Grave in­jus­tice

On James Joyce’s an­niver­sary, how the Ir­ish State re­fused to have his body repa­tri­ated yet sought gift of his valu­able work

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James Joyce and the Ir­ish State

When Frank Cremins, an Ir­ish diplo­mat based in Berne, in­formed the depart­ment of ex­ter­nal af­fairs in Dublin, where Éa­mon de Valera was min­is­ter, of James Joyce’s death, in Zurich, on Jan­uary 13th, 1941 – this day 77 years ago – the depart­ment’s sec­re­tary, Joseph Wal­she, re­sponded, “Please wire de­tails about Joyce’s death. If pos­si­ble find out if he died a Catholic? Ex­press sym­pa­thy with Mrs Joyce and ex­plain in­abil­ity to at­tend fu­neral.”

Joyce had lengthy con­tact with the Ir­ish diplo­mats in Vichy France be­fore re­ceiv­ing per­mis­sion to en­ter neu­tral Switzer­land; he ar­rived in Zurich with his fam­ily on De­cem­ber 17th, 1940. In Geneva he had been met by Seán Lester, the Ir­ish diplo­mat who was sec­re­tary gen­eral of the League of Na­tions, and with whom Joyce spent a most friendly cou­ple of hours. On hear­ing of his sud­den death, Lester sent a wreath and sug­gested that Cremins might at­tend the fu­neral, so that an Ir­ish of­fi­cial would be present. The only diplo­mat there was, in fact, Lord Der­went, the Bri­tish min­is­ter to Berne.

As usual with the Joyces there was a short­age of money, and friends had to pay for the fu­neral. The sin­gle grave at Flun­tern Ceme­tery, num­bered 1449, could ac­com­mo­date only one cof­fin, and, ac­cord­ing to Joyce’s bi­og­ra­pher Gor­don Bowker, “was meant to be tem­po­rary, un­til Nora” – the writer’s wife, Nora Bar­na­cle – “could get him repa­tri­ated to Ire­land, and she asked Har­riet Weaver, Joyce’s pa­tron and literary ex­ecu­tor, to look into this. Weaver ap­proached Count O’Kelly, the Ir­ish chargé d’af­faires in Paris, but the hos­til­ity to Joyce among the Catholic clergy, schol­ars and politi­cians was so in­tense that the re­quest was re­fused.”

An Amer­i­can diplo­mat, scholar and bib­lio­phile, John Jer­main Slocum, whose James Joyce col­lec­tion was ac­quired by Yale Univer­sity in 1951, and whose an­no­tated A Bi­b­li­og­ra­phy

of James Joyce re­mains the stan­dard Joyce bi­b­li­og­ra­phy, trav­elled to Europe in June 1948 “in search”, he wrote, “of ma­te­rial by and about Joyce. In Zurich I saw his widow and son. Joyce is buried in a beau­ti­ful lit­tle ceme­tery high on the Zuricher­berg, but Mrs Joyce will never be happy un­til his body is brought back to Ire­land. She is a de­vout Catholic and feels that his body should rest in the land of his fa­thers.”


When the body of WB Yeats was repa­tri­ated to Ire­land, in Septem­ber 1948, many thought that Joyce’s might fol­low. A va­ri­ety of peo­ple be­gan to take sound­ings. Among them was Slocum. Bar­na­cle’s un­cle James A Healy had been in­stru­men­tal in Slocum’s meet­ing Pres­i­dent Seán T O’Kelly in June. Slocum wrote a long, very care­fully crafted let­ter to O’Kelly on Novem­ber 25th, 1948, re­fer­ring to Yeats’s re­cent repa­tri­a­tion and ask­ing, “I won­der if it is un­rea­son­able to think that James Joyce might be so hon­oured some­day, and that in so hon­our­ing him, his coun­try would be hon­our­ing it­self. I re­alise that this pro­posal is pre­sump­tu­ous com­ing from a for­eigner . . . If you were to ex­press to me even a be­lief that such a re­turn of his body to Ire­land was pos­si­ble, I think that I could start his friends in Zurich, in Paris, in Lon­don, in New York and even in Dublin, work­ing on it whole­heart­edly.”

Slocum re­ferred to a pos­si­ble “stum­bling block – the Church which he os­ten­si­bly re­pu­di­ated”, ar­gu­ing that “through his Je­suit ed­u­ca­tion the Church was the fount of his in­spi­ra­tion, the mould in which his ge­nius was formed”. Slocum re­ferred to the stand taken by L’Osser­va­tore Ro­mano, the Vat­i­can news­pa­per, on Joyce’s work on Oc­to­ber 2nd, 1937, say­ing that “there is suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence that the Church it­self recog­nises his con­tri­bu­tion to the tra­di­tion of Catholic let­ters. In an ar­ti­cle on Ir­ish literature he was de­scribed ob­jec­tively and dis­pas­sion­ately” in these terms.

Slocum wrote to Con­stan­tine Cur­ran, a life­long friend of Joyce, on March 11th, 1949: “I wrote a long and im­pas­sioned let­ter to Seán T O’Kelly sev­eral months ago prov­ing con­clu­sively that Joyce was a good Catholic and that his body should be brought home to Ire­land be­cause his widow would have it that way and be­cause he was a large stone in the tower of Ir­ish literature, or rather world literature. I have had no an­swer . . . If you should see him tell him to get af­ter his sec­re­tary. I am wait­ing on an an­swer.”

Slocum’s let­ter to O’Kelly was dealt with by Valentin Ire­mon­ger, pri­vate sec­re­tary to Seán MacBride, de Valera’s suc­ces­sor as min­is­ter for ex­ter­nal af­fairs. He spent sev­eral months chal­leng­ing Slocum’s read­ing of L’Osser­va­tore

Ro­mano. He got the Ir­ish am­bas­sador to Italy, Michael MacWhite, to lo­cate the ar­ti­cle and in­ter­view its au­thor. He wrote to Pa­trick Lynch, pri­vate sec­re­tary to Taoiseach John A Costello, that the ar­ti­cle could hardly be con­strued as “ev­i­dence that the Church it­self recog­nises Joyce’s con­tri­bu­tion to the tra­di­tion of Catholic let­ters”. Slocum never got a re­ply to his let­ter, and a note made at the Depart­ment of the Taoiseach on July 15th, 1949, recorded that no ac­tion was to be taken.

MacBride had a close fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ship with Yeats but had rea­son to be hos­tile to Joyce, who had ridiculed the min­is­ter’s par­ents, Maud Gonne and Maj John MacBride, dur­ing their divorce, four decades ear­lier, nick­nam­ing them Joan of Arc and Pius X. When ma­te­rial from Joyce’s wartime flat in Paris was shown in the French and Bri­tish cap­i­tals, MacBride de­clined to as­so­ciate him­self with the ex­hi­bi­tions.

Fin­negans Wake

Har­riet Weaver had in­tended to give the man­u­script of Fin­negans Wake to the Na­tional Li­brary of Ire­land. Bar­na­cle op­posed this, how­ever, an­noyed by re­cent re­ac­tion to her hus­band. MacBride wrote to her on July 12th, 1950: “I should like you to know that I per­son­ally and I am sure my col­leagues in the Ir­ish Gov­ern­ment, as well as the Li­brary it­self, are deeply sen­si­tive of how de­sir­able it is from the na­tion’s point of view that the man­u­script of this great work should be de­posited in your hus­band’s na­tive city. We are proud that James Joyce, one of the great­est Euro­peans of his time, was also a son of Ire­land and we feel that the pres­ence in the Li­brary of the man­u­script of [what] may be his great­est work would be a fit­ting com­mem­o­ra­tion of that fact.”

The man­u­script went, at Bar­na­cle’s de­ci­sion, to the Bri­tish Mu­seum. She died on April 10th, 1951, and be­cause of the size of her hus­band’s grave had to be buried apart from him at Flun­tern Cemtery. Later a new grave was opened there, and it is where James, Nora, their son, Gior­gio, and his wife are now buried.

The statue of James Joyce by his grave in Zurich. Be­low:: Seán MacBride, who. as min­is­ter for ex­ter­nal af­fairs, blocked the repa­tri­a­tion of Joyce’s body but then sought to ac­quire the man­u­script of

Fin­negans Wake for the Na­tional Li­brary

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