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James Joyce: Ireland’s Greatest Export, Exile, Expatriate

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Irish EclecticBy Brian McGowan

It has been said that the greatest victory the Irish achieved in their long journey to nationhood was not on a battlefield but rather in their conquest of a foreign language that had been forced upon them during eight centuries of English domination. 

But revenge comes in many guises, one of which is the way the conquered Irish turned tables on their conquerors and achieved absolute dominance of their language. Ireland has produced countless writers who have taken the English language to heights no others could have done – except, perhaps, the bard himself, William Shakespeare. Not surprisingly, there is a body of evidence that reveals Shakespeare may have actually been Irish!

In this category, James Joyce (1882-1941) claims top honors. His literary influence remains profound to this day. There can be no discussion of world literature without mention of this enigmatic Irishman.

He authored three novels, a collection of short stories, three books of poetry and a play. His short story collection, “Dubliners,” published in 1914, remains an absolute classic of the genre. In 1916, he followed with “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Largely autobiographical, this work further cemented his reputation. 

His most famous labor, “Ulysses,” arrived in 1922. It thrust Joyce into the limelight as either the single most brilliant writer in the English language, or a degenerate reprobate, depending upon one’s stance. His final work, “Finnegan’s Wake,” appeared in 1939, two years before his death.

Joyce’s acumen with the English language secured him international recognition.  But did he love his native land so much that he could tolerate the societal and cultural restrictions imposed by both church and state on Ireland in the early 20th century? 

No, he could not. Joyce, born in Dublin to a successful, though flawed, middle-class family, chose to depart Ireland in 1904, soon after he met Nora Barnacle.  The couple moved to Istria, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, settling first in Pula, and then Trieste, where Joyce taught English in a Berlitz school, and continued to write. With the outbreak of World War I, the family moved to Zurich, Switzerland, and in 1920 to Paris, where Joyce resided for the next 20 years, until Germany occupied France in World War II.

Joyce, one of the most widely read Irish authors, is also one of the most difficult to comprehend, especially in his later works. But for anyone who has tackled his masterwork, “Ulysses,” it is a journey well worth the effort. Joyce uses a variety of literary idioms in “Ulysses,” most famously one called “stream of consciousness.”

In a torrent of words, he reveals the inner workings of his protagonist’s mind, a Dublin Jew named Leopold Bloom, with starts and stops as vivid as a street scene on a busy day. And that day is June 16, 1904, the day on which all the events of the novel happen. For Joyce fans, the day merits near-reverential status, and is celebrated as “Bloomsday” everywhere a Joyce fan lives.

“Ulysses” was extremely controversial when it first appeared. It was considered by many to be pornographic, due to the sexual nature of much of the dialogue. It was banned in the United States and England. The U.S. ban was not lifted until 1933.

Aside from occasional trips to Ireland, Joyce never returned there to live. In 1940, he left Paris for Zurich, where he died on Jan. 13, 1941, following surgery for a perforated ulcer, less than a month shy of his 59th birthday. He is buried in Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich, along with his wife, Nora, who died in 1951. They had ultimately married in 1930. In the 10 years following her husband’s death, she made repeated requests to the Irish government to allow repatriation of his remains to Ireland. All were rebuffed.

And each year, on the 16th of June, Joyce’s devotees set aside whatever else they may be doing and remember the ultimate master of the English tongue – an Irishman named James Joyce.

Longtime Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third-and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at brian.m.mcgowan1952@gmail.com. He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the Battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both books are available at Amazon.com.

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