The bodies of James Joyce, his wife Nora Barnacle Joyce, and “others buried in the same grave” should be brought to Ireland, said Dublin city councillors in the south-east of the city, earlier this week.
Ideally, it should all be wrapped up by February 2022, the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Ulysses, the motion said.
“I think it’s important to remember that James Joyce was born at 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, in 1882,” said Fine Gael Councillor Paddy McCartan, at the meeting.
The plan now is for the council to send the request to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Department of Justice, and to inform President Michael D. Higgins of the request.
Joyce is “synonymous with Dublin”, said Labour Party Councillor Dermot Lacey.
“It was the wishes of his family at the time that he be repatriated to Ireland, and I think it would be simply the right and proper thing to do,” he said.
However, some say the plan might be more complicated than it seems, with questions over the wishes of living relatives, and what would happen to other family members buried alongside the couple – and how the city of Zurich might respond.
James Joyce spent much of his adult life abroad. The last time he visited Dublin was 1912, and after that he never returned. He died in 1941, at the age of 58, in Zurich, Switzerland. He’s buried there, in Fluntern Cemetery.
“There were various attempts over the years for the repatriation of his body, but it has come to naught,” said McCartan, the Fine Gael councillor.
Two of those attempts were by Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle Joyce, the first shortly after he died in 1941.
When the body of W.B. Yeats was repatriated from France in 1948, she made another attempt, says Joyce biographer Anthony Jordan. “She was turned down by the government both times.”
Jordan says no reasons were given. “But the probable or likely reason was that they believed he was anti-Catholic because of his writing. He had been born a Catholic and spoke out about the Church,” Jordan says.
At the council meeting earlier this week, McCartan told a similar story.
There was a “negative response” from the Irish Department of External Affairs at the time, he said. “[T]here was a strong hostility to anyone who was seen to be anti-Catholic.”
Jordan says Joyce died suddenly, so his own wishes are unclear, but that his wife wanted his body brought back to Ireland.
If James Joyce’s remains are repatriated, the logical place to re-inter him is Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, where his parents are buried, says Jordan. “Everything he wrote was about Dublin.”
Jordan says he agreed with President Higgins’s statement last year that Ireland “owes a debt” to Joyce. Dublin City Council’s motion should be explored, he said.
Fritz Senn, who is in charge of the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich, says he thinks repatriation would be “a very complicated process”.
The Irish government would have to deal with the city of Zurich, and the Joyce family would have to consent, he says. Joyce’s grandson, Stephen, is the only remaining direct descendant.
Also, Joyce’s body isn’t the only one in the grave. The “grave of honour” that the city of Zurich erected in 1966 also contains the remains of Nora Barnacle Joyce, their son Giorgio, and his wife Asta Jahnke-Osterwalder Joyce.
Senn says Joyce was a citizen of the United Kingdom when he died. Joyce’s daughter-in-law Asta Jahnke-Osterwalder Joyce, meanwhile, was German.
She was “not from the Joyce family, so she, strictly speaking, would not belong to Dublin”, Senn says. “It’s a bit more complicated than some people might imagine.”
The mayor of Zurich wasn’t available to offer an opinion on the matter, but a spokesperson from her office offered information about the local laws that might govern the matter.
There’s a regional burial ordinance that says “the municipality of Zurich can authorise the exhumation of graves in justified exceptional cases”, the spokesperson said.
Normally, “ordinary” graves in Zurich city cemeteries “are removed after about 20 years”. “If the relatives wish to do so, the remains can be excavated and relocated to a different grave,” the spokesperson said.
In the context of clearing graves, the city exhumes from three to five graves every year.
The Joyce family is buried in a grave of honour. “A grave of honour remains for at least 30 years, but can remain longer,” said the spokesperson.
“Neither I, nor those responsible at the funeral and cemeteries office, know of a precedent in which an exhumation of an existing grave or a grave of honour was requested,” she said.
The funeral and cemeteries office in Zurich estimated that, on their end, the total cost of exhuming and transporting Joyce would be roughly between €5,400 and €9,000.
A spokesperson for the Department of Culture back here in Dublin said that any repatriation of the remains of James Joyce would be a matter in the first instance for family members and trustees of the Joyce Estate.
“Without having received an application from those it would not be appropriate for the Minister to express a view on the matter,” they said.
According to Senn, from the Zurich James Joyce Foundation, Joyce had a connection to the city where he’s buried. He visited Zurich many times, lived there for a few years during World War I, and returned about a month before he died.
“One of his last letters is to the mayor in Zurich, where he writes in German of how connected he is to the city,” Senn says.
“I’m not mounting the barricade to keep his bones in Zurich,” Senn says. But it “would be a pity” to take him away “because he stayed here and he’s appreciated here”.
[CLARIFICATION: This article was updated on 17 October at 18:30 to add more detail to how long graves of honour remain.]