James Joyce

It was my grandfather's misfortune to find himself coming to maturity among the Civil War generation. Like a lot of the Irish of that era he inherited a war with the British crown and not much else.

His life and his legacy were shaped by that battle, and he helped hand on a new Ireland to my father's generation.

It was my father's misfortune to find himself at war with the conservative Catholic republic that sprang up to retard the nation's progress. His life and legacy were shaped by his lifelong refusal to be dictated to by the clergy and their fellow travelers. He helped hand that new, freer Ireland on to us.

And it is our own fate now to inherit an Ireland run by the International Monetary Fund and European banks and by a callow, unimaginative class of homegrown nepotistic bankers, property dealers and consultants who now comprise the Irish establishment.

What will the Ireland we hand on look like?

Three different generations, three different sets of exploitive colonial powers, all within three Irish lifetimes.

Our history is often presented as an epic struggle to rid the country of the baleful influence Brits, or of the Catholic Church, or of the banks. God knows there are more than enough tragic ballads to cover all of them.

But more and more, to me the history of Ireland looks like an endless hostile takeover, a power grab and a real estate deal. We're Manhattan, but perched on the edge of Europe rather than the Hudson.
The little people really don't matter. They never actually did.

It's a conversation held above our heads by the holders of real power, the money men who call the shots. Monarch, Pope or bank manager. Take your pick. They'll sign the papers and run the institutions as though they were born to.

So it amazes me, it gives me great hope, that in some of the darkest hours of Irish history the genius of the race threw up James Joyce.

He arrived precisely on time. Just as the nation was girding for conflict.

He saw better than anyone what the British, the bishops and the bureaucrats had in store for Ireland, and he wrote books to enshrine and protect us from the various forces that ranged to wipe us out.

After the Great Hunger, and the loss of our national language, and the great poverty and destitution of the century he was born in, he crafted astonishing books that contain the genius of the Irish character and preserve it forever in an act of intellectual defiance so dizzying it can be hard to credit he actually lived.

When he was a young man, still in search of a grand unifying theory that could explain him to himself, Joyce fell into the kindly orbit of another Irishman, Oscar Wilde. It was a very productive exchange.

There one day, he read this: “There are three kinds of despots. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the body. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul and body alike.

“The first is called the Prince. The second is called the Pope. The third is called the People.”

That quote helped transform Joyce's life, by putting into words what he had only dimly suspected. It armed him against the critical and moral drubbings that were to come too. It steadied him, it led him toward his future, it became a talisman throughout his long and difficult career.

Growing up in Ireland, we often heard how our greatest writers, writers like Joyce and Wilde, were scapegoated and exiled to the continent. It was because of their challenge we were told.

Their contemporaries literally couldn't cope with the things they were telling them about themselves. So there's quite an irony in noticing that our own children are being exiled to the continent once again too.

One thing I'm certain of. Out there, right now, is Joyce's successor. He or she hasn't emerged just yet, but he or she soon will.

Because Ireland needs a voice to make sense of what we just passed through, that whole confounding boom and bust and its stupid, heartbreaking fallout.

Ireland needs a new voice to challenge its reflexive, sleepy pieties too. We need a new map. We need a voice to speak up and stand out.

Keep your eyes peeled.