Sat. May 28th, 2022

For James Joyce’s literary alter ego, history may be the nightmare from which he is famously trying to awake. For many more of us, that nightmare might be Ulysses itself.

Notoriously impenetrable in parts, the Irish classic turns 100 on February 2 as Ireland enters the final year of its decade of centenaries – a rolling commemoration of the events that were as pivotal to its history as Ulysses has proved formative to world literature.

So, if ever there was a time to crack what has been dubbed Ireland’s most-popular least-read book, it could be now – indeed, Paschal Donohoe, Ireland’s bibliophile finance minister, admitted Ulysses had last year been his “great Covid project” after he finally found “the courage to pick it up and begin delving into the extraordinary world” inside.

With images of Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations of 100 years ago fresh in my mind from a fascinating exhibition at Dublin Castle – which was handed over to a provisional Irish government in a major step towards full independence just weeks before the novel’s publication in Paris in 1922 – I, too, have dragged my long-owned but still-unread tome off the shelf.

I can take heart from Dan Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador to the US, whose Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey is just published. He takes a practical approach: if some bits of the book prove just too baffling, simply bin them and skip on a few pages.

But he also offers a compelling reason to tackle it now: “Ulysses is an odyssey through the English language. . . it’s an odyssey of character. . . but it’s also an odyssey through the life of the world in the early 20th century, ”he told an online book launch. “And it so happens that those themes have come back again in our day 100 years after Joyce published his novel.”

Ulysses, loosely modeled on Homer’s epic account of Odysseus’ return home after the Trojan War, takes place on a single day in Dublin – June 16, 1904 – and Mulhall sees his portrayal of that time as a depiction of “a society on the cusp of change ”.

But Joyce wrote the novel in exile in Trieste, in the then Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as in Zurich and Paris, as the first world war raged and in its immediate aftermath.

Ireland, at the time, was living through its own upheaval, from the Dublin lockout of 1913-14, a huge and pivotal industrial dispute, to the Easter Rising of 1916, in which an armed nationalist rebellion rose up against British rule and proclaimed an Irish Republic, to the 1919-21 war of independence, the partition of Ireland and the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921.

Just over a fortnight after Ulysses was published, the British handed over Dublin Castle to nationalist leader Michael Collins; 1922 was the year in which civil war broke out between the supporters and opponents of the Treaty and the year of the foundation of the Irish Free State.

Séamus Cannon, chair of the Friends of Joyce Tower Society (based in the 19th century fort just south of Dublin where Joyce lived for a week in 1904 and where Ulysses opens), says the civil war years are “not a centenary people feel comfortable with. So it’s nice to have Joyce to commemorate ”.

A hundred years since its publication, Sinn Féin, the nationalist party founded in 1905 by Treaty negotiator Arthur Griffith (who gets a look-in in Ulysses), is cementing its position as the most popular party north and south of the border. It is widely forecast to come out on top in Northern Irish elections in May and in Ireland’s election due in three years.

Joyce, Cannon reckons, “would have regarded himself as an Irish nationalist, but a non-violent one” and he pokes fun at the Irish language revival by having a milkmaid addressed in Irish by an Englishman – only for her not to understand him.

Joyce might, then, have smiled at novelist and satirist Flann O’Brien’s joke of translating Ulysses into Irish – something he did not do (others did).

According to the writer, one of Ireland’s other literary greats, “If they will not read it in English, I said to myself, bedamn but we’ll put them in the situation that they can boast they will not read it in Irish aither.”

Spurred on by the minister’s example and Cannon’s description of Ulysses as “so funny and enjoyable”, I am determined that this will be the year I do.

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