Wednesday, 8 July 2015


At the Bailey pub, where the first Bloomsday was celebrated
No writer ever gave a more generous gift to their hometown than James Joyce did with Ulysses, his great offering to Dublin.

Imagine if your homeplace was the setting for a big novel about a single summer's day - 16 June 1904. Suppose that that novel was written by a genius, the greatest prose stylist ever, and a writer with astonishing understanding of psychology. James Joyce was all of that and more.

Ulysses were written about your town, you'd be celebrating 16 June every year.  

Yet it took many years for Dublin to embrace Ulysses, which had the reputation of being a 'dirty book'. After Joyce gave a copy to his aunt, Josephine Murray, he learned that she'd said the book 'was not fit to read.' Joyce commented, 'If Ulysses isn't fit to read, life isn't fit to live.'

'There is a group of people who observe what they call Bloom's day – 16 June. They sent me hortensias, white and blue, dyed. I have to convince myself that I wrote that book. I used to be able to talk intelligently about it.' 

Joyce to Harriet Shaw Weaver, 27 June 1924, Letters p216

Dubliners didn't mark Bloomsday until 1954, when Patrick Kavanagh, Antony Cronin, Brian O'Nolan (Flann O'Brien), John Ryan, Tom Joyce (Joyce's cousin)  and Con Leventhal went on a drunken horse-drawn pub crawl through the city. Here's John Ryan's home movie of their 'jant', as Flann O'Brien called it.

Last month, Lisa and I were back in Dublin for our first Bloomsday since the centenary in 2004.  The festival has got even bigger and more celebratory since then, and there's no escaping from Joyce.

On Grafton Street I bumped into (or rather pursued with my camera) John Shevlin, the official James Joyce lookalike for the James Joyce Centre.  He's also a milliner and he specializes in making straw hats, including excellent panamas, as worn by Buck Mulligan. Bloomsday is great for his hat business.
Joyce even pops up in topiary form down in Sandycove. Here I am, flying the flag for Finnegans Wake by wearing a 100 Letter Thunderword t-shirt. I posted a picture of this on twitter (@peterchrisp), where Judd Staley pointed out that it's only got 99 letters. It's missing an 'a' in the second line!

Ulysses is the nearest thing to a time machine, allowing the reader to visit the pubs and shops and streets of Dublin, as they were more than a century ago. Visiting the real city on Bloomsday is like stepping into the pages of the book itself.

Joyce's book is written on the very streets of Dublin, in the form of Robin Buick's 14 bronze plaques recording Leopold Bloom's walk from the newspaper office to Davy Byrne's pub, where he has his lunch.

You can follow Bloom to Davy Byrne's, and eat the same lunch that he has - a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of Burgundy.

'Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate. Not logwood that. Tastes fuller this weather with the chill off. Nice quiet bar. Nice piece of wood in that counter. Nicely planed. Like the way it curves there.'

They have a cutout of Joyce outside the pub.

Davy Byrne's also sells a beautiful creamy pint of Guinness.

You don't need to have read Ulysses to join in the Bloomsday celebration. In Books Upstairs on D'Olier Steet, I picked up a copy of 'Romping through Ulysses', which is described as 'the perfect guide to help you plan your Bloomsday adventure and bluff your way through Ulysses. Use it to unravel the mysteries of Joyce’s big book or explore Dublin through his spectacles. Find out what’s happening in the story, what to wear and places to visit to bring the novel and its Irish writer to life.'

It's packed with funny suggestions for re-enacting the various chapters ('Give everyone a royal wave', 'Break out into song in a bar on Ormond Quay', 'Have improper thoughts in a public place').  

We went to The New Theatre by the Liffey, where we watched Declan Gorman's excellent one-man play, The Dubliners Dilemma.  He acts out Joyce's short stories 'An Encounter', 'Two Gallants', 'Counterparts' and ' A Mother', and frames them with the exchange of letters between Joyce and his anxious publisher, Grant Richards.  Here he is on the flyer, being the boy in 'An Encounter', playing at Cowboys and Indians.

After the play, we walked south to Marsh's Library, where, in 1902, the student Joyce was reading arcane books. In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus remembers his visits to the 'stagnant bay of Marsh's Library where you read the fading prophecies of Joachim Abbas'.   
Marsh's Library is also in Stephen Hero

'During his wanderings Stephen came on an old library in the midst of those sluttish streets which are called old Dublin. The library had been founded by Archbishop Marsh and though it was open to the publlc few people seemed aware of its existence. The librarian, delighted at the prospect of a reader, showed Stephen niches and nooks inhabited by dusty brown volumes...' 

They've brought out those dusty brown volumes for a fascinating exhibition, 'James Joyce: Apocalypse and Exile'.  We learned that, in 1902, Joyce was mainly reading Franciscan literature, much of it written by Irish friars in exile on the continent. The exhibition argues that Joyce identified with these Irish scholars, forced to flee to mainland Europe, where they created a body of literature which shaped Irish culture and history.

After the exhibition, we dropped in at my favourite Joycean shrine, Sweny the Chemist on Lincoln Place, where Bloom buys his bar of lemon soap. The volunteers were busy wrapping hundreds of bars of the soap to sell on Bloomsday.

I've posted before about Sweny's here and here.  While I was there, I bought yet another bar of soap to add to my collection.

We also called in at the James Joyce Centre, north of the Liffey,  to 'rub Joyce's relic'.  That's the door knocker of No 7 Eccles Street, home of Leopold Bloom.

On that Friday evening, we ended up in Kavanagh's, the Gravediggers Pub, by the gates of Glasnevin cemetery - scene of Paddy Dignam's funeral. We were meeting our Dublin friends Kevin and Olga, whose cousin, Ciaran, helps run this great pub. It's been in his family for six generations.

Here's Ciaran and his wife Alfreda, who were fresh from the Bloomsday messenger bike rally, which is held every year to raise money for disadvantaged children.  They made the news two years ago, when they got married during the ride!  I found this picture of them on the RTE news webpage.

Alfreda told the Irish Times, 'We had the best dressed guests ever at a wedding that day.' 

This also means that Ciaran and Alfreda now have every wedding anniversary sorted - they just have to dress in Edwardian costume and cycle around Dublin, with many of their original wedding guests cycling along.



For Bloomsday itself, we'd bought tickets to ride the Ulysses Express, a special train ride hosted by Happenings ('We Animate Public Space with Spontaneous, Meaningful Cultural Events'), supported by Failte Ireland. This cost just 12 euros a ticket, and has to be the best value event I've ever spent money on.

Getting to the station early, we called in at All Hallows Church, and were astonished to find a Bloomsday concert underway. Carole O'Connor was playing the organ, and Simon Heaps, a tenor and Connie Murray, a soprano, sang 'Love's Old Sweet Song', 'The Holy City' and 'I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls'.

Bloom visits this very church in the Lotus Eaters, and is disappointed that no music is being played:

'Mr Bloom looked back towards the choir. Not going to be any music. Pity. Who has the organ here I wonder? Old Glynn he knew how to make that instrument talk, the vibrato: fifty pounds a year they say he had in Gardiner street.'

On the way out, I took this photo of the Holy Water stoup, which Joyce describes as black.  

'He stood a moment unseeing by the cold black marble bowl while before him and behind two worshippers dipped furtive hands in the low tide of holy water.'

Did he make a rare mistake, or is this a newer stoup?

At Pearse Station, they were getting ready for us, lining up the straw hats and Bloomsday paraphernalia.

Everybody got a straw hat, a bow tie, a flower and a lucky potato (Bloom has one in his pocket given to him by his mother as a lucky charm. It's called a 'Potato Preservative against Plague and Pestilence')

We than went on a guided walking tour of the Joycean sites, including the Antient Concert Rooms, Trinity College, Finn's Hotel, Sweny the chemist's,  and the corner of Merrion Square, where Joyce was stood up on his first date with Nora Barnacle. In the alley where Bloom reads his clandestine letter from Martha, Lisa was asked to read the letter out, and she did it beautifully - the first of several Bloomsday Ulysses readings.

Ronan, our entertaining guide, wore a dressing gown in honour of Buck Mulligan.

Back at the station, we were given generous 'refreshments', in the form of glasses of Burgundy and crackers with gorgonzola cheese.

There was a mass sing-song of 'Love's Old Sweet Song', which Molly Bloom sings in the book.  I filmed it and put here on youtube.

The train ride down to Sandycove was a party in full swing, with more music and dancing. We had 'My Girl's a Yorkshire Girl', 'Those Lovely Seaside Girls' and other songs from Ulysses

There were several top-ups of Burgundy.

The wine alone was worth the ticket price! 

Here's Lisa (left) next to the best-dressed woman on the train. If I'd been wearing that outfit, I would certainly have spilled red wine down it!

At Sandycove, we were met by Joe Fitzgerald, who does walking tours of Dun Laoghaire. He handed us over to one of his guides, who told us all about the Martello Tower.  Then, at the foot of the Tower, Joe introduced the singer, Andrew Basquille, who sang the whole plot of Ulysses to us in two and a half minutes! It began:

'On the 16th of June nineteen hundred and four
The tower was the place to be
With stately plump Buck Mulligan 
And the scrotumtightening sea...'
Joe Fitzgerald and Andrew Basquille
Here he is singing it on youtube.

This was followed straight after by another unexpected delight - a performance by Caitriona Ni Threasaigh and Mary Pat Moloney of the two washerwomen from Finnegans Wake

I loved the way they transformed into a stone (left) and a tree at the end.

Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!
We went into the Tower,  squeezed our way to the top, and found the celebrated Dublin actor, Bryan Murray, reading from Ulysses. He read the very passage in which Bloom eats his gorgonzola sandwich!  I filmed a bit of this too. That's Lisa in the hat on the right with the dark glasses.

The Joyce Tower has the best collection of Joyceania anywhere, including his guitar, walking stick, a hunting waistcoat embroidered by his grandmother, a tie he gave Samuel Beckett, letters and rare editions, and his death mask. The astonishing thing is that it's open all year round, run by volunteers, and it's free! Here's the website.

Leaving Sandycove, we got off the train at Sydney Parade, and walked north, on the trail of Stephen Dedalus, along Sandymount Strand. 

We saw a dog run past, which reminded me of the dog Stephen sees here in the Proteus episode:

'A point live dog, grew into sight, running across the sweep of sand....Suddenly he made off like a bounding hare, ears flung back, chasing the shadow of a lowskimming gull. The man's shrieked whistle struck his limp ears. He turned, bounded back, came nearer, trotted on twinkling shanks.'

That was how our Bloomsday ended, though we spent the evening drinking in two other great pubs, Neary's and Lanigans.

The window of the Old Stand pub

In 1924, while in hospital, recovering from his fifth eye operation, a despondent James Joyce wrote in his notebook:

'Today 16 June 1924 twenty years after. Will anybody remember this date?’ 

The answer today is a resounding 'Yes they will YES!'