This was the book to have. –Sydney Shep

By Roger Childs

The Friends of the Kapiti Libraries’ October session had a fascinating and appealing title:

Of Nuns, Priests and Books: Antipodean Adventures with James Joyce.

Dublin in 1922

2022 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses.  The book is probably one of the most popular unread printed works of all time. It used the novel ‘stream of consciousness’ technique for telling the story of Stephen Dedalus, Leopold and Molly Bloom and their friends in Dublin. 

After 100 years, however, it is still offering up some fascinating secrets. Dr Sydney J. Shep, Reader in Book History and the Printer at Wai-te-ata Press, gave a very authoritative and highly entertaining talk on the weird and unexpected things that have happened through a century of Ulysses

Joyce’s lengthy and controversial novel was first published in Paris a hundred years ago by ex-pat American Sylvia Beach who owned the famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop in the Latin Quarter.  

James Joyce sometimes used the shop himself for writing and research.

The small first edition

The highly prized first edition was just 1000 copies on paper of varying quality (a signed copy today would cost $NZ 125,000!) It was the book to be seen with and the publishers noted the names of as many of the purchasers as possible. These included the Duke of Kent, D.H. Lawrence, World War One veterans, intelligence officers in Europe, Natalie, a niece of Oscar Wilde, and Joyce’s sister, Catholic nun Poppie.

There was a big market for Ulysses in Britain and the United States where it was intially banned for being indecent, and the book was smuggled into these countries. Before long more than 15 bookstores in London had the book and many more in Paris. Despite its notoriety, it was not censored in Ireland or by the Vatican.

A Catholic priest bought a first edition and this ended up in the Vatican Library.

The New Zealand and Irish connections 

The sister of Joyce — Mary Gertrude Joyce, affectionately known as Poppie, came to New Zealand in the 1920s and brought a copy of the book. She worked with the Sisters of Mary in Christchurch. Joyce was very close to his sister and kept in touch. After the 1929 Murchison Earthquake he was anxious to find out if Poppie was unharmed. At the time she was in Greymouth. There is also a tenuous connection between Joyce and the haka as performed by the 1924-25 All Black “Invincibles” who were unbeaten on their long tour of the British Isles.

Sadly all the letters and photos exchanged between the two Joyce siblings were destroyed in line with Poppie’s wishes, after she died.

James Joyce lived most of his life in Europe but he was proud of his Irish heritage. However, he was not very interested in politics and did not get involved with the Irish Independence movement.

Sydney Shep’s talk was well illustrated and superbly delivered much to the delight of the 30-40 people in attendance.