Roslyn Hickey guides adult learners through the epic tome that is James Joyce’s Ulysses in a night class in Coláiste Chiaráin, Leixlip. Here, she recounts her own history with Ulysses and how she keeps her class interested and motivated to survive and enjoy Joyce’s journey around Dublin
National and international critics affirm that Ulysses by James Joyce is one of the greatest novels ever written. Most Dubliners are proud of the book and speak about it with affection and good humour. Indeed, they are known to wax lyrical of its attributes both with other Irish people and in conversation with tourists and fellow holidaymakers while abroad. Amazingly, they engage in these exchanges despite the fact that they may never have read Ulysses!
I understand this attitude because, like most ordinary people, I was intimidated by its ‘infamous’ reputation as a highly complex tome that can only be deciphered by the professional academic. My situation was compounded by the fact that I am an English and History teacher who studied English in Trinity College, in the mid-1970s, under two iconic academics, Brendan Kennelly and David Norris. And it was compounded because, I too was, in my 50s and had still not risen to the challenge of reading one of the greatest literary achievements to be created by a fellow Dubliner.
Rise to the challenge
In January 2013, in order to address this shortfall, I made a pact with the Senior Librarian of Palmerstown Library that we would rise to the challenge of concluding our reading of Ulysses in time to celebrate, as ‘authentic’ Joyceans, Bloomsday on 16 June. I love teaching and I love witnessing the flourishing of adult learners within the context of lifelong learning from the cradle to the grave. Therefore, we decided to offer a study group to 22 adult learners. The experience was intoxicating and utterly unforgettable.
I explored with this initial group the reasons why so many Irish people are reluctant to read this great Irish novel despite having such respect, curiosity and affection for it. Their feedback holds true for subsequent groups that I have facilitated in Coláiste Chiaráin, Leixlip where even avid readers and literary aficionados frequently disclose how ill-equipped they have felt at the prospect of taking on such a tome.
Some say that having started to read the book, they soon became overwhelmed by obscure references and a complex structure. Consequently, Ulysses is archived in their inner most stacks – under the bed!! And all this happens shortly after the first episode (chapter) which ends with the word, ‘Usurper’. There is an irony in this concluding sentence as it speaks of the absent eyes of the average reader whose presence, as Declan Kiberd, explains, has been supplanted by the ‘literary canon’ and ‘corporate university’. The legend of its forbidding difficulty has scared readers off (Kiberd, 2009). I always have a similar discussion with the groups who sign up for the Ulysses class In Coláiste Chiaráin, before commencing the study, as the exercise proves very useful in ameliorating their concerns and assuring them that their experience is a very common one.
Reading Ulysses requires time and commitment. There is a certain mystique surrounding Ulysses which is tangible when the class first meets; a sort of conspiratorial ‘nod, nod, wink, wink’ undercurrent which permeates the class; not unlike the attitude excited teenagers have in anticipation of looking at something hereto forbidden.
However, as the class settles down to study, this initial reaction soon develops into a far more measured attitude as readers discover that Ulysses is a complex work of art that demands rigorous attention. Ulysses consists of 18 episodes which are spread over more than 700 challenging pages. Reading Ulysses is not unlike training for a marathon: you need a time-framed programme which builds up stamina, speed and endurance by ring-fencing a minimum of one hour per day and by committing to this regime for six months.
Walking in Joyce’s footsteps
Another important dimension to the work of reading and studying the text are the trips which I arrange at various stages of our reading of the book. This includes visits to Glasnevin Cemetery to follow in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom as he partakes in the funeral cortege of Paddy Dignam (Hades, episode six). In the past, our guide, coincidentally also called Paddy, retraced the fictitious event and enriched the experience by showing us the graves of Joyce’s contemporaries including those of Daniel O’Connell, Charles Parnell, Arthur Griffith and Home Rule who are referenced in Ulysses.
Other visits include the Martello Tower, Sandycove (Proteus) where one group gathered on a blustery, wintery day, shortly before Christmas to be brought on an exhilarating tour by the author and Joycean, Robert Nicholson. Robert explained how Joyce was a ‘literary magpie’ who incorporated events and real people from his life into his work. In this instant, he showed us where Joyce, as guest of Oliver St. Gogarty, slept and was subsequently terrified by the antics of another guest, forcing him to flee the tower in the middle of the night! This incident is immortalised in the opening episode of Ulysses.
Adult learners really enjoy and are stimulated by visiting places in Dublin which are referenced in Ulysses. Terry Fagan, local historian, Dublin north inner city, enthrals groups with his tour of Dublin’s infamous red-light district, which is commonly known as ‘Monto’; it features in Ulysses as Nightown in Circe, episode fifteen.
For some suburban adult learners, visiting the old inner-city of Dublin is revelatory; for others it offers the opportunity to recall childhood memories of having lived there, or to share stories of relatives who survived tenement living and fought in the city streets against the British Empire.
Earlier this year, the present group of adult learners, having read Lotus Eaters, (episode five) - which concerns the adventures of Leopold Bloom as he traversed the city from north to south - had a fantastic visit to Sweny’s chemist, Lincoln Place, Westland Row; this is where Leopold bought the famous slab of lemon scented soap. The curator, a magnificent and generous, gifted raconteur, served us up copious cups of steaming tea and delicious chocolate biscuits; led us in a reading from Ulysses, a sing-song from Edwardian times and a discussion with other Joyceans from various countries who were also there.
In April 2019, the present group will have successfully completed a first reading of Ulysses. The occasion will be marked by our final outing which will be to the Jewish Museum, South Circular Road. This little gym archives an integral, but lesser known, part of Irish history and has been a highlight for past groups.
We will go to learn about Judaism, especially in relation to the Jewish community in Ireland in order to gain a greater understanding of the main character in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom (who was technically not a Jew – another one of James Joyce’s conundrums!!). Groups invariably find this visit, revealing, fascinating and moving. Yvonne, the guide, gives an insightful talk beginning with the first reference to the Jews in Ireland in 1079, to 1170 when Strongbow’s expedition was backed financially by Jews, to the establishment of small settlements, mostly around Dublin and later Belfast, Cork and Limerick
Studying Ulysses opens up unexplored areas of culture, history, beliefs and philosophy etc. In the great tradition of adult learning, it inspires the reader not only to pursue further study of Ulysses but to enquire into other areas of interest which the book pre-empted such as gender and sexual orientation, minority rights, fascism, racism, identity etc. How right James Joyce was in claiming that his great work would keep critics and readers baffled and curious for generations!
I love working in the evening programme in Coláiste Chiaráin and value the support of the staff members in their determination to make special interest subjects accessible to the suburban reader. For me, the spirit of the philosophy of adult education and lifelong learning which underpins the night classes is paramount, as it gives me the flexibility to design and deliver the programme in response to the needs of the class.
I have been working for a few years in Coláiste Chiaráin and every programme I facilitate is unique in keeping with the needs and interests of the group. We learn together in equal partnership – and have fun in the process. I put my hand up at the very start of the session by admitting that I am a non-academic Joycean enthusiast who will be delighted to see the back of them at the end of our reading of Ulysses. This revelation usually generates a tense class reaction which explodes into hoots of laughter as I explain that all of the past members of the classes which I have facilitated invariably outperform me in terms of their grasp and understanding of Ulysses!
At the end of our classes, I wish them well as fully fledged Joyceans and look forward to seeing them ambling in the footsteps of Bloom and Stephen on Bloomsday to the ring of Molly’s affirmation, ‘and yes I said yes I will Yes’.