Yesterday's 100th anniversary of the birth of James Joyce marked the beginning of a five-month orgy of Joycean celebrations in the author's home town. But such spoilsports as the Irish Housewives Association, the Knights of Columbus, STOP (Society to Outlaw Pornography) and even the Dublin City Council are trying to dampen the festivities.
Controversies are brewing over the allegedly pornographic writings of Joyce, how accurate certain interpretations of his work are and whether the financially troubled city has the money to honor the author properly.
The immediate controversy centers on a made-for-radio musical version of "Ulysses" aired last night on RTE (Irish Radio) and the BBC. The musical, "Blooms of Dublin," was written by Anthony Burgess, author of "A Clockwork Orange," to honor Joyce's centenary. (Ironically, the film version of "A Clockwork Orange" has never been shown in Ireland because it cannot win the approval of the Irish government censors.)
Last week the RTE singers refused to sing the score for the musical, claiming the lyrics were "blasphemous, pornographic and embarrassing." The musicians finally relented and warbled the "dirty" words after they were told they could be fired if they continued to balk. The objectionable part of the score included one song called "The Ballad of the Joking Jesus" and this stanza from the title song "Blooms of Dublin":
"Let's turn this drab necropolis
Into an erotopolis.
Every colleen aphrodite
Casting off her cotton nightie.
Our vices drink and treachery
Replaced with sunlit lechery
Put a ton of high explosive
Under Mary and St. Joseph."
"That's not Joyce, that's Burgess," said Peter McBrien, one of the singers who objected to the lyrics. "I'm not a prude or something, but as a Christian I find those last two lines highly offensive."
So do Irish Housewives, the Knights of Columbus and members of STOP, the Irish equivalent of the Moral Majority. They have bombarded RTE executives and city newspapers with demands that the show be blocked from the air, but so far to no avail.
"There probably would have been no more than two or three pseudo-intellectuals listening to the program if it hadn't been for all the protests," said Gay Byrne, a popular talk show host on late-night Irish television. "Now they've guaranteed one of the largest audiences ever."
But headaches for RTE officials may be just beginning. Later this week they are scheduled to show a televised version of Joyce's only play, "Exiles," and a documentary about his life called "Is There Anyone Who Understands Me?" On June 16, the legendary Bloomsday, Irish television will broadcast its most expensive undertaking to date: a 24-hour, uninterrupted version of "Ulysses" -- and the guardians of the public morals are promising to watch that production very closely.
In addition, last week the Dublin City Council announced that its coffers were empty and that plans to erect a statue of Joyce on Sandymount Strand (along Dublin Bay) were being scrapped. Instead, the city fathers would wrap the streets in bunting and hang flags from the lampposts on June 16 -- just like they do on St. Patrick's Day or in September for the all-Ireland football final.
"A prophet is not without honor save in his own country," muttered one member of the City Council after it was noted that Joycean monuments were either completed or under construction in Joyce's "other" homes, Zurich and Trieste, and even in Beirut at the American University.
"He deserves a little better than this on the hundredth anniversary of his birth," said disgusted City Council member Tony Gregory.
But Gregory met with a sentiment commonly heard in Dublin. "The average man on the street has never heard of Joyce," argued Ned Brennan, a member of the Irish parliament who opposed the expenditure.
Indeed, letters to the editors of the city's three major newspapers last week indicated that although the average Pat on the street had heard of Joyce, he had never read anything by the author.
After reading about the controversy surrounding the musical version of "Ulysses," one Pat McCabe said his interest in Joyce was "aroused," so he decided to "peruse" the volumes himself. "Not only did it take me the best part of a week to read it, but as well as that I couldn't make out half of it. To me, it was just a waste of time," McCabe wrote to the editors of the Evening Press.
But Joyce scholars say the average Irish reader is beginning to enjoy Joyce and needs only a bit of guidance to get involved.
"I don't think 'Ulysses' is difficult to read. It's impossible to read," said David Norris, a professor of English at Trinity College in Dublin and a member of the James Joyce centenary committee. "It can't be read, it can only be reread. The thing people do not understand is that 'Ulysses' was written to be read aloud. The book comes to life at the sound of the human voice."
"More and more people are beginning to understand that and Joyce is more popular now than ever," Norris added.
Like other Joyce scholars, Norris points to the worldwide attention that the author's centenary is getting while the 1982 centenary of Eamon De Valera, the first president of the Republic, is almost completely forgotten.
"Putting aside the narrow-mindedness . . . over the Burgess musical, the enthusiasm over Joyce's centenary is a sign of our maturity," said Norris. "After all, Joyce was a writer who was highly critical of Ireland and Irish culture. Instead of staying and fighting for Ireland as Yeats did, he left and never came back."