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Councillors table motion in bid to have James Joyce's remains returned to Ireland

Councillors say they want to honour his memory while others worry it would be a money-making exercise.

James Joyce statue in Trieste, Italy where the Dubliner lived for a period of his life.
James Joyce statue in Trieste, Italy where the Dubliner lived for a period of his life.
Image: Shutterstock/Gimas

COUNCILLORS ON DUBLIN City Council have put forward a motion to have the remains of writer James Joyce and his wife Nora Barnacle repatriated to Ireland ahead of the centenary of Ulysses’s publication. 

Labour councillor Dermot Lacey and Fine Gael councillor Paddy McCartan put forward a motion at the South East Area Committee meeting calling for the lord mayor and chief executive to write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. 

Joyce and Barnacle were buried in the Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich, where the writer spent the last years of his life, having first left Ireland for Switzerland in 1904. 

He died in Zurich in 1941, with his wife passing away a decade later in 1951.

“Joyce’s widow had said that she wanted to be repatriated when he died but for political reasons that never happened,” Lacey explained. 

“So myself and Paddy said we should at least start a discussion. If we put it down at a monthly council meeting, it would take a year and a half before it moved up the agenda, so we said we’d put it down at the area committee and ask that it be included in the minutes going to the council meeting. 

“When the case was put to me, it seemed it was worth exploring, and so as not to politicise it in a way, we had two different parties backing it.”

The motion was passed by councillors during the meeting yesterday afternoon. 

Ulysses was first published in February 1922. 

Joyce had a fraught relationship with Ireland and the Catholic church, and spent much of his life living abroad in places like Paris and Zurich. His most famous work, Ulysses, was essentially banned in Ireland and the UK for what was perceived as explicit scenes in the novel. 

When he died in 1941, his widow Nora requested that his remains be returned to Ireland but Minister for External Affairs Seán MacBride refused. 

Meanwhile, a request for the repatriation of Yeats’ remains was granted in 1948. 

“He died in Zurich and was buried there, and initially his widow was interested in the repatriation of his remains after the war, which was when Yeats came back,” said Professor Emer Nolan of Maynooth University. 

“Nora evidently wanted that affirmation from the Irish state after the war, and then when she died she was buried there herself, first in a different grave, and then she was moved and they were buried in a new grave together in 1966.”

“The benefit of this is that you’re honouring someone’s last wishes,” Lacey said. 

“I’m not going to be cynical about bones but I think it’s something Joycean lovers would appreciate. I don’t want to calculate something like this in shilling and pence but I don’t think it would do any harm. I think it would do some good.”

Two minds

Senator David Norris who previously attempted to have Joyce’s remains repatriated to Ireland, and who was involved with the beginnings of the annual Bloomsday festival, said he is undecided about whether the remains should now be brought back to Ireland. 

“I am on two minds about this. I tried to get it off the ground about 40 or 50 years ago but it didn’t get anywhere and it is only bones after all. And when we dug up Yeats’ they got the wrong person. 

“I think they probably could get Joyce but I think he’s probably happy where he is… At time I suggested it because I thought it would be nice, and because Nora had wanted it and was extremely upset about it. 

“At the time it would have been appropriate and it was not long before she died.”

Asked why he wouldn’t fully endorse such a move now, Norris said he would be hesitant to back it out of fears it would simply be a money-making initiative and not a move purely to honour the memory of the author. 

He also said Joyce’s family would have to be consulted on the move and a motion shouldn’t be tabled until after that was carried out. 

“Joyce is the greatest novelist ever. Nothing disinfects a reputation so thoroughly as the tinkle of cash and of course it’s about that. 

“So I would say I wouldn’t oppose it but I wouldn’t be doing anything to encourage it.”

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