On 4 February 1917 Joyce suffered a severe attack of synechia.
While living in Trieste, Joyce began to suffer bouts of iritis, a painful inflammation of the iris, which plagued him for the rest of his life. This condition was exacerbated by other factors, including the weather, the poor state of his teeth, and his drinking.
This attack of synechia in February 1917 lead to a prolonged bout of eye trouble which continued until Joyce’s first eye operation at the end of August 1917. Synechia is a condition where the iris becomes stuck to the cornea or the lens. It can develop from glaucoma or cataracts (both of which Joyce also suffered from) and it can also cause certain kinds of glaucoma. Like iritis, it can be a painful condition, though in Joyce’s case it seems he was suffering from more than one illness at once. In May he describes his conditions as “rheumatic iritis complicated with synechia and glaucoma.”
On 7 March Joyce wrote to Harriet Weaver that after four weeks of illness his sight is still weak though he hopes he is now out of danger; a week later he wrote again to say: “I am now out of danger but am still under doctor’s care and my sight is still in some danger.”
At the end of April he was still under the doctor’s care and was depressed that this attack was lasting so long, writing that he has never had an attack that lasted as long as this. Though he was not in pain at this stage, he feared that the consequences would be serious though he still hoped to avoid an operation. By the time he writes to John Quinn in May, he has been ill for a fortnight with glaucoma. He says he is trying to avoid an operation “as I dislike the idea of cutting out pieces of the iris at intervals.”
In July 1917, Joyce suffered fever and tonsillitis, but an attack of iritis on 18 August 1917 was so severe that he was unable to move for twenty minutes. On 24 August, Professor Ernst Sidler operated to perform an iridectomy on the right eye, the first of eleven eye operations Joyce underwent.
Doctors today have reviewed Joyce’s various eye problems in an effort to come up with a diagnosis. It seems that his problems might have resulted from ankylosing spondylitis, but the more likely candidate is Reiter’s disease, a pun that Joyce himself would surely have enjoyed.
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vols. III & III, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.
Lyons, JB: James Joyce and Medicine, Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1973.