It will be marked by a series of anniversaries that throw into focus some of Ireland’s most outstanding literary and dramatic achievements. The most celebrated of all is actually not the birth of a famous poet, dramatist or novelist. It is a celebration of a humble event that became the setting for a great novel and finally the occasion of a festival of worldwide proportions. The event was the first date between novelist James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, who would later become his wife. The date was June 16, 1904. Eight years later, it became the basis of “Ulysses,” Joyce’s greatest novel.
This year will mark the 100th anniversary of that first stepping out together. The Irish government has already launched a series of events to mark the occasion, with readings, talks and the showing of films based on the novel. However, things will get into high gear beginning in June, when on the 13th the poet Seamus Heaney will give open the Plenary reading in the National Concert Hall in Dublin.
The achievement of Joyce is truly astounding. Almost singlehandedly he raised the modern novel to the level of epic poetry, yet he did so in the form of a comic tale of a Jewish Irishman, his wife, Molly, and their search for a lost son. But his is far from the only anniversary that will be worth celebrating this year. It also sees the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Abbey Theatre. Like the work of Joyce, that of the Abbey in its early years at least revitalized the theater, returning to it something of the intensity it possessed in the 17th century. Yeats, Synge and O’Casey were among the dramatists that the Abbey helped propel to the forefront of drama.
More quietly celebrated but equally worthy of note will be the anniversaries of the births of two of Ireland finest writers — the poet Patrick Kavanagh and the novelist and short story writer Michael McLaverty. Though their work is not generally as well known as that of Joyce or the Abbey dramatists, it has achieved recognition among the lovers of good writing who turn to the Irish tradition for the pleasures that only literature can give.