Plan to exhume James Joyce’s remains fires international ‘battle of the bones’

Alison Flood
Photograph: Kevin Galvin/Alamy

Dublin city council’s bid to bring James Joyce’s remains back to Ireland has been thrown into doubt, after the director of the Swiss foundation set up in his name suggested the project “will end in nothing”.

City councillors Dermot Lacey and Paddy McCartan moved a motion on Monday to bring Joyce’s remains back to Ireland from Zurich. He is buried in the latter city alongside his wife Nora Barnacle. She died in 1951, a decade after her husband. The councillors argue that the plans would honour the wishes of both.

“Exile was a key element in his writing but for it to follow him into eternity? I don’t think that was part of the plan,” McCartan said.

According Dr Fritz Senn – an eminent scholar who established the Zurich James Joyce Foundation more than 30 years ago and currently serves as its director, the author’s wishes are unclear.

“All I know is that there seems to be no evidence that Joyce wanted to return to Ireland or even be buried there,” Senn said. “He never took Irish citizenship when he could have done it. Most Joyce experts would agree.”

Senn dubbed the controversy “the Battle of the Bones”, adding that the project “has not been thought through”, and that the diplomatic process required is fraught with difficulties.

“The Zurich grave contains four bodies, of Joyce, Nora and Giorgio, the son,” he said. “But there is also Asta Osterwalder Joyce, Giorgio’s second wife, who would have no relation to Ireland at all. There would also be some local resistance on this side.”

“The cemetery where he is buried is called Friedhof Fluntern, and the city is quite proud of the grave. A natural reaction. And then Joyce’s last refuge was Zurich.”

Joyce left Ireland in 1904 to live in Trieste, Paris and Zurich, never returning to his homeland after 1912. The writer had a complex relationship with the country, which in effect banned Ulysses over its “obscene” and “anti-Irish” content. He “decries Irish society’s conservatism, pietism and blinkered nationalism” in his writing, according to an essay from the Irish Emigration Museum curator Jessica Traynor. One of the characters in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man describes Ireland as “the old sow that eats her farrow”.

Although Joyce “couldn’t bear to live in Dublin”, Traynor continues, his “spiritual and artistic engagement with the city continued until the end of his life”. When he lived in Paris, his “favourite pastime was to seek out visitors from Dublin and ask them to recount the names of the shops and pubs from Amiens Street to Nelson’s Column on O’Connell Street”.

When Joyce died aged 58 after undergoing surgery on a perforated ulcer, Ireland’s secretary of external affairs sent the order: “Please wire details about Joyce’s death. If possible find out if he died a Catholic.” Neither of the two Irish diplomats in Switzerland at the time attended his funeral, and the Irish government later denied Barnacle’s request to repatriate his remains.

If the Dublin city councillors’ motion is passed, the next step will be to ask the Irish government to request the remains be returned before the centenary celebrations around the publication of Ulysses in 2022. A spokeswoman for culture minister Josepha Madigan told theJournal.ie it was “a matter in the first instance for family members and/or the trustees of the Joyce estate”.

“Without having received an application from those it would not be appropriate for the minister to express a view on the matter,” she added.

Senn predicted that Joyce’s grandson, Stephen Joyce, who has guarded his grandfather’s legacy closely over the years, would be unlikely to back the motion. “Everything depends on his vote – negative, most likely,” said Senn. Attempts to reach Stephen Joyce were unsuccessful.

Despite the intensifying row, Senn declared he would not fight to keep Joyce in Switzerland: “I myself am not nationalistic enough to mount the barricades for a body.”