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Speech by President Michael D. Higgins Garden Party in Honour of Bloomsday 2023

Áras an Uachtaraín, Sunday, 18th June, 2023

A cháirde,

Fearaim fáilte Uí Cheallaigh romhaibh uilig tráthnóna seo go hÁras an Uachtaráin agus muid ag cuir tús le 
séasúr na gCóisirí Gairdín. Tá áthas an domhain orm agus ar mo bhean chéile Saidhbhín sibh a fheiceáil arís, uair amháin eile, slua mór saoránach, chuig an Áras, d’fhonn tráthnóna a chaitheamh linn – áit chónaithe stairiúil chuile 
Uachtarán Éireannach ón mbliain 1938.

[May I say how welcome you all are this afternoon to 
Áras an Uachtaráin as we commence our garden party season. Sabina and I are delighted to welcome, once again, so many of our citizens to the Áras, the home of all Irish Presidents since 1938.]

Today, Lá Bloom, Bloomsday, is an important day in our annual cultural calendar, a day when we have the opportunity in a special way the life and works of James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, our great modernist avant-garde writer correctly regarded as one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century.

As always, Bloomsday for both myself and Sabina, in particular calls to mind the special contribution of Deirdre O’Connell to Irish experience of European and modern theatre. Deirdre would have celebrated her 84th birthday this week. As founder of the Focus Theatre, Deirdre played her own crucial role in the arts and cultural life of this country. Indeed, I am sure many of you will have your own memories of Deirdre and her much loved and respected theatre. So, today let us remember Deirdre warmly together with her generous artistic legacy.

Bloomsday has become an annually observed celebration, not just in Joyce’s home city of Dublin, but across the world in places as diverse as the Hungarian town of Szombathely, the fictional birthplace of Leopold Bloom’s father, Virág Rudolf, elsewhere in Trieste, where the first part of Ulysses was written, and Bloomsday is celebrated across the United States and Canada, South America and Asia.  

While today we continue our celebration of Joyce, this year Sabina and I have decided to celebrate Sean O’Casey, his work and life with him, as this year marks the centenary of O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman, the first of O’Casey’s great Dublin trilogy. 

Today, as we take the occasion to celebrate the lives, works, gifts and sufferings of two giants of Irish literature, we celebrate too the Dublin of Joyce and O’Casey in all its richness. Dublin, and the lives suffered and enjoyed in it, was not just a character source as important as any human character, but the crucial context for his work in both of these writers’ works. Indeed, it has been said that, just like his plays, O’Casey pored a gritty romanticism into his songs and included a dash a satirical wit from the streets of Dublin.

My wife Sabina, among others, has been a staunch supporter of the campaign to save the home and studio of O’Casey – at 422 North Circular Road in Phibsboro, Dublin – and to turn it into a community, cultural and arts venue. May I say how delighted Sabina and I are to see so many of those who fought to keep the building, where all the plays were written, present at today’s Garden Party. 

Today Sabina will read O’Casey’s piece on the Irish Citizen Army as she did at the unveiling of the Starry Plough in the gardens here in Áras an Uachtaráin in 2018, it is a monument commissioned in commemoration of the workers involved in the 1913 Lockout of Dublin – a founding moment for workers and trade unionism in Ireland – and of the Citizen Army and its first secretary and historian, Sean O’Casey.

There are other celebrations of Seán O’Casey’s life and work to which we may look forward.  I understand that Galway’s Druid Theatre Company will be staging the O’Casey Dublin Trilogy later in the summer, to be directed by Druid Director Garry Hynes.

We welcome all those present today – including Bloomsday groups and theatre companies from around Dublin and elsewhere.

Some interpreters have highlighted the female influence on Casey.  These include today’s ‘O’Casey’s Women’ piece by Smashing Times Theatre Company. Recent literary work has underscored, too, the importance of recognising the women in James Joyce’s life. 

Just as Edna O’Brien’s powerful play Joyce’s Women brought Joyce back to life last year, and importantly rescued for readers the women in his life – his mother, wife, daughter and lover – as individuals separate from the writer’s legacy, today we recall the importance of these diverse female figures in the lives and works of the writers we celebrate. 

Not only James Joyce’s understanding, but his debt to women is incalculable: his wife Nora and daughter Lucia were imaginative resources, muses, wells of inspiration; his mother May Murray is the source of his early Catholicism and Irish sensibility and whose skill at music suggested and encouraged a sensitive, artistic temperament; Harriet Shaw Weaver bankrolled him; Sylvia Beach published him. In terms of impact on his work, and practical effect on his life, such importance goes far beyond the incidental.

Of all of the women who impacted on Joyce, it is perhaps his daughter Lucia and her artistic genius that has needed to be reclaimed, however late in the day. On the 12th of December last year, it was 40 years since the death of Lucia, in Northampton, England. 

I am so pleased to announce today that at the wish of Joyce’s grandson, Stephen Joyce, conveyed to me in numerous conversations before he died, that permission be given to have an inscription of ‘A Flower Given To My Daughter’, written by James Joyce for Lucia, to be executed at Nora and James’s grave in Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich, has finally been granted and is likely to happen next month – funded by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. Mo bhuíochas le gach éinne a bhí páirteach, agus cabhrach.

My special thanks to the Zurich authorities on the type of stone that carries the names of Jams and Nora.  It will read:

“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 blue-veined child.”

As a young woman, Lucia was celebrated as a remarkable artist of great promise when her modern dance performances caused a sensation in Paris, the south of France, and in Italy. Despite this, the adjective ‘troubled’ has attached itself to her name so tenaciously that her early genius is too easily dismissed. 

As her father wrote, “Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and it has kindled a fire in her brain”, although he did acknowledge that she was “an innovator, not yet understood”.

Her experiences of mental illness, including a sad period of more than three decades in the institutional setting of psychiatric hospitals, now need to be framed as part of a much larger story of an exceptional woman whose light was so unfairly extinguished.

In his wife, Nora Barnacle, Joyce found a partner who was also a mother figure as much as a free spirit. “It was carnal love,” Edna O’Brien has remarked, “but also he saw within her a melancholy and an ancient knowledge that answered his deeper needs.”

His musical mother May established an early bond that inspired a lifelong relationship to women that was split between reverence and torment, one instilled initially through the childhood rituals that shaped his agnosticism, providing Joyce with the material for him to “make open war on it [his Catholicism] in what I write and say and do”. 

An early supporter of his writing, May is believed to have had 15 pregnancies — 10 children survived — before her early death at the age of 44. Refusing to pray at her dying bedside, Joyce wrote in a letter to Nora: “I understood that I was looking on the face of a victim, and I cursed the system which had made her a victim”.

That system of endless pregnancies without choice, or means of survival, imposed as national and State law, was a cruel one.

It is no surprise then that when Frank Cremins, an Irish diplomat based in Berne, informed the Department of External Affairs in Dublin, where Éamon de Valera was minister, of James Joyce’s death, in Zurich, on January 13th, 1941, the department’s secretary, Joseph Walshe, responded, “Please wire details about Joyce’s death. 

If possible find out if he died a Catholic? Express sympathy with Mrs Joyce and explain inability to attend funeral.”

Celebrating James Joyce and his work, including his masterpiece Ulysses, the centenary of which we marked at last year’s Bloomsday Garden Party, reminds us of why we must be very grateful to the independent book publishers who take risks, provide such a vital service to our society, by publishing original, thought-provoking work that might not otherwise receive the light of day. 

We are indebted to Sylvia Beach, of the first Shakespeare and Company, Paris, who, in 1922, as James Joyce struggled to find anyone willing to publish Ulysses, indeed when no English or American publisher would touch his manuscript, had the wisdom and courage to see its worth, and who took a significant gamble by bringing the now world-renowned Ulysses to publication under the imprint of Shakespeare and Company.

Sylvia Beach’s intellectual virtuosity and free-spiritedness supported an approach to publication that was experimental in its willingness to recognise the breath in form that was something new, creative in its enabling a new form of literary expression, and audacious given the controversial subject matter. 

James Joyce’s work is of course of its time, but may I suggest that certain thematic explorations in his work have never been more relevant to our contemporary circumstances.

Joyce, throughout his life, remained critical of coercive ideologies, such as extreme forms of nativist nationalism, citing the coercive oppression of nationalism and fascism as a key threat to democracy and the artistic sensibility. 

Having lived through World War I, when he wrote Ulysses, and living to see the outbreak of the Second World War, Joyce would no doubt be aghast to see war return to the European Continent as we now find ourselves.

May I suggest that both Joyce and O’Casey would be horrified by the rise of xenophobia, racism, homophobia, misogyny and other forms of intolerance that we now witness in so many places, appalled at a world where racism is increasing, where a poisonous xenophobia, new and recalled, has taken hold in so many places where fear is being sowed.

As a traveller, a migrant himself, he had a profound understanding of the great benefits of the migratory experience, of the importance of intellectual curiosity – be it in terms of diverse, vibrant cultures, sensibilities, intellectual heritages, or philosophical traditions. His embracing of these cultures, during his time spent in, for example, Italy, France or Switzerland – countries that at the time would have been more sympathetic to a subversive or non-conformist writer, undoubtedly inspired Joyce’s writing, and particularly his depictions of the sensual world. 

Part of his unspoken connection to Dublin, Dubliners and Ireland was when his sight was fading to leave Radio Éireann on all day, thus staying in touch with the sounds that are our life together.

Mar focal scoir, today we recall Joyce in all his complex, everlasting brilliance, doing so through the prism of the female figures who touched him, shaped him, loved him. They were women who answered to the longings and anguish of his inner life, yet as Edna O’Brien has noted sagely,  “Joyce’s greatest loyalty was to his work. That’s where the writer really lives, and belongs – with their words.”

May I take this opportunity to thank all those who make today’s garden party so enjoyable, from the singers and entertainers, including Simon Morgan, the Italian Choir of Dublin, il Coro Italiano di Dublino, and Kila who will shortly, I believe, be performing ‘The Auld Triangle’ to mark the centenary of Brendan Behan’s birth. 

I thank the Saint Lawrence O’Toole Pipe Band who are playing on the lawn today. How appropriate it is that Sean O’Casey, himself a player of the Uilleann pipes, was one of the founders and first secretary of the Band.

May I also thank today’s MC Tom Dunne, the first-aiders, and staff here at the Áras who have worked tirelessly to make today so memorable. 

Sabina and I hope you enjoy this Bloomsday here with us. 

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir. 
Beannachtaí na Féile Bríde oraibh.