The ColophonWriters and Writing

A portrait of the artist as a dead man: controversial proposal floated to repatriate the remains of James Joyce

Books by the classic Irish modernist James Joyce.

Seventy-eight years after his death, James Joyce is still causing trouble. Joyce is arguably the most famous Irish writer of all time, the one who did more to mythologize his native land – and in particular the city of Dublin – than anyone else. Yet he famously spent most of his life on the continent – in “exile,” as he put it – and was abroad when he wrote and published such quintessential works of 20th century modernism as Dubliners and Ulysses.

Joyce died in Zürich, Switzerland, in January of 1941 and is buried there. But in the lead-up to the centenary of Ulysses’s publication in 2022, two Irish politicians have proposed repatriating the writer’s bones to the country of his birth. Earlier this month, two Dublin city councillors, Dermot Lacey and Paddy McCartan, put forward a motion to have the author’s mortal remains exhumed and returned to Ireland.

The online Irish publication The Journal quotes Lacey as saying, “Joyce’s widow had said that she wanted to be repatriated when he died but for political reasons that never happened.”

Whether or not this is the case, Joyce scholars say there is no evidence that the author himself wished for his remains to return to Ireland. Writing in the Irish Times, John McCourt casts the issue as one more of politics than fidelity to literary history: “Nowhere did Joyce ever express any desire to be buried in Dublin. While this current proposal signals an Ireland which is more open and more open to Joyce, it is hard not to see the request to repatriate his bones as an ill-conceived plan driven by political opportunism or the hope of gain in the field of cultural tourism.”

Irish author Mark O’Connell is more blunt, writing in The Guardian that if city council were to get its way, “Joyce’s body would become one more tourist trap in a city that is essentially a gigantic tax loophole filled with tourists in expensive raingear and homeless bodies in sleeping bags.” O’Connell goes on to point out the irony that Joyce’s bones might return to a city that, were he alive today, he would have to leave anyway, because he could not afford to live there. And he finishes with a comedic flourish: “And what would furthermore happen, I may as well warn you now, is that I would personally dig up those bones in the dead of night, haul them into eternity along Sandymount strand, and heave them into the snot-green, scrotum-tightening sea.”

It is also ironic that O’Connell invokes the Sandymount strand, since it is in chapter thirteen of Ulysses, which takes place at Sandymount, in which Joyce himself has Leopold Bloom repeat a 17th-century platitude: “Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”

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