The Irish Cultural Centre in Paris's season of centenaries opened on Wednesday night on the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses.
"When the first copies of Ulysses arrived on the train from Dijon 100 years ago, Sylvia Beach took receipt of something so courageous and daring that it literally lit a fuse – one that still burns," Ambassador Niall Burgess told a gathering of more than 400 people in the courtyard of the Irish College.
Mr Burgess described himself as “a reader of Joyce, a lover of his work . . . Sometimes my love for his work tilts towards obsession. My house is called Ithaca. My dog, my faithful assistant in many tasks, is called Beckett.”
Joyce and his wife Nora were “the living embodiment of open-minded, tolerant, curious cosmopolitanism,” Mr Burgess said. “That gentle disposition took a battering” in Dublin, then on the continent as they fled two World Wars.
Paris is a character in Ulysses, Mr Burgess noted, quoting Joyce's line about "Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets." He noted the manuscript would not have become a book were it not for Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, whom the Joyces met three days after they arrived in Paris.
The Ambassador did not wish to talk about an earlier celebration, of Ireland's accession to a UN Security Council seat last June, when he was secretary-general of the Department of Foreign Affairs. But he alluded to the ensuing controversy surrounding it in his speech.
‘A fiction of the truth’
There was “no better account of the coarsening of political debate than Bloom’s encounter with the Citizen in Barney Kiernan’s Pub . . . nor of how a compelling headline can make a fiction of the truth than when Bloom passes through the office of the Freeman’s Journal”, he said.
He singled out this line in Ulysses: “With unfeigned regret it is we announce the dissolution of a most respected Dublin Burgess.”
The ambassador defended Ireland’s diplomatic corps. “We are a small country with big ambitions. We have to work hard to influence outcomes that matter to our country and our citizens. That is why we fought for, and won, a seat on the UN Security Council . . . We don’t have the levers of power that others do,” he said.
I'm up to page 295 and I've already found more than 100 references to hats, turbans and hatbands
“Instead of power, we aim for influence. We build connections that have depth, meaning and integrity . . . It is sometimes called soft power. I think of it as real influence.”
Nora Hickey, the director of the Irish College, unveiled a programme of Ulyssean proportions, which has interwoven a celebration of Joyce's novel with an artistic and philosophical examination of the first century of Irish independence.
Ms Hickey briefly summarised the three exhibitions, three installations, world premiere of six screenings, 20 newly commissioned poems, an audio walking tour, ebook launch, readings, concert and two artists’ studios which were open to the public on Wednesday.
"At the Irish Cultural Centre, we have created a candid portrait of the influences that Ireland is still processing 100 years after independence," said Rosetta Beaugendre, the lead curator of the exhibitions. "It shows how relevant James Joyce remains."
Mr Burgess greeted John Shevlin, the Dublin milliner who was chosen by An Post to be its James Joyce lookalike in a promotion for its centenary stamp. Mr Shevlin is re-reading Ulysses with a milliner's eye. "I'm up to page 295 and I've already found more than 100 references to hats, turbans and hatbands," he said.
He had left a note on the Ambassador’s desk the previous evening. “James Joyce was here on the 1st day of February, 2022. John Shevlin, Dublin Milliner,” it said.