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How James Joyce conquered Ireland

Joyce fans celebrate Bloomsday in 2011. Slaven Vlasic/Getty

To mark 100 years since its publication, I recently read Ulysses for the second time, says Chris Fitzpatrick in The Irish Times. It wasn’t much fun. Aside from a few standout passages, I was mostly wading through “page after page of turgid prose”. And the protagonists just seemed boring: “If Stephen Dedalus walked into a pub I was in, I’d duck.” Short reading sessions, long reading sessions, reference books, audio recordings – I tried them all and nothing helped.

In truth, James Joyce’s novel is most interesting as a cultural phenomenon. The Irish writer has become a “national secular saint”: he appears on bank notes, and has a bridge and a navy patrol boat named after him. Much of the book’s success must be credited to the army of academics who keep churning out work about it, and the canny marketing executives who have made Bloomsday, the annual celebration of Ulysses, into a big vintage-themed party that has little to do with reading the novel. But Ulysses also captures the way modern Ireland sees itself: post-Catholic, “but hanging on to the trappings”; sexually liberated, “but with hang-ups”; and pro-European, but with an abiding interest in British royals. For those still interested in tackling the book, disregard the scholars and take the advice of Marilyn Monroe, who said she liked to “dip into Ulysses” to read the best bits, rather than slogging through the whole thing. Quite right.