Feature

Ireland: Why Joyce was no Irish exemplar

Let’s not replace St. Patrick with James Joyce just yet.

Mary KennyIrish Independent

Let’s not replace St. Patrick with James Joyce just yet, said Mary Kenny. There’s a misguided movement afoot in Ireland to turn Bloomsday—June 16, the day the events in his great novel Ulysses take place—into a national holiday and a key tourist event. There’s no denying that Joyce was a genius and a literary giant. But to appropriate him “as an Irish icon” is to misread him. While Joyce drew on Ireland as the source for his work, he had “scant regard for the country” itself. He “never took the side of Irish nationalism against British unionism”; in fact, after independence he never even bothered to trade in his British passport for an Irish one. To celebrate him as an example of the Irish character would be even worse: Joyce was often drunk and could never provide for his family. He was, it’s true, an emigré, which is a grand Irish tradition. But he wasn’t one we’d want today’s emigrants to emulate, as he spent most of his life abroad “writing begging letters home” asking for money and was willing to mooch off just about anyone. Joyce embodied the selfishness of creative genius, putting his writing above all else, and that helped make him great. But a world run on his values “would not be a kind one.”

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