The curious story of James Joyce’s ‘battle for the bones’

On January 13, Ireland remembered its brilliant writer, James Joyce, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of his death, in Switzerland, from peritonitis aggravated after surgery, at the age of 58.

He is one of the most celebrated and perhaps least read writers in his own country. This is just a sample of Joyce’s complicated relationship with his homeland, from which he migrated young for ideological reasons.

The legendary writer went to Zurich (Switzerland), where, in fact, his remains rest, finally in peace, in a tomb next to that of his wife, Nora, and his son Giorgio.

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And it is said that they are ‘finally at peace’ because, in recent years, several initiatives have campaigned to get the Swiss authorities to return his body to Dublin, that city with which he had an intense bond of love and hate, since the one he portrayed in classics such as Ulysses, Portrait of the adolescent artist, Finnegans Wake or Dubliners.

Among these efforts, the one of two councilors of the city council of the Irish capital who in 2019 raised the possibility of “repatriating” Joyce and Nora through diplomatic channels almost took off.

Paddy McCartan (Christian Democrat) and Demot Lacy (Labour) came to promote a motion to that effect, alleging that it responded to the last wishes expressed by the writer and his wife, who died ten years later.

The gauntlet thrown by the councilors was picked up by the academician Fritz Senn, director of the James Joyce Foundation, which he himself established in Zurich more than 30 years ago.(We recommend: This is Buscalibre, ‘the Latin American Amazon’).

The ‘battle of the bones’

Although he has acknowledged on several occasions that it is not clear what his last wishes were in this regard, Senn recalls that the author never wanted to acquire Irish nationality when the Irish Free State was created in 1922, after independence from the United Kingdom.

In fact, Joyce (1882-1941) twice turned down the opportunity to obtain a ‘green’ passport, as confirmed by his biographers. That means he died British, even though he is remembered as Irish.

Senn has pointed out that this issue, which he humorously dubbed the “battle of the bones”, raises other difficulties.

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Alongside the graves of Joyce, Nora and Giorgio are also buried in the Friedhof Fluntern cemetery the latter’s second wife; the writer’s son, Asta Osterwalder, who, of course, has no connection with Ireland.

“The city is very proud to have this tomb. It’s a normal reaction. Zurich was Joyce’s last refuge,” Senn recently stated.

surreal outcome

At the moment, the “battle of the bones” is won by the Swiss, after the two councilors have definitively stopped the aforementioned motion.

What seemed to be a tension-filled bid has an even amicable outcome, which was not expected.

“In the end we have withdrawn it because it was an error on our part,” Dermot Lacy explained to Efe, in an unexpected, surreal and even comical script twist, typical of Joyce himself in, for example, Finnegans Wake, one of the strangest novels of universal literature.

“Someone close to the family” of the writer, he continues, “led us to believe” that “among his last wishes” was the desire to return to Ireland with Nora Barnacle, which seemed a bit paradoxical in the light of the positions that the writer had in life.

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“Later we found that it was not like that,” says Lacy, and clarifies that it was all a trick or deception.

“A person from our constituency, who I will not name, had contacted us to raise the issue. When we presented the project, that same person criticized us later publicly and, after obtaining more information, we left it, “explains the politician.

When we presented the project, that same person (from our constituency) publicly criticized us and, after obtaining more information,
we leave it

Be that as it may, “there is still division on the matter”, since different experts, Lacy specifies, “maintain that it was Nora who declared that her husband wanted to be buried here”, with his Dublin relatives.

In Irish cultural circles, these and other attempts by the authorities to strengthen (or perhaps force) the writer’s ties with Dublin have been criticized, considering them “opportunistic and mercantilist”, according to an editorial in the Irish Times newspaper at the time.

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Although, in a certain way, it is understandable that from Ireland they wanted to recover the memory of an artist from his cradle when Joyce acquired the prominence that he has today in the world of universal letters.

Influence for great authors such as Borges or TS Eliot, the author of Ulysses became one of the fundamental writers of the 20th century and a reference the size of Shakespeare or William Blake to understand British literature.
Faced with such a reception and the great legacy of the author, whom literary historiography places alongside Kafka, Faulkner, Proust or Pessoa, Ireland wanted to recover his genius.

Prophet far from his land

But the reality is that Joyce had a complex relationship with his country, which he left very young in 1904 to settle in Trieste (Italy), in Paris and, finally, in Zurich.

He was not always a prophet in his land, since his masterpiece, Ulysses, published in 1922, did not begin to be sold freely in the country’s bookstores until the 1960s, due to the obstacles imposed by the authorities of that hand-controlled Ireland. iron by the Catholic Church, which branded the text “obscene” and “anti-Irish”.

An essay by Jessica Traynor, curator of the Irish Immigration Museum, recalls that Joyce “condemned the pietism and conservatism of Irish society”, as well as its “blind nationalism”.

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In equal parts, Joyce hated and loved Dublin, a city with which she “maintained a spiritual and artistic commitment” until “the end of her life”, to the point that, when she lived in Paris, Traynor writes, “her hobby His favorite was to seek out tourists” from Dublin to “remind him of the names of shops and pubs” on his favorite streets.

And it is that his distance from Ireland was due to a political issue, not cultural or identity.

Gordon Bowker, author of a biography published in 2011, adds more: “The thing about Joyce is that she always loved the Dublin of her youth, even when the British were in charge, and was never really comfortable with the new Ireland that emerged. later”.

Joyce died on January 13, 1941 in Zurich after suffering a duodenal ulcerative perforation. The two Irish diplomats based in Switzerland did not attend his funeral. They had another assignment.

The Foreign Office asked them to cable “details of Joyce’s death” and, if possible, to find out if she “died a Catholic.”

Irish identity in his work: a literary paradox

James Joyce had a strained relationship with the political ideology that led to Ireland separating from England. That is why he left Dublin very young. The new Catholic and Conservative Ireland was a far cry from the prevailing Anglican discourse in eastern Britain.

This distance from his homeland meant that, for some time, he was little read and was not recognized in his hometown. Paradoxically, Joyce loved her city and its culture. The most contradictory thing is that his works are the ones that portray the Dublin identity of the early 20th century with the most neutrality, fidelity and depth.

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Leopold Bloom himself, the protagonist of Ulysses, walks the streets of the Irish capital in an odysseic way. In the complex structure of the novel, his masterpiece, specific places in the city with which the character relates are mentioned.

There are also explorations of identity in other works. This is what happens in Dublineses, a collection of 15 stories that make naturalistic and everyday pictures of certain sectors of society in the capital.


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The curious story of James Joyce’s ‘battle for the bones’

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