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 of Ulysses, 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.
And it didn’t matter that the nuances escaped me. Dubliners is one of those books that tracks you through life, that you return to again and again, finding something new every time. Though Joyce had written most of these stories by the age of twenty-three, he did so with the understanding and forbearance of someone much older. He often portrayed himself as sitting in judgment on his fellow Dubliners, whom he once described to a friend as “the most hopeless, useless and inconsistent race of charlatans I have ever come across,” yet what gives the stories their tremendous power is precisely their refusal to judge. The men and women depicted are a shabby bunch: drunkards, wife-beaters, narcissists, hypocrites. But Joyce is careful to show the forces that have made them who they are, the exigencies that constrict them, the disillusionments that have sapped their will to act differently. He believed that by showing us ourselves, he could help us understand each other, forgive each other, break out of our holding patterns and begin to change. He believed that redemption was something we could achieve for ourselves, and that was what terrified the Singing Priest.
A hundred years down the road, a lot has changed in Dublin. Even more has stayed the same. The British are gone and the Church is on the wane, but the city is still controlled by outside agents: tech firms, hedge funds, shadowy acronyms based in Europe and further afield. Landlords, publicans, bankers, politicians remain major players, and the economic havoc these entities have wreaked between them has paralyzed the city quite as efficiently as their counterparts did a hundred years before. But there are positives. Joyce, the polyglot, would surely have delighted in the many-stranded tapestry of language—Polish, Cantonese, Yoruba, Tagalog—to be overheard nowadays at the bus stop or in the supermarket queue. And having left in disgust, never to return, he would surely be amused to see how engrained he and his works have become in almost every element of Dublin life. That these days even politicians are quoting him might be a little too much, but I think he might have taken pleasure in the noncanonical manifestations that appear throughout the city—the crappy murals, the deeply specious James Joyce Pub Award. In the space of a century, he has been transformed from godless pariah to artistic sacred cow to national tchotchke, something to be hawked to tourists like Guinness hoodies and lucky leprechaun hats. But for Joyce, this pirating, not to say grave robbing, makes a kind of sense. Profaning the sacred is what Joyce’s Dublin is all about, and the role of art, as he saw it, is to take these everyday blasphemies and make them sacred again. If Chandler brought murder back in the alleyway, Joyce put genius back out on the street; he is there still, amid the replicas, holding up his nicely polished looking glass to the shifting crowds. Turn the page, and find yourself.
This essay is adapted from Paul Murray’s introduction to a new edition of Dubliners by de Selby Press, with illustrations from Stephen Crowe. Used with permission of de Selby Press.
Paul Murray lives in Dublin. He is the author of the novels An Evening of Long Goodbyes and Skippy Dies. His story “That’s My Bike!” appeared in The Paris Review’s Winter 2011 issue.