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Speech by President Michael D. Higgins Bloomsday 2020

Áras an Uachtaráin, 16th June 2020

In a year that will hardly be remembered for any hectic pace or significance that could be attached to movement itself, yet we obdure in matters of the soul and spirit as we recall a famous journey and movements of the body too that might be described as of an inner and outer character.

Thus immobilised, but not defeated, today we come together to celebrate Bloomsday.  In doing so we are honouring that great work of twentieth century literature, James Joyce’s Ulysses - a work that on publication startled and changed the world of literature.  

I am delighted to have the opportunity of hosting what must be this year a virtual event here from Áras an Uachtaráin, and may I sincerely thank all those who are enabling us to share this special day together, in particular, our performers, Clare Barrett, Lisa Lambe, Simon Morgan and Noel O’Grady, as well our musicians Éamonn de Barra, John McLaughlin and Vincent Lynch.

Bloomsday 2020 is special too for us as we remember Stephen Joyce, James’ grandson, James Joyce’s last remaining direct descendant, who died in January 2020 at the age of 87, thus severing Ireland’s direct family link.  

Stephen was the subject of Joyce’s beautiful poem ‘Ecce Puer’, and was a scrupulous, and sometimes formidable, custodian of the James Joyce literary estate that in a manner that often brought Joycean Scholars and enthusiasts to the point of frustration.   He and I had known each other for some years, but had corresponded and exchanged telephone conversations most recently in regard to his decision to accept Irish citizenship, of which he was very proud. 

Before my visit to James Joyce’s grave in Zurich in 2018, I had a discussion with Stephen on one final project that he wishes to have undertaken which involved having James Joyce’s poem

“A Flower Given to my Daughter” 

“Frail the white rose and frail are
Her hands that gave
Whose soul is sere and paler
Than time's wan wave.

Rosefrail and fair -- yet frailest
A wonder wild
In gentle eyes thou veilest,
My blueveined child.”

inscribed on the Joyce family grave in Fluntern. In this way, by use of the space perhaps held for him, Stephen hoped in some small way to honour James Joyce’s wish to have his daughter Lucia, who is buried in England, brought together with him and Norah in their final resting place. Discussions are under way, and it is my hope that this final wish can be fulfilled.  Stephen wished his own ashes to be with those of his beloved Solange who died in 2016.

While the 16th of June is an important date on the Dublin literary calendar, dedicated to marking the anniversary of Leopold Bloom’s legendary walk through Dublin in the Summer of 1904, inter alia, carrying a bar of Sweny’s lemon soap required for his bath and excitation of the senses.  As we celebrate the genius of one of Ireland’s greatest ever writers, today is surely also a most appropriate day for acknowledging creativity in all its forms.

Let us celebrate and give thanks for the many great creative talents with which we, as a nation, have been gifted. They are talents offered to us on which we so often draw to navigate us through difficult moments or aspects of our lives, in the work of those who work in the fields of culture and the arts. 

Now among the livelihoods threatened by the measures to respond to  Covid-19 are their lives and livelihoods.  They have sought our solidarity and our support, and we should give it unstintingly.  

As a nation and as a global community, we are undertaking together a most difficult but shared journey, as we respond and get beyond Covid-19.  It is a journey that challenges us to draw on our reserves of resilience and solidarity. It is a journey that has brought tragedy to so many families, and much hardship to so many of our citizens. 

These last few months have been a time of reflection, and an opportunity for those who wished to take it, to re-evaluate what it is that we choose to value, and, indeed what together we might do better, and how we could be spurred on from here, to the construction of a society that can better address our shared existence, our shared vulnerability and our interdependence. 

Is ar scáth a chéile a mhairimid.   

Of one thing we can be certain, as to visions of the future, it will, as it has always been, of the emancipatory, freedom-giving, loving and best fulfilling version of the future having been anticipated and suggested already by artists.  A life without the contribution of artists, of limited public opportunities for sharing cultural experiences, of being lifted to transcendence by performance in the many forms of the Arts would be quite a miserable encounter with life.

In times of crisis and isolation, it is the arts which so often bring us reassurance, contribute to our wellbeing, and allow us a means of collective expression, a crucial vehicle for citizen participation.  Without access to the space of culture and the arts one is not experiencing the fullness of citizenship.  

It is greatly ironic therefore, and not a little frustrating, even rightly infuriating, how, in times of crisis, it is so often the arts and the cultural sphere that are among the greatest victims not appreciated for the importance of what they do, and even sometimes dismissed as a luxury that cannot be afforded, or as an added extra that does not merit consideration or priority in times of economic difficulty.

Of course, it is precisely when failures of the economy are being endured that one wants not to be further excluded beyond income loss, by being excluded from participation in the cultural space.

We know that the current Covid-19 crisis has had devastating consequences for cultural practitioners across the globe. In Ireland we have seen the cancellation of over twelve thousand cultural events to date, leading to losses in excess of €10 million within the industry. Those are bleak figures and let us not forget the individual hardship, endangered potential, insecure futures and lost opportunities for the many artists for whom those figures are a lived and stark reality.

Never defeated, each year on this date, the 16th of June, we honour will always honour and celebrate, that novel Ulysses, its author and subjects.  That it is regarded as one of the most distinguished examples of the narrative technique known as ‘stream of consciousness’, was a point made in early good Joycean studies, but Joyce’s wish was that his book would come to be enjoyed by all, and a shared, very Irish, very Dublin source of the humour that was involved in the contradictions by which we live our lives.

As we are brought deeply on June 16th into the thoughts, reflections and recalled memories of Leopold Bloom, we are invited to interpret as well as to be entertained, to be an active participator in the process of engaging with the book.   

This has been a tough Spring. For some, as I have said, tragic, for others, in being forced to endure distancing from loved ones as they departed this life, alienating even, as it also showed another part of Ireland’s heart in the generous commitment to work   on behalf of us all, and the reaching out of communities, groups and individuals, which was superb.  

Among those to suffer loss of livelihoods with all its consequences, were cultural workers.  

In March, as the lights went down on our theatres, as libraries, museums and galleries shut their doors, as readings were cancelled, concerts postponed, arts festivals suspended, the cultural space began to fade from view in our cities, towns and villages.  Some venues, events, productions are in danger of disappearing entirely from the public world if we do not prioritise their retrieval, making culture safe, central, with all its liberating potential, enriching vision and its history and as at its best its purpose of courageous challenging of the status quo.

The cultural sphere is a constant work in progress, one which relies on our engagement, our involvement and our contribution if it is to survive and thrive. If we do not access that space, support it, participate in it, and ensure it is not assigned a peripheral space on the edge of society we are in danger of becoming passive players in its demise. 

Allow me to repeat it, all over Europe as well as here today we are facing an emergency in the cultural sphere in terms of income, venues, public access, participation, social cohesion and quality of our daily lives. It is a time that urges us to recall and reflect on the vital role of creative people in any truly functioning or cohesive society and the need to support artists whose work is so important for the structure of that society, and as the best guarantee of the imaginative possibilities of all of our people for the future. 

Traditionally, on Bloomsday, some of you gather with friends and families to replicate Leopold Bloom’s legendary walk through Dublin on that summer’s day in 1904.  Such an excursion, for both the eclectic and the merely curious of you, is something that may not be possible this year, for even if you have the greatest anticipation of being well soaped!, be acknowledged as the most experienced social distancer, and are willing to swear off ‘close dancing’ you cannot do it as you did before.   Yet, let us resolve that our virtual journey this year will not be a passive journey, but one in which we will all play our active part in the crafting of that shared future, where our cultural world, with all its potential for social good, is not left struggling for survival in the wake of Covid-19.

We have, historically, so often neglected that cultural world and, in the process, we have neglected our great artists and writers, failing to acknowledge their necessary and immeasurable contribution to our society. 

As well as being one of this country’s most famous literary figures, James Joyce is also one of our most famous exiles. Struggling to produce work in a society not shaped to accommodate his creative vision, he left this country and became a man apart, a perennial outsider. 

As we rebuild our society and our economy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must make sure we see the pandemic as the aberration that it is.  There are warm aspects of our culture to which we will return, which we will not give up.  There are aspects of our Covid-19 existence which we all, in the interests of all, must support, but it is meaningless and defeatist to call it ‘The New Normal’.  There will be, when the virus is gone, forms of collective joy again and for all generations.   

We must ensure we are constructing an Ireland inclusively shaped to accommodate all forms of artistic expression, rejecting any narrow concept of the arts or as a residual to be tolerated but confined to the fringes of society, their value reduced to narrow utilitarian terms.

 As to ‘tomorrows’ it was James Joyce himself who once said:

 “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today.” 

All generations must come and be involved in establishing a new tomorrow, in recrafting the cultural space, recognising that resourcing the arts are part of the fundamentals to the structure of our society just as our roads, hospitals and schools seek to serve a public purpose.

Mar fochal scoir, we should never forget those who, for so long and over the years, held the fort, such as Deirdre O’Connell whose birthday we have always celebrated here at the Áras, and others, continue the task. How Deirdre O’Connell would surely be pleased with the fabulous work on Lucia by another Deirdre, Deirdre Mulrooney, which you may hear on Sunday Miscellany.  

Today as we recall and celebrate Joyce’s renowned re-imagining of the ancient myth of Ulysses, his vision in bringing into being of a myth upon a myth contemporary, exciting and mould-breaking should remind that we too have the opportunity to revisit, re-make, build upon, and re-imagine myths.   

To do that let us all resolve to let nothing allow the arts in all their diversity be ever allowed to die or be made further frail.

Happy Bloomsday to you all.  

Keep washing your hands, even if it is without Sweny’s soap!

Beir Beannacht