James Joyce Conference, November 2010, Seoul

One of the duties of being an Ambassador is public speaking at events that can vary widely from receptions to commemorative events, from universities talks to conference speeches with as much variation in topics as locations.  I realise now that the majority of such engagements, certainly those at universities, involved power-point presentations and no script.  On occasion, however, a script was required.  Once such occasion was a Conference convened by the James Joyce Society of Korea which I was asked to open with some remarks.

‘Joyce and the Sense of Place’

Dr Eamonn McKee

I am delighted to be here to offer congratulatory remarks.  I would like to pay a special tribute to the James Joyce Society of Korea and to its president Professor Yi Jong-il, and to thank Sejong University for sponsoring this Conference.

The theme of this Conference, ‘a sense of place’ in Joyce, is a wonderful concept to discuss in Seoul.  I say wonderful because Seoul is profoundly removed in place, time and culture from Joyce’s Dublin.  Seoul is some five thousand miles from the locus of Joyce’s creative oeuvre.  There is little if any recorded Confucian influence in his Dublin.  There should be little resonance between the theme and the location of your discussions.  And yet we know that this will not be case.

In considering this paradox, we should bring Joyce’s Dublin into some focus.  He wrote of a particular place.  He wrote of its many dimensions.  Its physical form as the mouth of a river, the bay as the city’s palette, its peninsular and titular Howth head; its salty-aired beaches crunching underfoot.  “The ineluctable modality of the visible”:  What greater compression of the limits of metaphysical speculation have ever been uttered, a phrase that convinced Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Co that Ulysses must be published.  Can any of us say that we walk along a beach without thinking from time to time of Dedalaus on Sandymount Beach and his spontaneous existential axiom?  Joyce is doing here what he does repeatedly which is to intersect the interior monologue, that constant rapping of the conscious and semi-conscious brain, with the exterior environment, the spice and catalyst to thought itself.

Dublin as a city is a visible entity in Joyce, beginning with the stair head in the Martello tower and the emergence of Buck Mulligan, theatrically in his entrance as much as his self-conscious gesture rendered pompous in the telling.  Joyce proceeds to explore this city, to allow it to plot his narrative as the city streets channel his characters into rendezvous’ and unexpected encounters that shape their day and their thoughts.  Those streets are a palimpsest of Dublin’s history.

Dublin began as a settlement by Vikings who brought roads, coins and urban life to Gaelic Ireland.    Dublin was part beach-head for their violent but partial invasion that would ultimately be quashed by the native Gaels.  The power of the Vikings was broken in the eleventh century but their city remained, expanded from its origin on the banks of the river Liffey.  If the Gaels were an oral culture steeped in pastoralism and cattle raiding now they had a concentrated habitat in which to adapt it.

From this locus at the black pool in its centre, medieval Dublin expands its warren of streets, within the city walls and then outside to the Liberties, the heart of later working class Dublin and its native street culture.

North and south from this centre, some centuries later, the Anglo-Irish gentry found space to express the architectural theories of the Georgian era with their concern for proportions, patterns and symmetries.  Gorgeous streets of elegant redbrick homes were created, urban homes for the landed gentry to enjoy city life and the politics of the Irish parliament situated across the road from Trinity College.  The parliament was the focus of political intrigue but its wealthy habitués provided the motive for the craftsmen to serve their needs for silverware, lace, fine leather and tailoring.

In the tumult of Irish history, the parliament would be abolished and dismantled by the Act of Union in 1801.  With it many of the aristocracy left too to take their places in Westminster, reputedly well paid by British officials for abrogating their own local democracy.  According to legend they left their books behind, intellectual fodder for the poor who flocked to live packed tight into Georgian homes destined to become slums for the urban poor and settings for some of our greatest drama.  Thus was born the depth of the Irish demotic vocabulary and the inability to properly use it at times, immortalised by Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop and a host of Irish dramatic and pantomime characters.

Dublin Castle may not resonate with the symbolic power of its French sister, the Bastille, but it served the same function: an intimidating centre for the alien power to dominate the local populace, part official hub, part barracks and part station for the secret police and their agents.  For Dublin was a garrison city and had never lost its role as the beach-head for imperial control, from the Vikings and Normans through to the Tudors and New English.  British control might ebb and flow across the island but it never lost it grip on the city and its immediate environs, known as the pale.

Those responsible for imperial control had to look inward to those conspiring in sedition and outside to forces that saw Ireland as a potential weak spot in Britain’s defences.  In the 16th century this would have been Spain.  For the late 18th and early 19th centuries it was the French.  To warn if the blue, white and red tricolour was spotted near the coasts, a serious of stubby towers were built around to serve as observation and signal towers (though not along the northeast coast for obvious reasons).  They were dubbed Martello towers because their structure and function were copied from a tower at Mortella Point in Corsica.  By Joyce’s time their military function had ceased and the Martello tower at Sandymount, in private hands by then, became the setting for Ulysses’ opening chapter.

The towers may have been defunct but the British Army remained and with it the oldest profession that every army is content to support.  In his wanderings around the city, Joyce would encounter theses professional ladies, encounters that would open a new layer of intimacy with Dublin’s nightlife.  And perhaps these encounters laid the thought that life is shaped by the mysteries of chance and the hazards of the street.

Dublin was of course a garrison town because Ireland was simultaneously a part of the British Empire in which the Protestant gentry and professional classes took pride and simultaneously in the eyes of the Catholic nationalist majority, an occupied country.  If the Great Famine of 1845-51 had dealt a fatal blow to the Gaelic peasant class, rebellion continued to foment in the ranks of the emerging Catholic middle class, for most a political rebellion was imagined, for some a violent one.  Indeed the “ Irish question” dominated much of public discourse and probably much of its private conversations too.  The national question made demands for definitions of identity, allegiance and purpose, adding a new problematic layer to the demands of being middle-class in a pyramidal society where honoured places were reserved for the Protestant gentry and those enforcing British.  Gabriel Conroy’s awkwardness and his strained encounter with Ms Ivors in The Dead intersect and dissect these conflicts and their deadening effect on personal freedom and autonomy.  Like his archangel’s namesake, he is there to announce the tumult and climax of the coming political and military conflicts.

By 1904 Dublin too was part of a wider western society perched between the old and the modern.  It was a city of horses and gas-lamps, of carriages and carts, hawkers and stevedores, lords and ladies.  Soon it would become a city of cars and electricity, phones and radios; a city for the triumphant Catholic middle class.  My own grandfather would be born in a time of horse and candlelight, live in Joyce’s Dublin but die some ninety nine years later in a world of space travel, computers and pervasive bourgeoisie culture.  Modernity and the painful sweeping away of history’s legacy during the 1914-18 war were but a decade away from Bloomsday.  Joyce was recording a life and a Dublin that was nearing its end.

Joyce saw clearly that Dublin mixed many classes, backgrounds, perspectives, cultures, fears, hopes and ambitions in a comfortable knowing proximity within its confines and spaces.  But shot through this daily commerce, sampled by all the characters in Ulysses on one unremarkable day, historical forces were at work driving towards an unknown but very different future.  Positions would have to be taken on the national question, allegiances declared, dark deeds done – all the very antithesis of artistic and intellectual freedom.  Joyce would leave his Dublin because the freedom and variety it comprised could not survive the coming storm.  It has been often noted that Joyce never went back to Dublin.  Of course he could not have gone back to his Dublin.  Ireland after independence in 1922 loses most of its social and intellectual strands, save those that were nationalist and catholic.

On the canvas of Dublin’s streetscape, Joyce then created the most sentient living characters know to literature.  It was Joyce’s genius to see, describe and navigate the layers of history that Dublin represented in its streets, its environs, and its people as they circulated it and each other.  He invoked the sounds, smells and rhythms of the city’s life.  Joyce’s use of Dublin’s topography to minutely trace his plots and narratives is in fact inseparable from his art.  Above all in Ulysses he constructs character and place as inseparable.  (It is interesting to note that his acolyte Samuel Beckett distinguishes his art by defacing landscape and setting of any identifying marks; even the tree in Waiting for Godot was but a means of marking the season’s passing.)

The very dynamic for each character of that lived day on 16 June 1904 is designed by the happenstance of the road taken, the encounter chanced-upon, the glimpse of façade or activity that promotes the thoughts and sentiments of its unlikely everyday heroes.

And by this alchemy of people and place, he seemed to decode in the written word the very DNA of thought itself. Between people and place, the brain’s synapses shoot between random thoughts, memories, evocations and subliminal instincts.

So as we follow those roads, and glimpse those sights, we may read mere words but we are drawn into experiencing the interior thoughts of what become for us real people, at one defined and ineffable, a compendium of memories, tastes and the happenstance of experience.

Hence the paradox of the global appeal of so located a writer as James Joyce.

Joyce was a writer who knew that for all of us, the universal was found in the local, mankind most closely encountered in those people closest to us and the world known in its purest form in the places we know best.

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

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