exhibition on “Women and the Making of James Joyce’s Ulysses”. This highlights the support Joyce received from Little Review editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, bookseller/publisher Sylvia Beach and Harriet Shaw Weaver, who, according to the calculations of the exhibition’s curator, Claire Hutton, gave Joyce the equivalent of $1 million in today’s money, thus enabling him to devote seven years of his life to writing Ulysses. Joyce eventually fell out with Weaver and Beach, being too single-minded to cosset his friendships. He was always something of a team of one compared with the more collegial Yeats, who was an inveterate participant of literary societies and in “theatre business, management of men”. Joyce’s sole foray into theatre business in Zurich during World War One ended in litigation.
Going back to Lady Gregory, a letter Joyce wrote to her in 1902 before his first flight from Ireland in which, with a mix of a self-pity (“going alone and friendless”) and cockiness (“I shall try myself against the powers of the world”), he sought support from her. Twenty-year-old Joyce arrives at a radiant and revealing conclusion: “All things are inconstant except the faith of the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light. And though I seem to have been driven out of my country here as a misbeliever I have found no man with a faith like mine.” Joyce’s letter reveals his mentality as he prepared to leave Ireland with the aim, as he put it in A Portrait, to “forge in the smithy of my soul, the uncreated conscience of my race”.
It would hardly have chimed with Joyce’s sense of himself had Ulysses been greeted in Ireland with lavish praise, especially in light of the mixed response it had elicited in Britain and America, and the notoriety surrounding it. In Consuming Joyce, John McCourt gives a full account of the book’s initial reception in Ireland, which featured outbursts of hysteria. In their own way, these were a back-handed tribute to Joyce, in that they recognised that he was significant enough to warrant the verbal equivalent of assault and battery.
For the aggressively conservative Catholic Bulletin, Ulysses was a “colossal muckheap”. No surprise there, for this publication had a galaxy of Irish writers in its sights. Anything wide of the publications of the Catholic Truth Society would have aroused its abundant suspicions. The prominent Irish writer Shane Leslie thought Ulysses was an “assault upon Divine Decency as well as on human intelligence”. Disapproval of what Joyce was up to in Ulysses was not confined to Ireland. Virginia Woolf and HG Wells were among its early critics, while the English writer Alfred Noyes considered it “the foulest book that has ever found its way into print”. Another anonymous English critic dismissed Joyce as a “perverted lunatic who has made a specialty of the literature of the latrine”. Oliver St John Gogarty, who was deeply offended, and perhaps justifiably so, by his depiction as Buck Mulligan, had a similar view when he opined that Joyce had gathered his material “from the walls of our public lavatories”. John McCourt deserves great credit for assembling such a vast array of commentary about Ulysses from a dizzying range of sources.
What is remarkable, and probably less widely appreciated, is that Joyce had his Irish defenders, who put their heads above the parapet to write positively about him. Mary Colum, a contemporary of his at university, argued that Ulysses was “one of the most Catholic books ever written”. She doubted if it could be understood by anyone “not brought up in the half-secret tradition of the heroism, tragedy, folly and anger of Irish nationalism”. Yeats’s first biographer, Joseph Hone, sounded a similar note when he picked out Joyce as “the first man of literary genius that Catholic Ireland has produced in modern times” and argued that no Irish Protestant writer could have expressed “the secular Irish emotions of politics and religion with Joyce’s passionate force and understanding”. This appreciation of Joyce’s deep-rootedness in Ireland occurred at a time when his continental European admirers were inclined to treat his Irishness as just an accident of birth.
Even as the intellectual environment in Ireland narrowed in the late 1920s and 1930s, McCourt reveals that Joyce continued to have his defenders as well as his sharp critics, although he makes the point that the appearance in segments of what became Finnegans Wake reflected negatively on Ulysses by compounding Joyce’s reputation for obscurity and impenetrability. Writing in the 1930s, former Sinn Féin activist Desmond Ryan maintained that Ulysses “alone would explain the Irish revolution, for it reveals Dublin as no one other than an Irishman could reveal her, an Irishman who at heart loves Dublin, and writes with all the indignation of love, the very pulse of this remorseless and brutal protest”. Ryan had a point. Joyce was an exact contemporary of de Valera and just a few years younger than Pearse and MacDonagh. When he writes about Ireland with such forensic intensity, he is exploring the Ireland of the revolutionary generation, the “vivid faces” of Yeats’s “Easter 1916”.
One way of looking at the fate of Ulysses is to see it as a story of the novel’s gradual but never complete acceptance in Ireland. The turning point can be pinpointed – the storied inaugural Bloomsday in 1954, when a new generation of writers, Brian O’Nolan and Patrick Kavanagh among them, embraced the Joycean legacy. Bloomsday has evolved into something of a second St Patrick’s Day, with a literary theme and better weather. McCourt cites an Irish Independent editorial’s description of Bloomsday as “crack dressed up as culture”. I plead guilty, having personally hosted Bloomsdays in Edinburgh, Kuala Lumpur, Berlin, London and Washington and taken part in celebrations in other cities, notably Philadelphia, reading from the “Cyclops” episode outside the Rosenbach Museum that houses Joyce’s treasured manuscript. Not every significant Irish writer was enamoured of the Joyce cult and McCourt cites negative assessments from Frank O’Connor and Dervla Murphy. Even his admirers sometimes retained a degree of ambivalence. Kavanagh, for example, described Ulysses as “very funny” but also “very wearying”.
McCourt also chronicles the efforts of Irish academics and commentators to dislodge Ulysses from the exclusive grip of Joyce’s continental and American devotees and to highlight his novel’s quintessential Irishness and its embeddedness in Ireland, its history and politics. He even makes an intriguing claim on Joyce’s behalf, that, in exposing the limits of nationalist argumentation, he “might be seen as the first revisionist”. Yeats might have claims in that category – “Was it needless death after all? / For England may keep faith / For all that is done and said.” I see Ulysses as an elegy for the dying world of Parnellite parliamentarianism and, with its nod to Griffith as a “coming man”, a wink towards the Irish future that was being born as Joyce was hard at work chiselling his book into shape.
McCourt rightly points to 1982, the centenary of Joyce’s birth, when his book had ripened to the age of sixty, as an important milestone on the road to his homeland’s partial infatuation with Joyce and Ulysses. I was a young diplomat in India at the time and, armed with an exhibition on Joyce commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs, I delivered a talk about Joyce at the All-India English Teachers Annual Conference in New Delhi that year. Gone was the arms-length attitude to Joyce’s achievement epitomised by Iveagh House’s concern in 1941 to know if Joyce had died a Catholic. It has to be said, however, that Ireland’s representative in Geneva, Seán Lester, dined with Joyce a couple of weeks before his death and wrote a warm letter of condolence to Mrs Joyce when he heard the sad news. Not everyone in our diplomatic service shared the official nervousness about Ireland’s wayward literary son.
I am often asked how Ireland now views James Joyce’s Ulysses. My answer is that, following the frenetic exchanges of earlier times, we now tend to cast a calmer eye on Joyce’s achievement and measure it for what it is, an immensely fascinating deep dive into the Ireland of Joyce’s time in which we can see reflections of our own Ireland. I suspect that this hundredth birthday party for Ulysses will tempt some more Irish readers to engage or reengage with a novel that has, in the latter reaches of its first century, become something of an Irish icon. Consuming Joyce is an enjoyable and valuable account of the rocky, undulating path by which that still unfinished status was achieved.
Daniel Mulhall is the author of Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey (Dublin: New Island Books, 2022). He is currently Ireland’s ambassador to the USA, a position from which he is due to retire in August 2022.