- Interview with Simon O’Connor, Director of the Ulysses Centre*
Simon O’Connor was recently appointed Director of the Ulysses Centre, a joint venture of University College Dublin and the National Library of Ireland. This exciting new cultural landmark is slated to open in 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 JJQ.
James Joyce Quarterly: Before we talk about the new Ulysses 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 theater, and eventually studied music as a postgraduate. I got to work 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 realize 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 [End Page 187] 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, that 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 has 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 favorite 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 W. B. Yeats still amaze me. More recently, Claire Louise Bennett’s Pond is an incredible piece of work. One of the best pieces of theater I have seen in recent years was Olwen Fouére’s performance of Beckett...