Two Gallants and Nine Bloomsdays
By Julian Neylan
The first known celebration worldwide of Mr Bloom’s Day occurred exactly 50 years after the date on which Joyce set the events of Ulysses, 16 June 1904. It happened in Dublin in 1954, when Patrick Cavanagh and Flan O’Brien visited the Martello Tower at Sandycove, Davey Byrnes’ moral pub and no. 7 Eccles Street, fictitious home of Leopold Bloom. And no doubt drank a whole lot of burgundy and Guinness along the way. Ostensibly to mark the golden jubilee.
But then… exactly 50 years later, on 16 June 2004, three almost as notable Joyceans, Greg Stewart, Garry McKevett and I, visited these exact same places and more, to mark the centenary of Bloomsday. What symmetry. We didn’t know it at the time, but clearly it was pre-ordained. We followed Patrick and Flan’s good example with the odd burgundy, Guinness and gorgonzola sandwich along the way. In fact we enticed our wives (dragged?) and three other Australian couples along for the occasion. They still talk to us.
Back in Sydney one year on, there were no Bloomsday performances. Everyone was still recovering from the centenary. So Greg and I looked at each other and said, “How hard can this be? We now know the novel as well as most others. We’ve been to Dublin and seen what they do. So next year let’s do our own event. We can pick out passages from the text that we like, the funny, poignant and salacious scenes, invite family and friends to a local pub, and introduce them to the genius of Joyce. We’ve also got to have song, so I’ll bring my guitar and we’ll get a singalong going as part of the fun. Just like church.”
And that is more or less what we did. Greg and I carried the singing, but encouraged all there to join in. I accompanied with guitar that first year, joined by Kevin O’Connor on fiddle the following year, then by Stephen Hirst on piano the following year. The four of us thus became the musical core of our first five performances, from 2006 to 2010. Our song was taken to another level entirely when the Bel Canto singers joined in for our 2015 show, with Greg’s wife Maureen conducting. They came back for our 2016 and 2019 shows. Our ninth and last performance was a virtual one in 2020, the first year of COVID.
On every occasion our intention was simple: to put together a program that makes the book as accessible as possible to the uninitiated, and hopefully sparks an interest in having a go at reading Ulysses.
Those first five shows all had one thing in common: we teamed up with known quantities from the Sydney Bloomsday world. The first four were with Clara Mason, the organiser of events we had attended prior to 2004. The venue for 2006 and 2007 was the Bald Rock Hotel in Balmain and for 2008 and 2009 the auditorium at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Our fifth event in 2010 was at Glebe's Friend in Hand Hotel in consort with Gabrielle Carey, who had also arranged past performances.
At the end of that fifth show, we needed a break. For the next four years we enjoyed Bloomsdays without all the organisational effort, attending performances in Dublin, Melbourne and at Sydney’s Gaelic Club. By 2015 we were ready to go again, but not the way we had before. Working with two such experienced and knowledgeable Joyceans as we had, was fabulous, and we learned a lot. But we were now ready to trust our instincts and go it alone.
2015 at the Garry Owen
Given the importance of music and melody to Joyce and Ulysses, Greg and I decided the starting point for creating the 2015 program was the music of Joyce. We chose seven Irish songs to perform and then fitted complementary readings to each.
The songs were Seaside Girls, Love’s Old Sweet Song, The Croppy Boy, Sally Garden, Boolavogue, Raglan Road and Finnegan’s Wake. When we stepped back, what fell out of these songs and readings were two themes: love and seduction; and Irish nationalism.
As it happened, there were two other uncanny connections to these themes for that year’s Bloomsday and for this venue, the Garry Owen hotel in Rozelle. We were coming up to the centenary of the 1916 Easter Monday Rising, the nationalist revolt that led to Irish independence. And the nationalist ravings of chapter 12 , the Barney Kiernan’s pub scene, feature a dog known as “that mongrel garryowen” … “get 'im garry!”. Plus a further connection for this pub, though more obscure –above the downstairs bar there is a plaque with the founding year of the pub. It’s 1882, the year Joyce was born. Definitely a sign.
The show was a raging success. There was standing room only, with others having to be turned away and with the addition of the Bel Canto singers, the quality of music and song got the audience singing along with gusto. The readers were mostly Irish ex-pat friends of ours, or friends of friends, plus a couple of non-Irish friends with a flair for ‘throwing’ an Irish accent. The point being, to have the passages read with a native Irish accent.
We knew we’d cracked a winning formula.
2016 at the Cat and Fiddle
2016 was the year of celebrations to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, which Greg and I had attended in March that year in Dublin. So when 16 June was approaching we were always going to focus on Irish struggles for freedom. While there’s plenty in Ulysses on this theme, Joyce and other writers incorporated plenty more in their literary legacies. And so we decided to broaden the source texts to include two other Joyce books, Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, along with William Butler Yeats’s poignant poem, Easter 1916.
From Dubliners we selected a passage from “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”, and from Portrait the family friend Dante’s argument with Stephen’s father about the fall of Parnell. Both poignant laments-in-prose on Ireland’s dashed chance for independence in the 1880s and the political malaise that ensued during Joyce’s upbringing.
From Ulysses our focus was on chapter 12’s argument on race and nationalism between Bloom and The Citizen in Barney Kiernan’s pub, and chapter 11’s Sirens episode in the Ormond pub with Ben Dollard’s rendition of The Croppy Boy, which of course harks back to the 1798 Wexford Rising and the tragedy of Robert Emmett. Which Greg and I sang a capella. To finish the program we had Greg read from his well-worn copy of Yeats poetry, the famous ballad Easter 1916. (All changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born).
Our song repertoire was more or less the same again, but now we added the revolutionary song Foggy dew, replete with “Jack the drummer” to provide that military feel. (but the angelus bells o’er the Liffey swell rang out through the foggy dew). And finally, we introduced an overhead screen for the first time, to throw up the words of the songs, rather than previous performances where we ran off a limited number of paper copies and distributed them through the audience. Very yesterday that.
2019 at the Gaelic Club
After a two year break we were ready to go again. But we wanted to try a different approach. Whereas most Bloomsday performances only ever attempt a fraction of Ulysses, the more accessible and entertaining bits, no one ever gives the audience the full story. As complex as Joyce wrote it, if you strip away the layers, the underlying story is a simple one.
We decided to have a go at writing a summarised narrative of all 18 chapters that, with song, would fit into a two hour show. And so we did. Very much our own take on Ulysses, a story about love and everyday life, particularly of familial love, wherein a son is looking for a father and a father is looking for a son, which ends finally in the marital bed, with love conquering all.
So in 2019 at the Gaelic Club, with the Irish Consul General opening the show, we told that story. Aided by a sprinkling of quotations from the text and Joyce’s other great love, song. With the continuing involvement of the Bel Canto singers we added Garry McKevett and three of his family playing their Irish bodhran drums. This gave our musical backing the oomph that was previously missing. Sadly this was the first performance since 2006 without Kevin O’Connor playing the fiddle, who had passed away the previous year.
Our ninth show became a virtual one due to the first COVID lockdown. The choice of show was simple – turn the 2019 script into a podcast available on YouTube. We called it The Story of Ulysses.
Greg and I always insisted on staging our Bloomsday performances on the day. So if the 16th falls on a Monday, that’s when we’d do it. Not on the 14th or 15th because, say, weekends are better for crowds. No, we’re sticklers for the one true Bloomsday, and for applying a bit of self-discipline and reliability. Given the good Catholic boys that we are.
Joyce wrote his great novel full of musical allusions and melodic text. So music and song are essential for authentic Bloomsday performances. Even better if the songs are well-known and the audience is encouraged to join in the singing.
The choice of which passages to read is important. If the intention is to entertain as broad a spectrum of audience as possible, as was ours, then it’s best to avoid the more dense and complicated passages. There are plenty of humorous, salacious and poignant passages to choose from. And where possible, don’t make them too long, as the audience will soon lose interest.
Choosing readers should not be done lightly. It’s true that anyone should be able to ‘have a go’. But there are some minimum criteria. Clear diction and good volume of course. But also a flair for the dramatic, to give the text its due impact. If your readers have these attributes along with the native Irish voice, then you have achieved the ideal. Some shows we have attended like to have ‘name’ readers, such as politicians, ambassadors and authors. Our shows tended not to bother with this.
It goes without saying that the best way to get a crowd is to not charge an admission fee, which is what we’ve tended to do. And the Irish National Association have been great at helping us with the small cost of staging events.
I’m sorry to say the history of Bloomsdays in Sydney is characterised by one-out individuals or troupes (like us) operating in isolation from other troupes, should they exist. By that I mean there has not been a culture of coordination or cross-promotion down the years, which would enable audiences to see a Sydney-wide program, if you like. This contrasts other major cities, such as Melbourne and certainly Dublin, where anyone can find a single source for all the scheduled events in that city. We can speculate on the reasons why, but it really shouldn’t happen. Which is why I started the sydneybloomsday.com website and told everyone I knew who had previously staged events to use the site to promote their event. That way they could be mindful of scheduling clashes. This is slowly catching on.
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Whether gallants or galahs, Greg and I have thoroughly enjoyed bringing the genius of James Joyce to Sydney’s novice and seasoned lovers of Ulysses. We hope there is never another 2005, devoid of public performance, and that Joyce enthusiasts continue to come forward and stage their own style of Bloomsday shows.
For their contribution to our shows as readers, singers, musicians or helpers, Greg and I say thank you:
Gabrielle Carey, Jane Clifford, John Collins, Felicity Dunn, Adrian Fahy, Jenny Fitzpatrick, Gail Fleming, John Fleming, Katrina Foster, Siun Gallagher, Mae Gannon, Bobbie Gledhill, Stephen Hirst, Emily Hodkinson, Barbara Kalamae, Rowena Kellett, Miri Jassy, Russell Kiefel, Sr Mary Leahy, Maree Leech, Tracy Mann, Niamh Mannion, Clara Mason, Ronan McDonald, Aiofe McEldowney, Kate McElhone, Garry McKevett, Anne McKevett, Marie McMillan, Bridie Morgan, David Morgan, Jeanette Morgan, Julia Morgan, Paul Mortimer, Amy Neylan, Maria Neylan, Niall O’Byrne, Sr Bridie O’Connell (dec.), Bernardette O’Connor, Kevin O’Connor (dec.), Mel Reen, Christy Reynolds, Jodie Robertson, Maureen Robinson, Peter Sainsbury, John Sascia, Stephen Shanahan, Fiana Stewart, Franca Swadling, Paul Vincent, Geordie Williamson.