James Joyce: A sort of homecoming

James Joyce.
Image courtesy of Google.

By Eoin Meegan

There is little dispute that James Joyce is Ireland’s greatest literary genius. However, the man had a fractious relationship with his home country and went into permanent exile in 1904. In the years that followed, he lived and worked in Trieste, Paris and Switzerland. He died in Zurich in 1941 and is buried in Fluntern cemetery,  

 Last month members of the South East Area Committee passed a motion to write to the government and ask that the remains of the Irish writer be repatriated to Dublin. The motion was proposed by Councillors Dermot Lacey, Labour, and Paddy McCartan, Fine Gael.

It was a nice gesture coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum which obviated any political or partisan motive.  Lacey, who proposed the motion, said it would be “honouring someone’s last wishes.” It might seem a straightforward enough suggestion, but since it was raised it has proved a bit of a media storm, with some people opposing it outright. 

The director of the Joyce Foundation in Zurich, Fritz Senn is on record as saying, “I think there would certainly be some resistance because, after all, Joyce is one of the major tourist attractions that people come to see.”

He has a point. Joyce is an international figure, not just an Irish one. All of his great works, although set in Dublin, were written when he was abroad. Joyce was and still is very much an internationalist. 

A more pressing complication is that Joyce and his wife Nora aren’t the only occupants of the grave in question. Their son George and his German wife are also interred there. Respect for their wishes and the inevitable disturbance any exhumation would cause must be taken into consideration.

After Joyce’s death Nora made a request that his body be repatriated. Of course, circumstances were different then and he was the sole occupant of the grave. As it transpired, the Irish government turned down the request. Indeed, such was the shameless deference to the Catholic Church, and anti-intellectualism of the time that the government here didn’t even send a representative to his funeral.

Sean MacBride, Minister for External Affairs at the time, may have had his own reasons for not liking Joyce. The author of Ulysses was no lover of nationalism. In any case a veil seemed to be drawn on the matter.

Veteran Joycean scholar David Norris is also of two minds about the proposal. Although the senator and founder of the James Joyce Cultural Centre in North Great Georges Street made a previous request for Joyce’s body to be brought home and laid to rest in his native Dublin, he now thinks that opportunity is probably lost. “We must take into consideration that there are other people buried there, family members who have nothing to do with Ireland,” he said. So perhaps the shrine to the great man will always be in Zurich.

At the end of the day, it will be a matter for the Joyce family and the Joyce estate to decide. This is only fitting. However, if a solution can be found, the intransigence of the Irish government in the 1940s hopefully will not be a deterrent to any drive to repatriate the author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said they would not be commenting on the matter, and Culture Minister Josepha Madigan said it would be inappropriate to comment further and that it was a matter for the family.

Update: Since the end of November Councillor Dermot Lacey has withdrawn the proposal.