Bloomsday is the annual celebration of all things James Joyce, but mostly his love-it or loathe-it masterpiece, Ulysses.
When I lived in Dublin many years ago, I noticed an annual upsurge of American grad students hanging out in the pubs around Trinity, boasting unpublished manuscripts analyzing Ulysses, and claiming to be in town for some conference or other and hoping to find a publisher. If half of them really had a book completed, it would have taken half the Amazon rain forest to print them. But, I suppose it was a measure of the cultural impact Joyce’s relatively difficult novel has had across the world.
Apparently, there were super-fans and students of the novel quite early, as Joyce mentioned a group celebrating “Bloom’s Day” in a 1924 letter. The novel had been serialized between 1918 and 1920, and the first complete edition was only published in 1922. It’s all the more remarkable that people were already acting it out because copies had to be smuggled into Ireland. Though never actually banned in Joyce’s homeland, that was only because the novel was initially not offered for sale openly.
The first “modern” Bloom’s Day was celebrated by a group of Irish writers and bon vivants in 1954, the fiftieth anniversary. They included the poet Patrick Kavanagh and the novelist Brian O’Nolan (who published under the names Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen). Since then, people have been throwing themselves into Bloomsday celebrations with increasing gusto.
Today, Bloomsday is a whirl of events over a whole week: plays, meals, performances, lectures, tours, and yes, multiple walking tours and pub crawls around Joyce’s Dublin.
Why June 16th?
James Joyce may have been a crotchety so-and-so, but he was a closet sentimentalist as well. Ulysses takes place on June 16, 1904 for a very personal reason to Joyce: it was the day of his first date with Nora Barnacle, the woman he would eventually marry (27 years later!).
It’s important to start the day off with the full breakfast, as eaten by Stephen Dedalus and “Stately, plump” Buck Mulligan in the Martello Tower in Sandycove. It’s optional to eat it at Joyce’s Tower, which is now a museum. The hardiest folk may want to follow that up with a dip (skinny or otherwise) at the Forty Foot, the bathing spot nearby. It will give everyone a new appreciation for Joyce’s phrase “the scrotumtightening sea.” To get into the spirit of the day, members of your party could take it in turns to read from Ulysses.
The James Joyce Center (35 Great George’s Street) organizes a week of guided walks around parts of Dublin either featured in the novel, or associated with Joyce. (More details here…)
Bloomsday can be a lot of fun, as some people dress up in Joycean costume, and really get into channeling their inner modernist writer. If you want to transform yourself into an ersatz Joyce, the essential props are a cane, wire-frame glasses, a hat (the straw boater is pretty iconic) and a bow tie. Eye patches are optional. (Stream the 2003 film Bloom for inspiration.) Thankfully, many of the various talks and walks concern Joyce’s other books, too, so even if you’ve only read Dubliners in English 101 or seen the film version of “The Dead,” there should be something of interest.
Must you have read Ulysses?
The big question is do you have to read a 644-page tome stuffed with obscure references and foreign phrases before you can enjoy the Bloomsday festivities? Well, let me ask you this: has the fact that you haven’t read St. Patrick’s Confession ever stopped you enjoying the festivities on St. Patrick’s Day? Of course not! Bloomsday is no different. A pub crawl, breakfast, or walk around Dublin in good company can be a ton of fun with or without any background reading. Some familiarity with Ulysses will lead to interesting conversations and amusing in-jokes, but it’s not essential by any means.
And whatever you do, don’t go around saying “I couldn’t get past the first chapter, myself” in a superior tone.
Really, don’t be that guy!
Some people are simply out for a good time, others are sincerely into Joyce and feel he was a genius beyond measure. Don’t rain on their parade. Bloomsday is a celebration: of Dublin, of creativity, of life, and the enduring power of stories. Almost 100 years after Joyce began writing Ulysses, people are still reading it, arguing over it, analyzing it, and acting it out. It’s the only novel I know of that’s spawned a national holiday, and that is surely a testament to its power.
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