Why Dubliners celebrate Bloomsday, a uniquely Irish holiday

This year marks the centenary of James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses. Dublin celebrates on June 16, the day the epic was set.

By Edmund Vallance
Published 13 Jun 2022, 15:42 BST
James Joyce lookalike John Shevlin visits the grave of Joyce’s parents during the annual Bloomsday event ...
James Joyce lookalike John Shevlin visits the grave of Joyce’s parents during the annual Bloomsday event at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. A century after Joyce’s Ulysses, the novel’s impact continues to be felt by Dubliners and literature fans around the world.
Photograph by Brian Lawless, PA Images, Getty Images

Landing at Dublin Airport, my cell phone springs into life, and I’m greeted with a slurry of Ulysses-themed emails. One in particular catches my eye. It’s from the President of Ireland.

Ulysses was a brave new departure whose influence continues to be reflected in many of the great writings of the 21st century,” President Michael D. Higgins said. “Reading it now it appears to be both a celebration of what is the arrival of modernism, and in a curious way, an anticipation of its flaws and insufficiency. It is above all Irish in essence and reference.”

This certainly gave me something to chew on in the taxi to my hotel. I was in Dublin for the centenary of the novel’s publication (February 2, 1922) and already I’d made contact with an illustrious fan. Vladimir Nabokov considered the book “a divine work of art.” Nowadays, everyone from Salman Rushdie to Kate Bush sings its praises. So what’s the secret of its perennial appeal? I had four days to find out.

For those who haven’t read Ulysses—and for those who simply claim to have done—it tells the story of Leopold Bloom, and his adventures on a single day in Dublin (June 16, 1904). This year, Bloomsday offers a packed program of events, including Bloomsday Film Festival at The James Joyce Centre (opening to the public on June 7th, 2022) and The Irish Film Institute; and three Bloom-themed exhibitions at The Museum of Literature Ireland.

A woman reads Ulysses at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. The museum exhibits the door to the home of the novel’s fictional protagonist Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly Tweedy. The door to number 7 Eccles Street was saved when the home was demolished in 1967.
Photograph by Image Professionals GmbH, Alamy Stock Photo

As a teenager, I tried—and failed—to read Joyce’s modernist masterpiece. Only in my thirties did I stumble through its entire 644 pages. Now, in my dim-witted forties, I was still struggling with “the ineluctable modality of the audible,” and was less than confident about “contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality.” I needed help.

(How to plan a literary walking tour through Dublin.)

So I’d enlisted three Ulysses obsessives to lead me through the Joycean labyrinth. The first was Senator David Norris, a longstanding politician, and one-time literature professor at Trinity College Dublin. The second: Anne Enright, a Booker Prize-winning novelist, and professor of creative writing at University College Dublin. The third: Simon O’Connor, the director of the Museum of Literature Ireland (or MoLi, as it’s better known).

The Drunken Cyclops

Approaching MoLi—the name itself a nod to Bloom’s wife, Molly—I felt a pang of Joyceaphobia. Should a British journalist like myself really be covering so Irish a novel? Had this “ponderous Saxon” bitten off more than he could chew? My worries seemed to evaporate as Simon O’Connor welcomed me in with a grin, and whisked me off on a tour of the museum, where the very first copy of Ulysses was on prominent display.

Ulysses has a reputation that’s self-propelling,” he told me, the first edition glimmering like a relic under glass. “As long as it’s known as this massively difficult novel that you must read once in your lifetime, people will always be intrigued. Folks often apologise to me for never having read it. A book that carries guilt for over a century: that’s quite an achievement!”

Irish-American artist Marjorie Fitzgibbon made two bronze sculptures of James Joyce on public display in Dublin: a bust in St. Stephen's Green and a statue on North Earl Street, seen here.
Photograph by deadlyphoto.com, Alamy Stock Photo

“Perhaps the closest modern analogue is David Simon’s The Wire,” he continued. “He tries to create this vast picture of Baltimore as a living organism with lots of linking components. And that’s really what Joyce was trying to do with Dublin.”

We glided past a cabinet of Ulysses typescripts, with copious edits in Joyce’s looping scrawl. Nearby, his death mask seemed for a moment to smile. “People forget how funny the book is,” O’Connor said. “The ‘Cyclops’ episode is my favourite. It’s set in a raucous Dublin bar, and it’s messy and hilarious. Particularly good if you read it in a pub. You should try it.” I was tempted. But I had an interview to conduct in an hour. Probably best if I didn’t get “as drunk as a boiled owl,” as Joyce so eloquently put it in “Cyclops.”

Professors and censors

I met Anne Enright at The Stag’s Head: a Victorian pub where Joyce reputedly drank. “People see Ulysses as a test or a mark of their ability,” she told me, sitting in a pub with a stained-glass ceiling. “But as I’m slightly anti-hierarchical in my mindset, I say just splash around in it, enjoy it. Joyce was throwing out a lot of problems with no solutions, a lot of jokes with no punchlines. He set a whole academic industry rolling on that—still looking for what he might have meant. It’s amazing, really.”

Actors of the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl bring the city’s fictive history to life by declaiming the works of Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Oscar Wilde at spots such as the Stag’s Head pub in Dublin.
Photograph by Eric Martin, Figarophoto, Redux

Enright was right, of course. Joyce said of Ulysses: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” A hundred years on, the book is still polemic—and arguably pornographic. It was banned in the United States during the 1920s, and continues to receive mixed reviews in Ireland. “It was a very dirty book, and it remains a very dirty book,” Anne said, smiling. “Joyce wasn’t afraid of the fetishistic. You might even say he was drawn to it.”

The final chapter of Ulysses—“Penelope”—came under intense scrutiny during the 1933 obscenity trial in New York. In retrospect, Molly Bloom’s graphic inner monologue (known as “Molly’s soliloquy”) was blazing a trail. As Anne explained to me: “It was historically and socially ground-breaking that you’d have a woman in a novel thinking about sex at all.

Blooms and rhododendrons

The next morning, I crossed O’Connell Bridge (as Bloom did in “Lestrygonians”) and made my way to The James Joyce Centre. Senator David Norris—one of the museum’s founding members—greeted me at the front door, and ushered me into a pale green drawing room. “I discovered Ulysses when I was quite young,” he told me. “I had a very glamorous uncle who wore rings and aftershave—practically a criminal offence in the 1950s. I took his book—and two of his cigars—and retreated up a tree in the garden.”

O’Connell Bridge, seen after the 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish republicans led a deadly rebellion against British rule.
Photograph by Independent News And Media, Getty Images
A contemporary view of O’Connell Bridge shows tour buses crossing the Liffey River.
Photograph by Pawel Gaul, Getty Images

Feeling flummoxed by the novel’s Homeric parallels, I asked Norris how strong an influence the Odyssey had had on Ulysses. “Joyce never read the Odyssey,” he told me, very matter-of-factly. “He only read Lamb’s Adventures of Ulysses—an abridged version of the poem. What he wanted was the outline, the skeleton, and he hung his story on that—like a clothes wrack to hang his knickers on.”

“Bloom isn’t a Homeric hero,” Norris continued. “Or a hero in the way we usually think of heroes. When he’s insulted, he doesn’t find the nearest telephone box and appear like Superman, clocking the fellow on the nose. If you want to understand him, just take a stroll through Dublin. Or go to the seaside at Howth where he asks Molly to marry him in “Penelope.” I’m not sure if the rhododendrons are out yet, but Molly mentions them.”

The charming town of Howth, 25-minutes by train from Dublin, is where Leopold Bloom proposes to Molly Tweedy in Joyce's novel.
Photograph by Rene Bruun, EyeEm, Getty Images
Swimmers wade in the Irish Sea near Baily Lighthouse in Howth, just east of Dublin.
Photograph by Artur Widak, NurPhoto, Getty Images

Later that afternoon, I followed Norris’s advice. Walking from Bloom’s house on Eccles Street to Connolly Station, I took the train to Howth: the scene of his marriage proposal to Molly. Kate Bush’s Flower of the Mountain was playing in my head as I traced a path through blossoming rhododendrons. The lyrics to the song—taken verbatim from Molly’s soliloquy— revealed Joyce as a poet, a pioneer, and above all, a hopeless romantic: “I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

On the train back to Dublin, it seemed to me that President Higgins had hit the nail on the head. Ulysses was a “brave new departure” in 1922, and remains a shockingly original and influential book in 2022. One hundred years from now, readers will still be plumbing its inky depths.

Edmund Vallance is a London-born travel journalist based in Los Angeles. You can find him on Instagram.

 

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