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Clever, Very: Simon O’Connor

Simon O’Connor was recently appointed Director of the Ulysses Centre* at Newman House, a joint venture of University College Dublin and the National Library of Ireland. This exciting new cultural landmark is slated to open in Spring 2019. O’Connor is himself a composer and served as founding curator of the Little Museum of Dublin. He agreed to share some of his ideas and plans for the Ulysses Centre with the staff of the JJQ.

James Joyce Quarterly: Before we talk about the new Centre, it would be nice to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us something about your background? And maybe something about what had drawn you to this exciting new project?

Simon O’Connor: I’ve had an unusual creative career, starting in punk bands as a teenager. I studied literature in Trinity College Dublin (and got terrible marks in my Joyce assignments!), became very active composing music for theatre, and eventually studied music as a postgraduate. I got to study with some of the world’s leading composers, in particular Donnacha Dennehy and Kevin Volans. I have been composing ever since, but accidentally became an editorial and graphic designer for about twelve years (quite a good career in fact) and from there founded the Little Museum of Dublin with a friend of mine from the publishing industry, Trevor White. This was a small project which became successful quite quickly – it made me realise this unusual collection of skills I had gathered had a home in museums and cultural institutions.

I first heard about the Ulysses Centre when giving a talk here about a year ago. The project and people were inspiring, as was the ambition to combine significant philanthropic support with an incredible physical site and a partnership between UCD and the National Library. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as well as a privilege to be involved in establishing an institution that can live up to the ambition of Joyce and the incredible literary achievements of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

JJQ: You have a background as a composer, how do you think this affects your work as a museum director?

O’Connor: That’s a great question – in the most obvious of ways, it will always mean a particular interest (just as Joyce had) in music and the other arts. More importantly, I am an arts practitioner and approach every task as such: I am always thinking about the audience, what experience I want them to have, what the outcome will be. Starting at the end and figuring out how to get there, and being open to the whole thing changing is the way my artistic practice works also. I think my background enables me to speak to other artists in language they appreciate; I envisage the Centre partnering a lot with artists from other media as well as literature.

JJQ: Is there any particular work of art, or individual artist, which has had an outsized impact on your life or the way in which you see the world? Why do you think that work or author been particularly influential?

O’Connor: I am an omnivore so this is difficult question. I would say the work and teaching of my mentor, Kevin Volans, entirely altered the course of how I see the world through music. Joyce’s Dubliners had a major effect on me as something that seemed to channel the whole psychology of Dublin – for me, more so than Ulysses which I think is a work that ages with you as you yourself become part of the fabric of the city. I read a lot of poetry – my favourite poets right now are Jo Shapcott, Don Paterson and Frederick Seidel, master craftspeople and molten human beings. Things knock me for six all the time – as far as the potential of language goes, Lydia Davis, Ted Hughes and WB Yeats still amaze me. More recently, Claire Louise Bennett’s Pond is an incredible piece of work. One of the best pieces of theatre I have seen in recent years was Olwen Fouére’s performance of Beckett’s Lessness, it was short but I wished it went on all day.

JJQ: Previously you were quoted as saying that the ambition of Ulysses Centre is: “to engage visitors with the creative spirit at the core of our society.” Could you provide more detail about what you mean by the creative spirit of Ireland?

O’Connor: The fiddler Martin Hayes had a great description of why his music sounds the way it does. He suggested you “drive to East Clare, don’t even get out of your car, and stop to have a look at the way the earth doesn’t quite absorb the water properly.” He was joking a little – I think as an island there is so much that makes us unique, and even our weather plays a role in our creativity. Nearly every aspect of our history, geography, geology, and economics have conspired to produce great writers and artists. Reading is a huge part of the culture here, from a very young age, and I think the Irish have an instinctively collaborative spirit. We like to make things and get things made. It’s a characteristic of our culture that has shone through the recent, dark recession, and one the government is now keen to significantly support through the Creative Ireland initiative. I hope the Ulysses Centre will play a strong role in promoting creativity in general, particularly among younger generations.

JJQ: Joyce obviously has a bit of a cult following, why do you think that Joyce’s works continue to strike a chord with readers almost a century after their initial composition?

O’Connor: Joyce created exceptional art that operates on whatever level his reader is comfortable with. To me he feels like Mozart – you can listen to the basic tunes and enjoy the lightness, the comedy, or you can dig down as far as you want and never find the bottom. He remains cutting edge and at the same time far more accessible than most people realise.

There is also the voodoo of place, the psychogeography of Joyce – he will be read forever by Dubliners because we recognise the invisible familiarity of our city in his work. And he legitimises the quotidien, the everyday, the experiences that unite us all. If Dublin has an essence that stretches slowly backward and forward over time, Joyce captured it. I suspect if a Viking couple read Joyce they would recognise their city and themselves in his work.

JJQ: Museums provide a unique opportunity to collect and synthesize scholarship with artifacts while simultaneously appealing to the public at large. How do you think the Ulysses Centre will balance catering to Joyceans, or academics in general, and the public at large?

O’Connor: I firmly believe you cannot produce something for all audiences in the same space at the same time without creating a lowest common denominator. What museums can do is appeal to all audiences at different times, in different spaces, with different offerings. The main exhibitions and programming will have huge appeal for Joyceans and academics, as will the research and library component of the Centre, but there is also the goal of sharing Irish literature with everyone else, not just keeping it for ourselves. The Centre will have a huge responsibility to bring Irish writing to the broader public – for example, engaging 10,000 school kids every year with Joyce is a big priority, especially when he is no longer on the Irish school curriculum.

JJQ: Why do you think Ireland was such a hot bed for revolutionary literature throughout the 20th and into 21st century?

O’Connor: If I were to boil it down into one sentence, I would suggest that the promise and idealism of revolution gave way to a highly institutionalised and, in every sense, impoverished society – one which writing, amongst all the art forms, was well-placed to reflect. Not to be over-reductive, but while the aesthetic revolutions of European visual art were occupying many of our painters, our writers were slowly delineating the quiet horrors of a repressed society. Declan Kiberd’s recently published After Ireland is an exemplary look at this very subject.

JJQ: One of the most important functions of any museum is their public outreach. Can you give us a brief sense of how the Ulysses Centre plans on engaging with the public?

O’Connor: On one level, the core exhibition and collection will be a fantastic entry point into the subject, particularly for visitors to the city. Engaging young children through a dynamic and progressive education programme will be a priority, as will developing mentoring and creative opportunities for young teens/adults as they move from being readers to becoming writers, and commissioning new work from adult writers. We also plan on bringing artists from other art forms in to the Centre to engage with our literary subject matter. Additionally, we will have a significant digital broadcasting programme to reach audiences around the world. And, importantly, we will emphasize creating a community and social life around the Centre through talks, interviews, concerts, and social events. I guarantee that the Centre will have fantastic members’ parties!

JJQ: Is there a current void among Dublin’s museums or in the larger Irish culture that you think the Ulysses Centre can, or should, fill?

O’Connor: I think the literary offering of the city is vast: from the activity of the The James Joyce Centre on North Great George’s Street, exhibitions in the National Library, the UNESCO City of Literature team, Poetry Ireland, the Irish Writers Centre, the Dublin Writers Museum, the International Dublin Literary Award, our many literature festivals, the list is huge. What we have not had until now is a centre of sufficient size and investment with the capability and capacity to have an international impact and act as a focal point for our literary heritage, while also striving to meet the challenge of engaging the public at a much larger and international scale. When people visit Dublin they know it is a literary city; we will make it much easier for them to understand why that is so, and to discover the many exciting locations that render Dublin a unique city of words.

JJQ: Why do you think the present moment is a good time to begin this project?

O’Connor: Something we have spoken about on this project is the importance of the book in Irish society and history, the book as an object of change. And today, more than ever in the last century, the book and written word occupies a tremendous position of importance in society. The demise of writing was prematurely exaggerated during the digital dawn: readership and book sales continue to increase, and here in Ireland there is a renaissance of new Irish writing and publishing houses. In a globalised society where truth is under attack every day, we can find truth not just through reading but through critical reading, through teaching how to read. As you touched on earlier, writing to power is at the centre of our literary heritage – we have a major opportunity with this Centre to positively contribute to and to amplify a culture of engaged reading and writing.

JJQ: Are there any specific plans for exhibits on Joyce that you’d be willing, or able, to share with us?

O’Connor: Too many to list! But to give away a little: there will be cutting-edge interactive art installations on language and the sounds of Joyce’s texts, placing him in the context of Irish writing before and after, helping the visitor find their place in the riverrun of language; priceless items from Joyce’s own collections and those of significant private collectors; personal items that will allow us to look directly at Joyce’s compositional processes, as well as exhibitions on publishing in the State around the time of Joyce; specially commissioned films and readings, and a very, very special edition of Ulysses itself. The Centre will be a treasure trove for Joyce enthusiasts, and one we hope will firmly acknowledge the contribution Joyce made to the world’s literary landscape.

This interview was conducted in November 2017 by Alexander W. Barchet.

* On January 1 the museum’s named was changed to the Museum of Literature Ireland (or MoLI)—a new yet still distinctly Joycean moniker.