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Discovered two years ago, they were kept secret until now. The £8m-plus deal – the largest artistic purchase ever made by the Irish state – was negotiated through Sotheby’s.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern met the suitcase of papers at Dublin Airport following 18 months of top secret talks between the vendor and the National Library of Ireland, which kept the news so secret that the minutes from its board meetings only refer to an acquisition of material by “a significant Irish author”.

The documents surfaced in December 2000 when Alexis Léon, a Frenchman whose parents were close friends of Joyce, began cleaning out boxes left in his family’s Paris apartment since his mother’s death in 1972. Mr Léon’s parents, Paul and Lucie, preserved many documents that Joyce left in Paris when he fled to Switzerland in 1940, following the German occupation of France.

After Joyce’s death in 1941, Paul Léon broke into the author’s apartment in Paris at night, with a handcart, to salvage documents that the landlord would have confiscated because Joyce had not paid his rent. Some material was returned to the Joyce family and then sold at auction, mostly to the State University of New York.

Several years later, Paul Léon was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where he died, and the Léons’ apartment was raided three times by the Gestapo, who were looking for first editions of Joyce’s books. Lucie Léon hid the manuscripts for the rest of the war, and many of them remained hidden away.

When he was a child, Alexis Léon met James Joyce, and he remembers him as a gentle, polite man who would listen to adolescents as seriously as to adults.

Joyce scholars thought that most of his major manuscripts around the world had been discovered by the 1960s, but this is the third consecutive year in which previously unknown Joyce manuscripts have come to light.

One of the most colourful documents in the collection is a notebook filled with words and phrases that Joyce stored up for later use. As he wrote them into Ulysses, he crossed them out with crayon to avoid repeating himself.

The notebooks “have come home to Ireland where they belong – even though Ireland and Joyce, long ago, were on different wavelengths,” Mr Léon said.