NUI Galway on RTÉ Brainstorm: What James Joyce's bones and house tell us about Irish culture

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Dec 11 2019 Posted: 15:40 GMT

Author: Dr Barry Houlihan, James Hardiman Library

The Brainstorm Long Read: cultural heritage in Ireland is often only equated with income from tourism, hotel bed nights and profit

The Oscar-winning film-director John Huston once wrote that "no one has ever captured the Irish better than James Joyce". That may be the case, but recent events indicate that there remains the risk of Ireland losing its grasp on Joyce himself. Much has been said around proposals from Dublin City Council officials and property developers that has addressed various issues relating to Ireland's arguably best known literary figure.

Dublin councillors Dermot Lacey and Paddy McCartan put forward a motion to repatriate the remains of Joyce and his wife Nora Barnacle to Dublin from Zurich, the city in which the writer died in 1941. While well-intentioned, the cost and logistics of such a repatriation project drew criticism for being blind to the stark economic realities facing living artists and writers in Dublin today (and in Ireland, generally). 

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Emer Nolan from Maynooth University discusses the Dublin City Council motion to return the remains of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle to Dublin

A secondary argument reflects the ongoing decline in accessible social and cultural spaces for working artists in the capital and the wider public nationwide. Proposals by the owners of 15 Usher's Island, (the setting for Joyce's "The Dead" and home to Joyce’s great-aunts for a time), to turn the property into a 56-bed hostel, is a further symptom of the lack of empathy towards our tangible cultural heritage, as well as the persistent monetisation of spaces central to Irish culture.

Ireland has long maximised the cultural capital and brand of Dublin, and especially the reputations of its male writers. To cross the Liffey, you have a number of literary-themed bridges to choose from, from the Sean O'Casey Bridge to the Samuel Beckett Bridge. Our naval services operate with distinction in challenging conditions on humanitarian missions aboard the LÉ James Joyce, the LÉ George Bernard Shaw, the LÉ William Butler Yeats and LÉ Samuel Beckett. It seems Irish women are commemorated with first names only, with the LÉ Niamh, LÉ Róisín, LÉ Eithne, LÉ Orla and LÉ Ciara.

Important architectural and cultural heritage sites of our literary greats are obviously not confined to Dublin. Sites such as Coole Park, seat of Lady Gregory in Co. Galway, Elizabeth Bowen's Bowen's Court in Co. Cork and George Moore's Moore Hall in Co Mayo, are some of the historic but important literary homes of Ireland’s great writers that are no more for varying and complex historic reasons.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, author Colm Tóibín on calls to save James Joyce's house at 15 Usher's Island

With "The Dead" house, we have a chance to intervene and protect a property before it is irrevocably altered, or worse. Thoor Ballylee, for instance, is an example of what can be achieved. Located close to Coole Park in Co. Galway, the Norman tower-house and one-time home of W.B. Yeats and his family is, like many preserved heritage sites around the country, run on meagre budgets and dependent on the huge efforts of voluntary community groups to maintain it. As with the visitor centre at nearby Coole Park, literary and cultural events and workshops take place here throughout the year. 15 Usher’s Island could be a living and vibrant space for artists, locals and tourists in Dublin to encounter Joyce’s works and Irish art and culture in general.

The 2015 debate about the authenticity of the bones in the grave of Yeats at Drumcliff cemetery should also offer lessons for those looking to relocate the bones of Joyce to Dublin. Such relics of our literary dead are important and should be respected - but so should our living writers and the wider reading public.

A report on statistics form the Irish public Libraries system, compiled by Local Government Management Agency revealed the most borrowed book in the Irish public library system in 2018 was the multi-award winning Solar Bones by Mike McCormack. An extraordinary work, the experimental novel is beautiful and devastating in its telling the story of Marcus Conway, a deceased engineer who journeys through past memory and experience of life in a fractured society.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Mike McCormack reads an extract from his International Dublin Literary Award-winning novel Solar Bones

The book is typically Joycean in its ambition and also reflects the literary appetites of those who use our public library systems, seeking out works of serious literature as much as much as any other form. Investments in our public library services would achieve far more for public literacy levels that would a tourist site hosting Joyce’s bones.

In 1987, Donal McCann, the actor who so masterfully portrayed the character Gabriel in Huston's film adaptation of The Dead, presented the director with a cartoon. It featured a caricature of Joyce, a sketch of the Ha'penny Bridge in the background and a colour drawing of Disney's Mickey Mouse, with a shamrock at the end of his tail. It is a fitting analogy on the current reflection of how cultural heritage is often only equated with levels of tourism income, hotel bed nights and capital finance. If we spurn our literary heritage, we risk losing the significance of not just Joyce but our remarkable body of contemporary Irish writers and writing to the detriment of future generations. All that would remain is a Disneyland of writers' bones.

If we spurn our literary heritage, all that would remain would be a Disneyland of writers' bones

The arguments (which are fundamentally about finance rather than culture) as to what should be done with Joyce's bones and to the premises at 15 Usher’s Island are still unfolding. That said, the loss to Dublin and Ireland if 15 Usher’s Island is turned into a soulless tourist hostel will be a further symptom of our neglect of heritage. So what could be done?

Protect and invest in 15 Usher’s Island

While on the protected structures list, the privately-owned building provides a unique opportunity to create an interpretive centre and cultural meeting space at the site of one of world literature’s most important settings. It would be a short-sighted venture for the State to trade this unique location and heritage for any short-term benefit of cheap tourism-orientated accommodation.

Support other literary spaces

The newly-opened Museum of Literature Ireland is a beautiful and important addition to the cultural sector in Ireland which blurs the distinctions between museum, library, and digital hub. It actively encourages you to touch and pick up books and sit and read them, with works on display from Joyce to present-day writers, while also displaying Joyce’s manuscripts from the National Library. The Dublin Writers Museum should not be forgotten and increased support to enhance its displays and create online resources would be an important development. It is important also that venues such as this and its neighbours - the Hugh Lane Gallery, the James Joyce Centre, the Gate Theatre and Poetry Ireland House - maintain a cultural presence within the northside of the city.

READ: Finding the most authentic Joyce pub for Bloomsday

A major new public library for Parnell Square

Though plans for a major development and a Parnell Square Cultural Quarter were curtailed by Dublin City Council earlier in 2019, plans for a new state-of-the-art public library need to be completed. Countries such as Finland pride themselves on their public libraries with higher than average literacy rates and a commitment to public learning and well-being through libraries. In 2016, the UN ranked Finland as the world’s most literate nation, with close to 70 million books being borrowed annually in the nation’s libraries. There could be no more fitting tribute to Joyce than for his native city to honour him by following such a lead to invest in the public library system.

Honour Lucia Joyce

From RTÉ Lyric FM, Dancing with Lucia

Deirdre Mulrooney's Dancing with Lucia documentary reminded us of the significance of Lucia, as a modernist and pioneering choreographer. The paucity of documentary and manuscript evidence pertaining directly to and from Joyce's daughter frustrates modern audiences who want to connect and learn about her talent and potential. Incorporating a space and bursary for a dancer in her name with which to work and rehearse in would offer a tribute to a long silenced figure.

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