Dubliners at one hundred

It was a priest who first convinced me to read Dubliners. On the face of it, this might seem strange. Joyce had a lifelong hatred of clergymen, and claimed the sight of one made him physically ill; in “The Sisters,” the opening story of Dubliners, he chose a senescent priest as the first, and arguably most disturbing, of the many images of decay and paralysis that pervade the book. But in the Dublin of my teens, the priests were running the show; it was even possible for priests to be celebrities, and it was the most famous of these who took my class on retreat at the end of  Transition Year, in June 1991.

Joyce writes about a religious retreat in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which an unnamed preacher terrifies the boys with a lengthy description of the torments of hell. Ours wasn’t like that. There were beanbags and unlimited biscuits; the celebrity cleric, who had become famous in the sixties as the Singing Priest and latterly hosted a hugely popular radio show, spoke to us like we were his friends. Even though the retreat consisted for the most part of the usual list of prohibitions—don’t do drugs, don’t have sex—his gravelly voice and inner-city accent gave him a convincing authenticity. Then, for reasons I still can’t quite understand—modernist literature was not at that point high on our list of temptations—he started talking about James Joyce. According to the Singing Priest, Joyce was one of the greatest hoaxes ever to be perpetrated on the Irish people. Far from being a genius, he was a charlatan, a phony, a false prophet. Furthermore, the priest continued, nobody in the world had actually read his famous novel Ulysses, and anyone who claimed otherwise was a liar.
Well, this came as a surprise. My father was a professor of Irish literature at Joyce’s alma mater, University College Dublin; in his study at home he had multiple copies of Joyce’s books, including Ulysses, as well as innumerable books about Joyce’s books. Had he been pulling the wool over our eyes for all these years?

That night, I went home and told my dad what the Singing Priest had said. My dad assured me that he had, in fact, read Ulysses; so had a lot of people, he said. I was relieved to hear that he had not been practicing a deception on us. Still, I remained confused. Back in 1991, the idea that a priest would lie was genuinely shocking. Even stranger, though, was that he would lie about this.

Up until then, I had had little interest in Joyce. I knew who he was, of course: in Dublin he was inescapable. He popped up as a statue on North Earl Street, in paintings on the walls of pubs, in an unflattering green hue on the old ten-pound note; once a year the city was taken over by gangs of bizarrely-attired middle-aged men, wearing straw hats and blazers and spouting reams of gibberish apparently in homage to the author. There was a bridge named after him, designed by a famous architect, and a dark and rather threatening street. He had always seemed completely irrelevant to me and my life in the suburbs—a historical artifact, like the Viking settlements uncovered on the quays, which my parents had dragged me in to see before they were demolished.

But now, thanks to the Singing Priest—whose own secret hypocrisies would emerge in the years that followed—I began to wonder. Why would a writer elicit that kind of hatred? What kind of threat did he pose? I asked my dad if I could borrow a copy ofUlysses, went to my room and began to read. An hour later I came back downstairs. Is there an easier one? I asked. That’s when he gave me Dubliners.

Two weeks later, I took the book with me on a French exchange. I didn’t get all of it, or even most of it. And yet, while I read it, I felt my agonizing homesickness abate, and I realized the city he presented was one that I knew. There were some cosmetic differences (shillings and half crowns, trams instead of cars) but the characters themselves—the machinating mother, the pitiful daydreamer, the two ironically named gallants, the slithering, monstrous “old josser”—I had encountered before. And the pervading sense of frustration and entrapment, that was familiar, too. This was a book about people who felt just like I did, in my teenaged disenchantment—that nothing of significance could ever happen in a second-rate city, that love, heroism, any kind of self-definition was impossible on its pokey, crowded stage. Joyce’s Dubliners wished they were somewhere, anywhere, else—the Wild West, London, Argentina; they squandered their time in illusions and alcohol and other doomed efforts to escape. Paralyzed by homesickness, hiding out in the spare bedroom of that little house in Paris, it was very clear to me how misguided these efforts were.

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