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Irish Literary Anniversaries

Yeats Day and Bloomsday: Irish literary anniversaries, 2014

Mid-June is a great time of year for Irish literary anniversaries. Bloomsday (16th of June), when enthusiasts the world over come together to celebrate James Joyce's Ulysses, has been with us since the 1950s when the novelist's admirers began gathering at the Martello Tower in Sandycove on the shores of Dublin Bay, which is the setting for the opening episode of that great modern novel. The events depicted in Ulysses all take place over a single day in Dublin, 16 June 1904.

Yeats Day (12th of June) is a more recent initiative. It marks the anniversary of the birth of the Nobel Prize winning poet and dramatist, William Butler (W.B.) Yeats (1865-1939). Yeats Day is marked with special enthusiasm in County Sligo, where Yeats spent much of his childhood and which he considered a kind of spiritual home. 2015 will be a special year for Yeats enthusiasts, with events marking the 150th anniversary of the poet's birth.

W.B. Yeats and James Joyce are two iconic pillars of Ireland's proud literary heritage. In both cases, their relationship with the country of their birth was a complex one. Born in Dublin, Yeats spent much of his life moving back and forth between Ireland and England. A romantic nationalist, he way a key figure in the Irish literary revival of the 1890s and in 1904 was instrumental in setting up the Abbey Theatre, which became our national theatre.

A man with strong aesthetic principles, Yeats became disenchanted as a consequence of his involvement in a number of public controversies during the first decade of the 20th century and in his poem, September 1913, written at the time of the Dublin Lock-out of 1913, declared that Romantic Ireland was 'dead and gone.' His enthusiasm for Ireland was reinvigorated following the Easter Rising, whose leaders he lionised in his great poem, Easter 1916.

In 1922, Yeats became a member of the Senate of the Irish Free State and lived much of the rest of his life in Dublin. During the 1920s, he again became frustrated with developments in Ireland, but continued to write wonderful poems with Irish themes. In one of his final poems, he wrote that 'ancient Ireland knew it all'. He died in France in 1939 and his body was transferred back to Ireland after the Second World War and now lies in Drumcliffe Churchyard, County Sligo, under his famous epitaph,

'Cast a cold eye,
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by.'

James Joyce had a very different life story. He left Ireland in 1904 and, with the exception of two return visits, spent the rest of his life in Trieste, Rome, Paris and Zurich where he died in 1941. Yet, despite these long years in exile from Ireland, all of his great works are set in Ireland.

Joyce's first major publication, Dubliners, is a collection of short stories written in the early years of the 20th century but not published until June 1914. This means that we are now marking an important Irish literary centenary. There will be further Joycean centenaries in the coming years, marking the publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922), which appeared just one month after the establishment of the Irish Free State.

Ulysses provides an unparalleled portrait of Dublin in the period before Joyce's departure for Trieste in 1904. I doubt if any other city in the world has ever been subjected to such forensic literary scrutiny.

There are those who contrast today's Irish celebration of Joyce's achievements with the indifference shown towards him during his lifetime and there were some objections to the Government's recent decision to name a new naval vessel after him. I have an idea that Joyce might derive wry satisfaction from this development, recalling the lines he wrote in Ulysses about 'when the first Irish battleship is seen breasting the waves with our own flag to the fore.'

For me, our desire to honour Joyce and Yeats says something about today's Ireland which, with the passage of time, has become a very different place from the one our two greatest Irish writers experienced and wrote about during their lifetimes.

Our respect for Joyce and Yeats stems from their accomplishments as writers and from the fact that they produced compelling images of the Ireland of their time. Far from rejecting Ireland, Joyce continued for the rest of his life to draw his inspiration from the country he left in 1904. We know that he continued to be fascinated by the land of his birth and to quiz visitors from Ireland about developments there.

For his part, Yeats wrote some magnificent poems inspired by developments in Ireland: September 1913, Easter 1916, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, Meditations in Time of Civil War and Under Ben Bulben to name but a few. He became a sort of poetic chronicler of Ireland's emergence as an independent country.

I am glad that we have such major literary figures as Yeats and Joyce whose works bring the Ireland of a century ago to life in such a marvellous way. I am proud to celebrate their achievements. That's the reason why I like mid-June - Yeatsday, Bloomsday.

Daniel Mulhall, Ambassador