Joe Chester

Joseph Chester isn’t one to stay in a comfort zone. In 2020, his sixth album, Jupiter’s Wife, was heralded as one of the best Irish albums of the decade. We don’t need to dwell upon what happened next. As we retreated into our own little empires, he took on an audacious task: to compose a suite of music for guitar and strings about the secret life of Lucia Joyce.

Lucia Joyce was the misunderstood daughter of James Joyce. She has been shamefully side-lined in literary history, cruelly excluded from wider recognition thanks to a combination of sexism, ignorance, and stigmas over mental health. After recording a double album of love songs, Joseph fancied a fresh challenge.

“I was beginning to feel a little burnt out in terms of song-writing, so I wanted to give that part of my brain a bit of a rest,” he explains. “I thought it would be great to create a story on an instrumental record without words, but I had no idea how.”

While casting around for ideas, Joseph stumbled upon an illuminating Lyric FM documentary entitled Dancing with Lucia by Deirdre Mulrooney. “It really resonated with me,” he recalls. “I listened to it a few times. I knew there was a story to be told, but I wasn’t sure how. It was only after I started digging around that it began to take shape.”

Before researching and composing Lucia, Chester knew little about the author’s daughter. “Lucia was born in 1907 and spent 47 years of her life in mental institutions,” Joseph reveals. “She was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1932 and died in Northampton in 1982. After she died, her nephew, Stephen Joyce, destroyed all her writing and papers, including all her correspondence with Samuel Beckett and three books she had written. He attempted to erase this woman, who had been hidden away and silenced in life. I became convinced that I had to try to tell her story.”

Joseph created a suite of music by composing pieces based around key milestones in Lucia’s life. “I limited myself to eleven verifiable facts and tried to allow her to speak through those events,” he says. “They were important banner moments. For example, in the 1920s she became a dancer. The silent film maker John Renoir cast her to perform as a toy soldier in The Little Match Girl, so I wrote a piece about that.” Coincidentally Lucia’s dancing earned her a glowing endorsement from the Paris Times: “When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father.”

Lucia became romantically involved with Samuel Beckett. During his investigations, Chester unearthed all sorts of half-truths, outright lies, and contradictions. “Her story is an exercise in separating fact from fiction.” Joseph says. “When I first started researching, Beckett didn’t come across particularly well in terms of how he treated Lucia. The basic story goes that they had a love affair, which Beckett ended. Some people speculate that this is when she started to have problems and become self-destructive. However, I found out that when James Joyce’s wife, Nora, started to complain about the cost of Lucia’s healthcare, Samuel Beckett donated his share of the royalties of an essay on Finnegan’s Wake to cover the costs of her medical bills. When Beckett died in 1989, a picture of Lucia was found when they cleared out his desk.”

During the centenary year of the publication of Ulysses, Joseph Chester’s Lucia premiered on Bloomsday, June 16h, 2022, at the Axis Art and Community Centre, Ballymun, performed by a group featuring Chester, Trevor Hutchinson, Kenneth Rice, Vyvienne Long, and Steve Wickham. “What I really liked about this year’s Bloomsday is that there was much more conversation and celebration of different aspects of James Joyce’s family, which is great,” Chester adds. “It can’t be all about him.”

In 2021, Chester’s Carolan/Cage EP scored an international number one on the Bandcamp Contemporary Classical chart, which comprised of guitar transcriptions of music by the Irish composer Turlough O’Carolan and the American composer John Cage. “I’ve never played classical guitar in my life, so just from that point of view it was a huge education,” Joe says. “I wrote Lucia but I’m still figuring out how to play it.”. I never had a guitar teacher, so how I played the guitar in some ways was quite simply wrong. I ended up with a lot of physical pain from bad technique that I had to correct. There are physical, mental and emotional challenges in confronting mental illness. Everybody has some form or aspect of mental illness in their lives, but we don’t like talking about it.”

Joseph considers Lucia to be one of the most fulfilling projects he has ever done. “This was a wonderfully rewarding experience and I’ve loved every minute of it,” he enthuses. “Lucia continues to challenge and reward me. Doing all the research and reading, discovering all about this amazing person, making music that is completely new to me. It has been a real voyage of discovery.”

He hopes Lucia will help preserve and perpetuate her memory. “I think that it can sometimes be easier to tell a story when there aren’t any words and you’re not being prescriptive,” he says. “Obviously, everyone’s reaction will differ, but my hope is that it could in some fantastical way give back her voice and allow Lucia to breathe again.”

Pre-order album Lucia