“Bloomsday” is the day on which James Joyce set his novel Ulysses in my native city of Dublin. The name derives from the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses, and 16th June 1904 was the date of Joyce’s first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle, when they walked to the Dublin village of Ringsend and onto Sandymount Strand. My connection with Joyce is both tenuous and all encompassing: We both lived in North Richmond Street, Dublin, (but not at the same time!) where Joyce also briefly attended O’Connell School. It is all encompassing because as a Dubliner his works resonate, are accessible not difficult and speak both of the pain and the paradoxical freedom of exile.
To understand Bloomsday you need to know that it follows the trials and tribulations of one entire day in the life of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses when this hapless Jewish advertising salesman spends a day wandering around his adopted city of Dublin starting somewhat inauspiciously with the funeral of his friend Paddy Dignam. It could be subtitled “A Day in the Life of Dublin” and Joyce who disliked the city only ever wrote about it and only ever wrote about an Edwardian Ireland frozen in time under British rule ignoring Independent Ireland, a fact which among others did not endear him to Eamon de Valera and others who had his books censored in his native land when the apparatus of thought control by the Catholic Taliban was more overt.
Nora Barnacle is the great constant of Joyce’s life, a chambermaid from Galway, who remained his rock, teacher, and a portable Ireland throughout their lives in exile. Indeed if you walk down Dublin’s Nassau Street at the side of Trinity College you will see in winter (when the leaves are off the trees) on the gable wall of the building where the college wall ends the outline of a sign for “Finns Hotel”, the long closed hotel where Joyce’s inamorta worked. On the evening of 16th June 1904 Joyce and Barnacle are reputed to have engaged in a “sexual act” on Sandymount Stand. In November 1904 Joyce and his red haired Nora left Dublin and Ireland and emigrated permanently to continental Europe, living in Trieste, Paris and Zurich. Though most of his adult life was spent abroad, Joyce’s fictional universe does not extend far beyond Dublin, and is populated largely by characters who closely resemble family members, enemies and friends from his time there; Ulysses in particular is set with precision in the streets and alleyways of the city. He was to return to Ireland only four times, each trip disastrous to a greater or lesser extent and the die was cast for this talented singer, musician and promoter of Ireland’s first cinema to spend years abroad coping with money worries, increasing blindness and becoming the greatest writer never to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Everyone crushes into the city for March’s St Patrick’s Day parades, but far better to visit for the more esoteric Bloomsday on 16 June. It celebrates the life of James Joyce, and is named after Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses, and involves lots of readings, dramatisations and drinking. Many enthusiasts dress in Edwardian costume and retrace Bloom’s route around Dublin as described in the book, reciting passages as they go. On Bloomsday fans follow the route around Dublin taken by Bloom and usually have a breakfast of sausages, beans, black and white pudding and toast at some stage along the way. Davy Byrne’s Pub usually figures in everyone’s Bloomsday celebration at some stage of the day.
The narrator of Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom is the non-practising son of a Hungarian Jew (Blum) and Dublin is viewed on this single day through his outsiders eyes in a narrative modelled on the structure of Homer’s Odyssey. One of his students in Trieste was Ettore Schmitz, better known by the pseudonym Italo Svevo. They met in 1907 and became lasting friends and mutual critics. Schmitz was a Catholic of Jewish origin and became a primary model for Leopold Bloom; most of the details about the Jewish faith in Ulysses came from Schmitz’s responses to queries from Joyce.
Ulysses deals with the opulence of personal thought and while we are ushered into its characters private worlds with ease, we know little about their exteriors. The narrative parallels Homer’s Odyssey, but an in-depth knowledge of The Odyssey is not necessary for enjoyment of Ulysses. Throughout the novel, the reader is permitted to become wholly familiar with the inner workings of Leopold’s mind, but not given enough information about his physical appearance to form a clear mental picture of him. Much of the narrative is a richly textured commentary on society and Ireland and much is prophetic. Consider;
“– That’s your glorious British navy, says the citizen, that bosses the earth. The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of God’s earth and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons. That’s the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs.
– On which the sun never rises, says Joe.
– And the tragedy of it is, says the citizen, they believe it. The unfortunate yahoos believe it.”
We are told Bloom is quiet and decent, a man of inflexible honour to his fingertips. He has a pale intellectual face in which are set two dark large lidded, superbly expressive eyes.
The story of a haunting sorrow is written on his face and his friends say that there’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom, he is isolated from the city he observes, from his religion and most tellingly, from his wife. A safe, moustached man who has his good points and slips off when the fun gets too hot. Another significant figure winding his way through the streets of Dublin in Ulysses is Stephen Dedalus, whom we first meet in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is an arrogant young intellectual whom Bloom takes under his wing. He acts as a father figure to the young Stephen who fulfills the role to some extent of son for Bloom whose own son died in infancy.
Bloom’s wife Molly in Ulysses is equated with Penelope in The Odyssey and the last chapter of the book is dedicated solely to her meanderings and musings. It is one of the most renowned pieces of writing in Ulysses and is famous for its celebration of this voluptuous, sensuous, opulent, abundant, independent, lush, and blooming woman. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of the James Joyce’s Ulysses is recognised as one of the most famous female narratives in modern literature. It has been used as the basis of songs, re-appeared in movies, quoted in other literary works and in terms of its effect on Irish culture was, as the award-winning writer Eavan Boland puts it, “a liberating signpost to this country’s future”. Sensuous, compelling and at times hugely funny, this soliloquy is the only time in Joyce’s seminal novel where Molly’s voice is heard. In it, we hear the otherwise silent character bare her soul on life, love, sex and loneliness.
Today’s Bloomsday is a spirited celebration among culture-lovers in Dublin and the festival, organised by a foundation that commemorates the writer, now runs for a week. It is traditional to dress up and go out around Dublin on Bloomsday, visiting the locations featured in the book and taking part in readings, walks and activities associated with Ulysses. Perhaps the most famous of these is the James Joyce Tower and Museum in a Martello tower in Sandycove, Dublin, where James Joyce spent six nights in 1904. The tower was leased from the British War Office by Joyce’s university friend Oliver St. John Gogarty, with the purpose of “Hellenising” Ireland. Joyce left after an incident in which Gogarty fired a gun in his direction. The opening scenes of Ulysses are set the morning after this incident. Gogarty is immortalised as “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” (the opening words of the novel).
For Dublin’s Martello Towers see;
In Dublin Bloomsday begins with the annual Bloomsday breakfast in the James Joyce Centre on North Great George’s Street in Dublin. For many visitors, Dublin is Joyce and on Bloomsday there is a range of cultural activities including Ulysses readings and dramatisations, pub crawls and general merriment, much of it hosted by the James Joyce Centre. Enthusiasts often dress in Edwardian costume to celebrate Bloomsday, and retrace Bloom’s route around Dublin via landmarks such as Davy Byrne’s pub, where Bloom enjoyed a glass of Burgundy and a Gorgonzola sandwich. Hard-core devotees have even been known to hold marathon readings of the entire novel, some lasting up to 36 hours.
However, the Eagle’s favourite work is also Joyce’s most accessible, the compendium of short stories “Dubliners”. Completed when its author was just 25 years old, Dubliners skilfully portrays both turn-of-the-century Dublin and Joyce’s surroundings in Continental Europe. Joyce’s Dublin was one of politics and intrigue, of religious devotion and disaffection; a city in which the pressures and ties of family and society were never far from mind. Dubliners features Joyce’s alma mater, Belvedere College; The Gresham Hotel, setting for the climactic scene in “The Dead”; the site of Nelson’s Column and many others which form a map of the city.
Joyce’s intention in writing Dubliners, in his own words was to write a chapter of the moral history of his country, and he chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to him to be the centre of paralysis. He tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life. Dubliners is a collection of vignettes of Dublin life at the end of the 19th Century written, by Joyce’s own admission, for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness. ‘The Sisters’, ‘An Encounter’ and ‘Araby’ are stories from childhood. ‘Eveline’, ‘After the Race’, ‘Two Gallants’ and ‘The Boarding House’ are stories from adolescence. ‘A Little Cloud’, ‘Counterparts’, ‘Clay’ and ‘A Painful Case’ are all stories concerned with mature life. Stories from public life are ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’, ‘A Mother and Grace’.
“The Dead” is the last story in the collection and probably Joyce’s greatest. It stands alone and, as the title would indicate, is concerned with death. There is a clear structure to Dubliners for as the stories develop there is a clear progression from youth to middle age and finally, to death. Its stories are arranged in an order reflecting the development of a child into a grown man. The first three stories are told from the point of view of a young boy, the next three from the point of view of an adolescent, and so on. In each of the stories there is a narrator or protagonist who reaches a moment of personal epiphany, a moment of painful personal revelation and self awareness.
“The Dead” is the longest story in the collection and widely considered to be one of the greatest short stories in the English language. It was also, fittingly, the last movie made by the great director John Huston and featured his daughter Angelica who went to school with friends of mine in Loughrea, Co. Galway. The story centres on Gabriel Conroy on the night of the Morkan sisters’ annual dance and dinner in the first week of January, 1904, perhaps the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) Typical of the stories in Dubliners, “The Dead” develops toward a moment of painful self-awareness; Joyce described this as an epiphany. The narrative generally concentrates on Gabriel’s insecurities, his social awkwardness, and the defensive way he copes with his discomfort. The story culminates at the point when Gabriel discovers that, through years of marriage, there was much he never knew of his wife’s past. His later thoughts reveal this attachment to the past when he envisions snow as “general all over Ireland.” In every corner of the country, snow touches both the dead and the living, uniting them in frozen paralysis. However, Gabriel’s thoughts in the final lines of Dubliners suggest that the living might in fact be able to free themselves and live unfettered by deadening routines and the past. Even in January, snow is unusual in Ireland and cannot last forever.
The building in which James Joyce set the short story, The Dead, is along the south quays of the River Liffey at 15, Usher’s Island and has been preserved.
For more about Archbishop Uusher who gave his name to Usher’s Island see;
In The Dead there are frequent references to the depleted schismatic state of Irish nationalism after the death of the great Irish Parliamentarian Charles Stewart Parnell who was forced out of office by the Catholic Church and his opponents over his relationship with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea. There are frequent references in his later stories to “Ivy Day” (Ivy Day in the Committe Room) which is the 6th October and is commemorated as the anniversary of Parnell’s death and is also somebody else’s birthday! The other short story in Dubliners I particularly relate to is “Araby.” It opens in North Richmond Street which is described in the opening paragraph;
“NORTH RICHMOND STREET being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.”
North Richmond Street is where I grew up as a child, the surrounding streets were my playground and the inner city district of Summerhill was my world until I was nearly five. We lived at No. 15 North Richmond Street and two doors up, looking down the street to the “blind” end on the right hand side is No. 17 where the Joyce family lived for a while. His father was impecunious and the family moved downwards through Dublin from one rented address to another, each one less respectable than the last.
“Araby” is one of fifteen short stories that together make up Joyce’s collection, Dubliners. “Araby” is the last story of the first set, and is told through the confused thoughts and dreams of the young male protagonist. Joyce uses this familiarity with the narrator’s feelings to evoke in the reader a response similar to the boy’s epiphany at the climax of the story. As in many stories of adolescence, the protagonist of “Araby” suffers both isolation and alienation. He never shares his feelings concerning Mangan’s sister with anyone. He isolates himself from his friends, who seem terribly young to him once his crush begins, and from his family, who seem caught up in their own world. “Araby” is a tale of sexual awakening where the unrequited love of the young protagonist is set against his excitement at going to the Araby Bazaar (An event held in Dublin in 1894) only to be crushed with disappointment that this event which promised an insight into an exotic world was virtually over and largely in darkness when he arrived. It is an anti-climatic tale of journeys begun with great anticipation which come full circle and lead nowhere, and through it and all the stories in Dubliners there is Joyce’s “scrupulous meanness” sketching the mundanity of everyday existence.
The great irony is James Joyce didn’t like Dublin. He made no secret of the fact, but he never wrote of anywhere else and his writing is filled with the city. From his early work, Dubliners, to his last novel, Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce shows a type of obsession with the city of his birth and childhood. It was a very different city from today’s Dublin. It was a city of gaslight, horse-drawn carriages, out-door plumbing and unpaved streets. Poverty permeated the city and the once magnificent Georgian areas were declining into slums. Although in voluntary exile abroad, Joyce could accurately paint a picture of Dublin in detail that would be difficult to achieve for someone walking its streets and taking notes every day.
The novel that shows this most clearly is, of course, his famous work, Ulysses. Joyce once said of this novel:
“I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”
His achievement may come short of being able to rebuild Dublin brick by brick but it is possible to trace Leopold Bloom’s 18 mile perambulation around the city in the exact timing of the character – that is how accurate Joyce’s calculations were. And this is exactly what many people do every year on the 16th of June. So enjoy a glass of Burgundy and a Gorgonzola sandwich and a supper of inner organs of Beast and Fowl and enjoy an ironic Bloomsday.
James Joyce (1882–1941) broke with his native Ireland and with late Victorian conventions to shape a new life for himself and a new literature for his time. His early life was unsettled. Moving to the European continent in 1904, he wavered among careers, considering medicine, law, banking, classical singing, wool merchandising, and managing a theatre troupe, in between stints of writing and language tutoring, as he worked on his early short stories, poems, and finally novels. Until he came to the attention of vigorous advocates and patrons such as Ezra Pound and Harriet Weaver, his finances were in chaos, and the combination of financial pressures and World War I drove him to move around from Pola to Trieste to Zurich, bringing his young family with him.
From 1917 onward, he was also increasingly troubled with major eye problems, and his eyesight deteriorated even as the breadth of his literary vision expanded. His daughter Lucia was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia and his son Giorgio was dissolute, reminding Joyce uncomfortably of his own father. He returned to Zürich in late 1940, fleeing the Nazi occupation of France. On 11 January 1941, he underwent surgery for a perforated ulcer. While he at first improved, he relapsed the following day, and despite several transfusions, fell into a coma. He died on 13 January 1941 and is buried in the Fluntern Cemetery within sight and earshot of Zürich zoo. Although two senior Irish diplomats were in Switzerland at the time, neither attended Joyce’s funeral, and the Irish government subsequently declined Nora Joyce’s offer to permit the repatriation of Joyce’s remains. No doubt de Valera’s diplomats were there to maintain relations with Herr Hitler’s government and didn’t want to be seen to be decent to this immoral writer. When Hitler died de Valera called on the German Ambassador to give his condolences (the only Head of Government to do so and after the war his first foreign trip was to see his soulmates Salazar and Franco) – very moral was our de Valera. Nora Joyce died 10 years later and is buried beside him as is his son Giorgio who died in 1976.
In the midst of his instabilities, or perhaps partly because of them, Joyce shaped an entirely new literary style. He focused on small incidents and moments in the lives of ordinary people, and yet he made those moments both universally appealing and profound. He elevated the stream-of-consciousness technique to a new art form. Joyce’s work did much to define modern literature. And try as he might in exile to escape Ireland and Dublin he never left them and they never left him. But like Leopold Bloom he always observed them from the vantage point of an outsider.
For more information on Bloomsday and James Joyce go to jamesjoyce.ie
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.