Bloomsday in Dublin, 2004
by Garry McKevett
An alternative title to this piece might be, ‘How can a book change your life?’ If you look back on your life thus far, whether it has been a relatively short time or perhaps feels far too long, has there been a book that has had a marked influence on you in some way?
I ask this question because it is the same one I asked myself as my wife and I along with five other couples from Australia stood in North Great George Street Dublin on the 16 June this year. We were in the midst of a very large and festive crowd and it was of course Bloomsday, the traditional day that celebrates James Joyce’s Ulysses. For those of you who are familiar with ‘the classics’ of English literature you would recognise this title as one that pertains to a work that reputedly changed the modern novel forever or, more infamously, the novel that was banned because it was considered dangerous to the moral wellbeing of the citizens of America.
This year marked the centenary celebration of Bloomsday around the world and in Dublin the crowds were the largest recorded. It was on 16 June 1904 that Joyce met his future wife, Nora Barnacle and this was also the day he chose for the setting of the novel. To put it simply, Ulysses is the day in a life of an ordinary Dubliner, Leopold Bloom. The book follows Bloom on his travels starting at 8 am and finishing up around 2 am the next morning.
Bloomsday was the focal point for celebrations, but various activities had been going on in Dublin for the last five months. The day itself was magnificent. It was a brilliant Irish summer’s day where the sun was shining brightly even at 8 am. As with any celebrations, eating and drinking were paramount and the chief suppliers for the day, Dennys (black pudding, white pudding, pork sausage and potatoes) and Guinness (for those who were not coffee drinkers) provided sustenance for our mortal bodies.
In the midst of all this there were people in period costume, actors performing various pieces from the novel, choral and orchestral groups and even a bike parade. A double decker bus had been brought in from nearby Howth and we craned our necks to watch characters from the novel such as Fr Conmee, Blazes Boylan, Molly Bloom and of course Leopold himself as they performed from atop the bus. It drove home to me the fact that this book comes alive when read aloud, preferably by someone with that distinctive Dublin accent. To listen to these actors reel off some very long passages so eloquently, especially Molly’s monologue which runs for some forty-three pages with only one full
stop to punctuate it, was food for the soul.
What the locals made of all this I am not sure. Fifty years ago they might have pronounced Joyce a ‘dandy’ and not given a moment’s notice to Bloomsday. But today’s Dublin has changed – or so I am told. To walk the streets of Dublin today is more of a cosmopolitan experience with streets being given over to pedestrian malls, cafes with patrons seated at tables outside and the general impression of a vibrant, youthful business world. Joyce has been embraced by the city with a full-size statue of him in North Earl Street, a bust in St Stephen’s Green, the establishment of the James Joyce Centre and the James Joyce Tower Museum at Sandycove, and plaques printed with quotations from Ulysses adorning specific sites downtown. There was even a shop advertising James Joyce soap and I must confess to purchasing a bar just as Bloom did on that day – Sweeney’s lemon-scented soap.
Joyce of course, exiled himself from the country and wrote Ulysses from the distant perspectives of Trieste and Zurich during the years of the First World War and in Paris thereafter. His knowledge of the city must have been incredibly detailed, however, because it is claimed that one can recreate the city of Dublin from the information he has included. I tested this theory with a friend when we visited Leopold Bloom’s house, 7 Eccles Street, surely one of the most famous addresses in literature. The house has been replaced by a hospital but across the road the same style of Georgian home remains. In one section of the novel Joyce describes the exact dimensions of the outer part of the house and the height of the drop to the lower floor. It should come as no surprise that Joyce was precisely correct with this detail. Ulysses is regarded as a ‘modernist’ novel and Joyce took the attendant striving for realism to its extremities.
What Joyce would make of all this attention and celebration I am not sure. Chris Koch comments, ‘I imagine his searing contempt – but perhaps I’m wrong. After all, Joyce was in love with vulgarity, and in love with the city he hated. Who knows, he may be amused and delighted, in whatever dimension of Purgatory he’s found himself.” (from The Many Coloured Land). I am inclined to think he would delight in his book being read, discussed, performed and celebrated. Joyce remarked that he demanded no less of his readers than a lifetime’s devotion to the study of his work.
It is a pity, however, that the book has been misunderstood by many people. Scurrilous comments have been made about its contents and unfounded claims issued in the form of literary criticism that have dissuaded readers from even picking it up. It is true that parts of the novel are about as exciting as watching grass grow, that it runs to almost 800 pages in length and that the literary allusions are innumerable and relentless. But therein lies a challenge. The fact is, the book contains many beautiful passages that are evocative and moving while some of course are hilarious and others are just very clever. In the final analysis, it is the book’s underlying messages of hope, belief in the future and celebration of life itself that makes it worth reading and studying.
As a high school English teacher, I have thrown out the challenge of reading Ulysses to some of my senior classes and I am told a group cruising the Mediterranean in their ‘gap year’ did indeed just that. I also have a warm memory of the student who mentioned that he had a long car journey ahead of him to Queensland and that he might take it along. And perhaps he did. You could build up to Ulysses by first reading a collection of short stories by Joyce entitled, Dubliners. It concludes with one of the finest short stories ever written, ‘The Dead’. Then you could move on to The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an autobiographical bildungsroman style novel. By this time you should be ready for Ulysses or if not, there is always Bloomsday this year. Yes?