‘Sure, that was the day I made a man out of Jim.’
So remarked James Joyce’s wife, Nora, discussing June 16th 1904. She’d stood him up once before, but finally on that date, took him up on his offer, and the pair walked out along the beach near Sandymount. So important were the events that occurred that day to a young James Joyce, that he would later commemorate them by choosing it as the date for the entire plot of Ulysses to unfold – proclaimed by some Joyceans as the best wedding present of the 20th century, though perhaps not for Nora, who like so many, only made it through the first 20 pages.
For Joyce, marking the June 16th began as a testament to his love for Nora, but since then it has emerged in a wealth of guises. In Dublin, there’s been a slow laying down of Bloomsday traditions – following in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom providing the order of the day for many. It’s perhaps strange that so many Dubliners are acutely aware of a book that comparatively few of them have read, and the crowd the day draws in is suitably diverse, from scholars seeking to re-enact the day as accurately as possible, to pub-crawlers who aren’t likely to keep quite as wary an eye on their watches. Then there are those it passes by entirely, give or take noticing an unexpected crush of people in boaters trying to get into Davy Byrne’s, or perhaps managing stumble across an open air breakfast.
For the purposes of this article, I met with some of its keenest celebrants: Senator David Norris played a key part in the day’s revival, while Mark Traynor, Managing Director & Bloomsday Co-ordinator at the James Joyce Centre, has the job of co-ordinating and sustaining a whole series of activities to commemorate the day – both on its anniversary, and throughout the year. At a weekly reading group, I met members of the James Joyce Institute, now on their third reading of the ceaselessly daunting Finnegans Wake. Everyone I meet opens with a similar story: first encounters with Joyce’s work rarely run smoothly. But as Norris tells me, after that disappointing first introduction to Joyce (as a young boy, disappearing up a tree with his Uncle’s copy of Dubliners, and some of his cigars too, and returning bitterly disappointed and perhaps a little queasy) there was something that kept niggling at him to return to the works. Traynor tells a similar story, and acknowledges that the thing that sustained him following those first few failed attempts at conquering Ulysses were the depictions of places that he recognised and streets that he walked through himself. The joy of Bloomsday for many, then, is to be found in locating those events within time and space, though some might still wonder as to why the celebration of a fictitious day might be of any merit. ‘I think because it’s an organic thing,’ Traynor tells me. ‘If the Centre didn’t exist as sort of the main organiser, I still think it would be celebrated, though I find it difficult to make a value judgement on it. For me, I find it really curious and interesting that it’s possible even for a small group of people to celebrate the work of one man’s imagination.’
Joyce himself placed a huge importance on dates. His notebooks betray that he was acknowledging Bloomsday (if only to himself) in the early 1920s. The first recorded celebration held just outside Versailles, in 1929, started as a rather grand affair, but took a suitably raucous turn, with Joyce and Samuel Beckett losing all sense of themselves entirely. It culminated with Beckett disappearing for three days, after being abandoned in a loo by a furious charabanc driver, who refused to stop again so that he and Joyce could pick up more drink. It seems in keeping that the first Bloomsday celebrated in Ireland would result in a similar set of escapades. A well-intentioned group of literary types got together to celebrate its jubilee – Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin and Flann O’Brien among them – hoping to recreate the key events of the plot, in their actual locations, though a few drinks had already been taken before they got going in earnest. Miraculously footage of the day survives, though the team seem to be lagging even around the earlier chapters at Sandymount Strand. Unsurprisingly they abandoned all hope of completing the route by the time they got to the Bailey on Duke Street.
David Norris is incredibly grateful to that generation, who he feels passed the baton so graciously and generously on to him. In the ’60s,he had taken to reciting Joyce on Sandymount Strand himself and often drew in small crowds. He donned what he describes as his ‘one fashion statement and moment as Versace’ – a Bloomsday costume, now synonymous with the day. The joy, Norris says, was in performing sections of text in the location where Joyce actually envisaged the events taking place. As for the costume? ‘It doesn’t occur anywhere in Joyce!’ he says with glee. Instead, it was pieced together using photos of the author holidaying in Cornwall, and his description of the ensembles of his own characters. This blend of fact and fiction is entirely in keeping with Joyce’s ethos throughout Ulysses.
Those recitations on the beach gave way to a one-man show that took Norris around the world. He knew that the work intimidated people, but had discovered for himself that aloud, the text comes to life; that, like music, it requires as much practise as an instrument, and then can be performed. He’s delighted that today, Bloomsday plays out as something close to Dublin’s own Mardi Gras. ‘I make no apologies whatsoever for propagandising. People say I vulgarised it, but Ulysses is a vulgar novel! When they talk about me vulgarising it, I mean if you mean *vulgus* – the ordinary people – and making it accessible to them, then yes! It’s not to be kept just for the academics. With Bloomsday, people dress up in character, they go to a certain length to find out what they wore – they read bits of the book, and though they may not read the whole thing, it’s the sort of insidious book that stays with you and draws you back in.’
Norris’s championing of Joyce is not to be understated. It was he who convinced the perhaps oxymoronically named Cultural Committee of Dublin Corporation that he could re-roof the mansion on North Great George’s Street. It now houses The James Joyce Centre, and was saved from being pulled down with the profits of the previous year’s Symposium that Norris had hosted in Dublin. The committee were reluctant to hand it over, and he had to assure one particularly concerned member that he’d keep his ‘fringe activities’ behind the door of his own home, leaving number 35 free to be exclusively polluted by Joyce.
Even Norris admits the link between the house and Ulysses is a loose one. The former owner of the house appears as a minor character only a few times in the text, but Norris tells me he thinks that he thinks ‘Joyce would be delighted with the idea that his works produced the energy to save this street – a street that he knew so well’. I ask him whether there’s a danger that we’re creating something of a literary theme park for ourselves but he responds that if we didn’t have the theme park, we’d have nothing at all. With the Bloomsday celebrations, ‘it’s more than just fantasy and lemon soap, there’s always some little grain of reality in it. But tourism is tourism and you have to let the money go where it falls.’
At the Joyce Centre, Mark Traynor tells me his thinking on the day has evolved. Joyce was hyper-aware of the politics of how he’d be presented and used in the world, and was happy to cultivate a myth around himself. ‘But today, the reality is that he’s an iconic figure, and people are going to do with this image of Joyce as they will. So long as the work is fluid enough, and can sustain itself, then people will keep returning to it, regardless of how crass or simplistic the celebration of it becomes and you can’t stop or censor that. I think that people will genuinely only spend money or time on things that they consider authentic… I’m not sure any kind of money grab can sustain itself in the same way that the text can.’
Balancing an intellectual appreciation of the work, and the keen sense of fun and jollity that the day inspires, no longer poses a challenge. The day is broad enough that it can encompass a scholarly element alongside ‘more simple events where people just want to dress up in Edwardian garb and eat a sausage’. The need for a diverse celebration of the day is echoed at the Reading Group: ‘There’s flamboyancy, of course – this is Joyce after all – but always too, something of more substance there, for those looking for it,’ they tell me.
This Bloomsday, like those have gone before, offers that diversity. Stephen Fry and David Norris will be in discussion with one another in the O’Reilly Theatre, there’s a pub crawl, a range of walking tours, readings, recitals, music – the Centre starts planning a year in advance. Fry had been top of the agenda for a long time, the epitome of the type of guest that the Centre would love to host. ‘We decided to ask him, not so much in the sense of it being a gig for him, but more a case of, “Would you not like to spend Bloomsday in Dublin? We’ll show you a good time, and all you have to do is chat about a book that we know you’re really passionate about”,’ cites Traynor. Norris tells me the pair get on well, and that Fry is astonishingly knowledgeable about Joyce, enough that when they filmed a programme in Dublin a few years ago, Norris came off as positively demure. ‘He’d say, “Do tell me David, isn’t this where such and such…”, and I had to sort of simper along,’ recites Norris, his Fry impression down to a tee. Top of the bill, it’s sure to bring in the crowds.
‘The audience you get on Bloomsday is very different from say, the people that trudge out to the centre on a cold December night to listen to a obscure Joyce scholar talking about some even more obscure aspect of Finnegans Wake,’ says Traynor, who is well rehearsed in having to cater for both groups. Year round, the Centre offers free and low-cost events, from lectures and walking tours to a Jools Holland evening and interview series with Irish authors called Feast of Epiphanies. Last year, they hosted a temporary exhibition of photographs from a shoot by the American fashion photographer Lee Miller, who came to the city in 1947 to capture Joyce’s Dublin. It brought in a new audience for the Centre, and more Irish accents than usual were heard amongst the visitors, as Dubliners came to see buildings they’d known growing up or had they lived in as children.
That’s at the heart of what the Centre is trying to do, ‘find unique points of entry into Joyce for people,’ Traynor acknowledges. ‘It’s not a case of us saying Joyce is this really important Irish figure, and you *must* read him and be proud of him. It’s more about saying that Joyce created a universe, and if you have an interest in this city, or music, or in political culture from the late 19th century or if you’ve an interest in, I don’t know – pornography – there’s an avenue in from there.’
For the Centre, finding new ways to cultivate that point of entry into Joyce, whatever it may be, remains central to the fun of Bloomsday, binding up our own narrative with that of Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and the other characters of Ulysses. Though it’s easy to feel self-conscious on a walking tour of your own city, it’s this embodiment of the text in the sites around us that makes the day so magnetic. In a society so keen to commemorate the passing of historic events, there’s a certain magic in celebrating a fictional one that remains so meticulously anchored in our local geography. Do those in boaters, buying soap or sandwiches really attach any significance to their actions? And if not, does it matter? On Bloomsday, whether we realise it or not, we really celebrate Joyce’s unrelenting will to commemorate his love for Nora Barnacle – crucially and unshakeably immortalised within Bloom’s Dublin. But as Norris reminds me ‘More than anything else, it’s fun, and why not! It’s important to enjoy life and to have festivals, and to celebrate an artist with the breadth of vision of Joyce, who had so many lessons for us all.’
Words: Julia O’Mahony
Photos: Killian Broderick