James Joyce and Bloomsday
by Pat Liddy
There is one unique day celebrated in Dublin every year that has no real comparison anywhere else in the world. That day is known as Bloomsday and falls on the 16th June. Hundreds of people, maybe even a few thousand, stroll the streets of the city literally following in the footsteps of the stories contained in the pages of one of the most renowned books ever written; Ulysses by James Joyce. The iconic book is precisely set on the 16th June 1904 across a period of approximately 18 hours. So, fans of the novel, many wearing the dress, costumes and headgear of that Edwardian period, follow the journeys of the main characters and visit the places associated with Joyce or closely described in Ulysses. It’s a rather dazzling and special day of times past that seems to flawlessly integrate into the normal activities of the city as it goes about its modern-day business.
James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, the eldest of ten surviving children. His father managed to squander a substantial legacy and the family soon struggled moving from house to poorer house as their income declined. All these moves actually helped James Joyce to discover every nook and corner of the city that would prove so valuable to him later on. Joyce was furnished with an excellent education by the Jesuits and he then went onto university. You can see Belvedere College, which he attended from 1893 to 1898. It’s still a secondary school situated on Great Denmark Street, just a stone’s throw from O’Connell Street. Newman College, where he received his degree in modern languages, is on the south side of St Stephen’s Green. Joyce was a brilliant student and mastered Italian. French, German, Latin and taught himself Norwegian so he could read Henrik Ibsen. He had a brilliant memory and could recite whole pages of prose from memory.
Joyce found both the Roman Catholic religion and the so-called Celtic Revival literature of Yeats and others to his distaste. He resolved to leave Ireland but before doing so he wooed and captured the affections of Galway woman, Nora Barnacle. He first dated her on the 16th June 1904, the date he selected for the action of his greatest novel. Soon after, Joyce and Nora eloped to live in Pula, Trieste, Zurich, Paris and finally back to Zurich again when the Nazis occupied Paris. Joyce died from a perforated ulcer in 1941 at the age of 59 and is buried in Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich.
Joyce’s best remembered works are Dubliners (1914), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Finnegan’s Wake (published 1939 and indecipherable to most!) and the universally acclaimed Ulysses (1922). An accompanying ‘guide’ book would be useful when first reading it. Dublin has changed and grown enormously since Joyce departed in 1904 but many of the places he knew and mentioned in his novels are still there. Trinity College, the Ha’penny Bridge, the National Library, St George’s Church, Westland Row Railway Station, Glasnevin Cemetery and even the Martello Tower in Sandycove where the novel opens with the glorious words: Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: — Introibo ad altare Dei. The rest is literary history!
Gone, however, are the Turkish Baths, Number 7 Eccles Street (the home of Leopold Bloom – but a plaque designates the site on a hospital wall), The Freeman’s Journal (where Bloom worked) and Nighttown, the notorious brothel area off Talbot Street where, today, one of the streets in this newly developed quarter is appropriately named James Joyce Street! But still there and trading as it always has, is the bar of Davy Byrne on Duke Street where Bloom stopped to have lunch of a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of red Burgundy wine. This is the main terminus of Bloomsday aficionados who are more likely to be quaffing beer than wine and pour out onto the street in their hundreds, gaily dressed and noisy as a turkey farm. It’s a must-stop for Joycean fans, even outside of Bloomsday.
There are four places in and around Dublin which Joycean fans must visit. The Dublin Writers Museum on Parnell Square (www.visitdublin.com/see-do/details/dublin-writers-museum), the Joyce Centre on North Great George’s Street (jamesjoyce.ie), Sweny’s Pharmacy on Lincoln Place (www.sweny.ie) and the Joyce Museum in the Martello Tower in Sandycove (jamesjoycetower.com). There is a statue to Joyce on North Earl Street close to the corner with O’Connell Street.
If you are lucky enough to be around you too can participate in the genteel frolics of the 16th June (see page 14 for more details about the Bloomsday Festival) or even follow in the shadows of Ulysses on any day of your choosing but maybe not in costume or you might attract glances of bemused curiosity. You can join the author of this article or one of his entertaining guides on Bloomsday for the celebrated annual guided walking tour. Ideal for those interested in a first introduction to James Joyce it will celebrate his life by walking through the streets of Dublin partly following Leopold Bloom along his famous wanderings. Tours depart at 10.30 am or 2.30 pm from outside the Gate Theatre, Cavendish Row (off the top-end of O’Connell Street). Cost is €12 each (seniors/ students €10). You can turn up on the day or book through www.walkingtours.ie.