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Wisdom Literature


by Greg Stewart


On 16 June 2004, in North Great Georges St Dublin, Julian and I, our wives Maria and Maureen, and several friends, along with about 10,000 other James Joyce tragics, had a breakfast of Denny’s sausages, black pudding and a pint of Guinness. That was the start of Bloomsday 2004, the hundredth anniversary of the day in 1904 when Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus walked the streets of Dublin and finally met. An odd way to spend one’s time, but for many of those there a demonstration of complete dedication to the modernist novel of the twentieth century, Ulysses.

Ulysses is a book in which not much happens but everything happens – a book about love, about life and death, about families, and above all a book about Dublin. Declan Kiberd, former Professor of Anglo-Irish literature at University College Dublin and still (I think) Professor of Irish Studies at Notre Dame University, Indiana, calls it “wisdom literature” - a book that aims to give us guidance about how to lead a better life.

Sure, Roddy Doyle once famously said that Ulysses was in great need of an editor, but let’s put that down to Irish spite and the anxiety of influence. It’s a simple tale. Stephen Dedalus gets up in the morning, discusses life with Buck Mulligan with whom he shares lodgings in a Martello Tower at Sandycove, south of Dublin; teaches a history lesson; gets paid three pounds twelve – his drinking money for the day; walks on Sandymount Strand; thinks a lot; drinks a lot; meets up with some medical students at the Holles St Maternity Hospital and drinks more; visits a brothel in Dublin’s Nighttown (I note, as an aside, that area now has a street named after Joyce – pointed Irish humour, no doubt, just like the location of Patrick Kavanagh’s statue next to the Grand Canal that he famously once fell into); Stephen nearly gets bashed; is saved by a Good Samaritan and ends up at 7 Eccles St, Dublin the home of the Good Samaritan.

Who is none other than Leopold Bloom who earlier in the novel also gets up; has a breakfast of pork kidneys; defecates; goes to a funeral; walks around Dublin; inadvertently tips the winner of the Irish Gold Cup; eats a lunch consisting of a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy; thinks a lot about the adulterous act to be committed that afternoon by his wife Molly with Blazes Boylan, a Dublin rake; masturbates at the aforementioned Strand; nearly meets Stephen several times, finally does and saves him from the aforementioned bashing. In Dublin during Bloomsday week 2011, I found, in the James Joyce Centre in North Great Georges Street, a lovely summary in 39 words of the novel’s eighteen chapters:

“Buck concelebrates; Stephen educates; Stephen cogitates; Bloom evacuates; Bloom exfoliates; Bloom commiserates; Crawford prevaricates; Bloom masticates; Stephen explicates; Dublin perambulates; Boylan adulterates; the Citizen co-agitates; Gerty titillates; Mina parturiates; Bella emasculates; a sailor exaggerates; our heroes micturate; Molly menstruates.”

If you are looking for a better summary, you cannot go past a podcast that Julian organised during COVID Lockdown 1.

I started reading Ulysses in 1996 when I was 40 – from my perspective the best time of life to start. Wasn’t it Aristotle who said “teach young men mathematics, not philosophy”? My Ulysses was an “annotated student’s version”, given to me by my mother who died shortly afterwards – I don’t think these two things were connected though! The annotated version is a great boon to decipher the clues, riddles and allusions on every page. I finished reading in time for the Bloomsday breakfast in Dublin 2004. I have been back to the novel many times since and still find it intriguing and captivating.

In some ways, one of the most readable, funny and moving books one could ever hope to encounter. Bloom, despite all his manifest weaknesses, is one of the most sympathetically drawn characters in English literature. In other ways, a complete struggle – the Oxen of the Sun episode, set in the Holles St Maternity Hospital, describes the birth of the English novel in 60 paragraphs. The first 10 are intercourse and conception expressed through parodies of Latin and Anglo-Saxon English; the next 40 gestation, through caricaturing a chronology of prose writers from Bunyan and Defoe to John Henry Newman and Dickens; the last 10 birth and infancy, through Dublin slang. Certainly not to be read without an annotated student’s version.

This is not a presentation about Ulysses, but it would be remiss of me not to note, for those not all that familiar with the book - the first modernist novel - that Joyce’s brilliance was his adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey - the first novel - to Dublin in 1904, and Odysseus/Ulysses’ 10-year journey home after the Trojan War to just one Dublin day.

I was intrigued when “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing-gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: Introibo ad altare Dei”.

When Stephen contemplated the “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs” as he walked along Sandymount Strand, I was immersed.

And I was completely enraptured by the prose of this most fascinating and complex man when “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod's roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine".

Later in the book as Stephen and Bloom urinate together in Bloom’s backyard at the end of the novel, they observe “the heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit”, the weary travellers now finally in communion as surrogate father and son. Surely one of the most beautiful lines in English literature.


I should note that the dedication of Joyceans is not shared by many of his countrymen, then or now. There is a statue of Joyce just off O’Connell St in Dublin that the locals have named “the prick with the stick” – in reference to Joyce’s ashplant walking stick. The story is told, possibly apocryphally, that when Joyce pompously declared in 1904 that he was leaving Ireland forever with his only weapons being “silence, exile and cunning”, his friends got together to ensure there were enough funds for the fare out.

So as we awaited Bloomsday 2005 after the immersion of 2004, Julian and I were astounded to learn that the regular Bloomsday celebrations were not to be held that year – a tragedy. We had been to several of the previous Bloomsday events, including a memorable evening in the Jewish Museum, Darlinghurst in 2003 where the theme was Bloom’s Jewishness. A wonderful Rabbi from Trieste, where Joyce had lived for several years, spoke about Italo Svevo, Joyce’s likely model for Bloom.

So Julian and I decided that the non-celebration of Bloomsday in 2005 had to be rectified and thus began our involvement in organising a regular Bloomsday celebration in Sydney.

BELOW: At Joyce's grave in Zurich; At Stephen's Green in Dublin

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