Today, along with many other people around the world, I am celebrating Bloomsday. Bloomsday is named after one of the central characters, Leopold Bloom, in James Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’.
The events of the novel are firmly placed between 8am on June 16th 1904 and 2am the following morning. Which was, for Joyce, a commemoration of the day that he and his future wife Nora Barnacle first ‘stepped out’ together. The structure of the novel closely follows the events in Homer’s Odyssey, which describes the journey of Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses), as he travels home to Ithaca from the Trojan War. But Joyce’s characters are ordinary citizens of Dublin having an ordinary day. Each of the eighteen episodes is written in a different style. It is a large and complex novel. Joyce wrote a couple of schemata for friends to help them understand his work. He ascribed each episode a meaning, a colour, a bodily organ. If you were thinking of reading it and want to get a handle on it first, you can find one of his schema here. Or if that puts you off, you could listen to Stephen Fry enthuse about the beauty of its language here.
Joyce wrote his novel between 1914 and 1921 and, between 1918 and 1920, an American magazine called the Little Review began to publish it in serial form. But publication was halted in 1920 when it became the subject of an obscenity trial. It was first published in its entirety in Paris in 1922. This first edition is said to have contained over two thousand errors. Other editions have tried to make corrections but just wound up making more, so the first edition may still be the most accurate.
Bloomsday was first commemorated in a small way in 1924, twenty years after the events in the book. Joyce was in hospital following an eye operation. His friends sent him a bunch of blue and white flowers, which were the colours of the cover of his novel. Thirteen years after Joyce’s death, on June 16th 1954, three Irish novelists; Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin met with artist and critic John Ryan and Tom Joyce, a dentist who was Joyce’s cousin. They began at the Martello Tower at Sandy Cove which features in the opening scene. After hiring two old fashioned horse drawn cabs they intended to visit all the sites mentioned in the novel ending in what used to be the brothel quarter of the city. It didn’t start well. O’Nolan turned up drunk and there was a bit of an altercation when he and Kavanagh decided that they had to climb the tower. O’Nolan was eventually bundled into one of the cabs and they drank and sang their way around the city until they arrived at the Bailey pub in Duke Street, which belonged to Ryan. They never completed their odyssey, once there, they drank so much that they could go no further.
Bloomsday is now a massive event in Dublin. Many of the celebrations are organised by the James Joyce Museum which can be found at the Martello Tower mentioned above. People follow the route taken by Leopold Bloom in the novel. They often dress up as the characters from the novel, in Edwardian costume. There are readings and dramatisations of scenes from Ulysses. Pubs are crawled and special meals are served. The Bloomsday breakfast is popular. People like to eat the same meal enjoyed by Bloom, which is surprising as this is how Joyce describes it:
Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
Personally, I would prefer the Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and glass of burgundy he has for lunch. For hardcore fans, there are complete readings of the novel which can last for up to thirty-six hours. In 1982, Irish radio station RTÉ broadcast a complete reading and in 2004. To mark 100th anniversary of the events in the novel 10,000 people were served a special Irish Breakfast. In 2011, a global attempt was made to tweet the novel. Its organisers were not sure if it would produce something beatific or be a complete train wreck. I’m not sure how it went but it was certainly a magnificent idea.
Joyce was, at first, unsure whether June 16th would, in the future, be of any significance to anyone at all. He was rather bemused when he met people who loved it. One fan begged to kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses. He laughed and said: “no, that hand has done a lot of other things as well.”