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New diaries reveal how a top Irish diplomat helped James Joyce's family flee Nazi-occupied France

Seán Lester was the last Secretary General of the League of Nations and tried to help Joyce as he fled the Nazis.

Seán Lester's diaries, inside the metal case he buried them in.
Seán Lester's diaries, inside the metal case he buried them in.
Image: Dublin City University

A LETTER FROM James Joyce asking for help fleeing the Nazis during World War II is among the treasures unearthed from the diaries of Seán Lester, one of the most important Irish diplomats of the 20th century. 

The letter is among the highlights from the collection of diaries and papers belonging to Lester, which were donated by his daughters to Dublin City University.

Lester was the last Secretary General of the League of Nations, the international body that was precursor to the UN and which was criticised for failing to prevent the outbreak of war in 1939. 

The diary records a meeting between Lester and Joyce in Geneva in December 1940, only months before the death of the celebrated writer. 

Joyce and his family had fled Paris in May 1940 to escape the Nazis. In the meeting with Lester, Joyce had been trying to get his help in obtaining a visa for their daughter Lucia, who remained in a mental health clinic in Nazi-occupied France. 

Another letter from Joyce before this meeting is also included in the diaries, as well as correspondence between Lester and Joyce’s family and friends following his death in January 1941. 

Sean Lester Seán Lester was one of the best-known diplomats of the 20th century. Source: Dublin City University

The diaries’ journey to DCU is a story in itself. As the Nazi threat grew, Lester buried the diaries in a metal case next to a bench in the headquarters of the League of Nations in Geneva in 1942. 

After the war, Lester returned to the headquarters to dig up the case and return the diaries safely to Ireland. 

The collection

“These diaries from Sean Lester are extensive, and provide explicit, fascinating insights into the historic narratives of a particularly turbulent era”, said John McDonagh, the University Librarian at DCU. 

“Although much, but not all of the Lester diaries, has already been transcribed in Geneva, the sense of immediacy jumps off the original handwritten and typed entries in the original notebooks,” he said.

The collection includes 11 diaries written by Lester between 1935 and 1942 as he rose to the role of General Secretary of the League of Nations. 

The diaries cover the rise of the Nazis, the persecution of Jewish people and the eventual outbreak of World War II. 

DCU has digitised the diaries and will be giving access to the public in the coming year to coincide with the centenary of the League of Nations, which was created on 10 January 1920 at the end of World War I.

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