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James Joyce & The Surprising Greymouth Connection

James Joyce And The Surprising Greymouth Connection

This Wednesday, June 16, is Bloomsday - the day on which Leopold Bloom took his epic journey through Dublin in James Joyce's Ulysses, the world's most highly acclaimed modern novel. This year marks 100 years since Bloom took his journey across Dublin and the day is being celebrated all around the world. The National Library Gallery is marking Bloomsday in a rather understated manner - by putting a copy of the book and a photo of the author on display in the Turnbull foyer of the Library building.

However, while undertaking research for the display labels, Gallery staff came across a little known New Zealand connection with the Joyce family. James Joyce's elder sister lived most of her life in Greymouth. Sister Mary Gertrude Joyce was an accomplished musician who taught the piano and the violin at the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy. The Convent's 1982 centennial publication refers in strong terms to the brother-sister relationship when talking of one of Sister Mary's former pupils who had become a priest:

'He had failed her miserably at music, but he had made it to the Priesthood and that was the one thing that mattered as far as Sister Mary Gertrude was concerned. She took that as a sign that not in vain had been her life-time of penance and prayer for her profligate brother, James Joyce, one of the most renowned - and permissive - of modern authors.'

Ulysses, originally published in 1922 in Paris, provoked a storm of controversy and was banned in Britain and the USA on account of its sexual frankness, blasphemy and vulgarity. In 1933 the ban was lifted when the American Judge Woolsey absurdly ruled: 'I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes Ulysses is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.'

The storm of controversy seems never to have died down during Sister Mary's lifetime. She died in 1964 at the age of 80, three years before the film of Ulysses was released in New Zealand, the film that famously screened to segregated audiences.

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