Jun 16, 2015

With a Celebration of Joyce, History and Culture in Full Bloom

Charlotte Ryan explores the origins of Bloomsday celebrations in Ireland and abroad.

Charlotte RyanFeatures Editor

Before I knew who James Joyce was, I knew about Ulysses. The Penguin Modern Classics edition of the novel sat for years on the squat bookcase that would soon come to be filled with my motley collection of works. It was frayed slightly at the edges, stained an unpleasant colour by an unknown liquid, and was sticky with dust and grime. This wasn’t enough to deter me. The allure of the novel and all its complex secrets was such that, at twelve years old, I fancied it an ideal summer read. Yes, I was that kid, and I proceed to remind people of the absurdity of such a thing whenever the opportunity presents itself (which is often. I study English). Ulysses was for me bound up in unobtainable knowledge and, even though trying to read what is arguably the most important novel of the last century at the age of twelve is the most stupid thing a person can do, I wanted to be part of that knowledge.

The same rings true for Bloomsday, the day-long celebration of James Joyce and his works. The event specifically celebrates Ulysses, taking place on June 16th – the day the novel takes place on – and following the footsteps of the main character Leopold Bloom. Growing up in Dublin, I’d been inclined to think of the holiday as one for middle-aged academics, force-feeding themselves fried kidneys and gorgonzola cheese sandwiches in the style of Bloom. It seemed utterly dour, tiresome and elitist.

“That Bloomsday paradox: that which seems like the most pretentious of days is actually about being as normal as possible”


So imagine my surprise when on my first Bloomsday I find myself sitting on Howth pier eating salty chips and talking about The Simpsons rather than Joyce’s allusions. It was a glorious day, and one of my fondest college memories thus far, because it was decidedly un-Joycean. It was spontaneous and dull at times and full of bawdy jokes. For these same reasons was it the most Joycean of days. Oh, that Bloomsday paradox: that which seems like the most pretentious of days is actually about being as normal as possible.

Bloomsday in its first incarnation, however, was a decidedly literary event. The first reference made to such a celebration was by Sylvia Beach, the founder of the bookshop and cultural mecca Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, and the first publisher of Ulysses, who coined the term. It was she who organised the original celebration in 1929, on the 25th anniversary of the novel’s publication. The event took place on June 29th rather than 16th in the aptly chosen Hotel Leopold just outside of Versailles, and featured a riotous and alcohol-soaked meal with Joyce and Samuel Beckett in attendance among other notable figures in the literary scene. The decision to celebrate the anniversary of the book in such a manner suggests the difference in how audiences of the past understood it. It wasn’t until the inaugural Irish Bloomsday that the focus started to shift to the fictional world of the novel rather than on the novel itself.

The first Irish Bloomsday has become something of a cultural myth, and certainly exists in infamy. Though Bloomsday appreciation was in full swing in various other parts of the world, it wasn’t until John Ryan, artist and founder of Envoy, a literary review, organised a day of small trips around Dublin. The day was planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the day the novel takes place, June 16th 1904 by following the trail of Leopold Bloom and thus cementing what we now consider the traditional Bloomsday activity. Ryan was a leading supporter of intellectuals of the time, and in tow were the poets Anthony Cronin and Patrick Kavanagh, Tom Joyce – a dentist, whose less glamourous status was lifted by his family link to Joyce – and a very inebriated Brian O’Nolan, better known as novelist Flann O’Brien.

The itinerary was simple enough: at mid-morning the gang would assemble at Sandycove to rendezvous at the home of architect Michael Scott, whose garden opened out onto the foot of the Martello Tower. Far from a random choice of meeting place, the tower was once lived in by Joyce and is the landmark that opens the novel. The men, who each took on a character to represent, proceeded/continued to get totally and utterly wasted and head into town in two old-style, horse-drawn carriages to make fools of themselves in public. They managed to hit up Sandymount Strand and Glasnevin cemetery on their way, before dropping into the Bailey and figuring themselves too worn out or drunk to bother continuing the trip. Speaking to The University Times, Mark Traynor, Managing Director and Bloomsday Co-ordinator at the James Joyce Centre, asserts that this gathering of book nerds was a “significant but extremely small” occasion, a detail that is telling of Joyce’s standing in the public mind.

“It is Norris that we have to thank for the traditional Bloomsday costume, a get up composed of arbitrarily chosen pieces that resemble clothes worn by Joyce on holiday in Cornwall or loosely matching the descriptions of clothes in the novel”

With the opening of the James Joyce museum in the mid 60s at Sandycove tower, it became clear that the Irish public were mounting their appreciation for Joyce. In the following decades it was Senator David Norris who acted as the most vocal supporter of Joyce, if not the only one. By the 60s, he had taken to reciting snippets of the novel on Sandymount Strand, often drawing a small but interested crowd. The Joycean scholar asserts that after the centenary of the novelist’s birth in 1982, a resurgence of pride for Joyce was palpable in the Irish public, marking a change from an event celebrating a landmark book to one celebrating a landmark novelist.

Norris’s legacy is just as crucial to the history of Bloomsday as Joyce’s, however. In 1982, the North Great Georges St. building that was to become the James Joyce Centre was due to be demolished, until Norris established an admittedly tenuous link to Ulysses and campaigned for its renovation to the Dublin City Council. It is Norris that we have to thank for the traditional Bloomsday costume, a get up composed of arbitrarily chosen pieces that resemble clothes worn by Joyce on holiday in Cornwall or loosely matching the descriptions of clothes in the novel. If the Bloomsday costume is the most obvious of Norris’s contributions to the tradition, his focus on “vulgarising” the novel is his most significant one. As Traynor says, Norris “emphasised the human element of the book,” stripping away some of the loftier perceptions of it and, in doing so, he may well be “the public face of Bloomsday” both at home and overseas.

A reading, by actor Barry McGovern, from Ulysses on top of the James Joyce Tower and Museum in Sandycove in 2009

Part of the beauty of Bloomsday as an event is the way it can emerge organically in any culture or community. In countries such as Hungary and Italy, a connection is formed through the text itself, providing the most obvious link. In Trieste, Italy – the city in which the first part of Ulysses was written – concerts and readings by Italian scholars, actors and literature lovers predominate whereas in Szombathely, Hungary – the fictional birthplace of Leopold Bloom’s father – events are centred around the ruins of the Blum family home.

While these cities tend to find a connection to Joyce’s text, North American audiences tend to be as fixated on milking that sacred Irish/American link as ever. Traynor notes that Joyce had very little regard for North American culture, and so he provides no easy connection to the culture in his work. Ever resourceful, North American audiences instead focus on the figure of Joyce as an icon – the artistic exile, forced from his home country by Ireland’s lack of artistic opportunities and “spiritual suffocation”. It was a reputation that Joyce was aware of, and as consciously crafted as any of his literary works. The festivities usually follow the same design as Irish Bloomsday, however, with an Irish breakfast in places such as Bryant Park in New York City and public readings in all manner of locations. For an inexplicable reason, marathon performances also feature, with actors and readers endeavouring to recite the entire novel over the course of the day. Show offs.

“North American audiences tend to be as fixated on milking that sacred Irish/American link as ever”

When asked about the differences in perception of Joyce in Ireland and the States, Traynor says that Irish audiences are partly celebrating his reputation as an “outward-looking artist.” As much as he saw himself as a stifled exile, he equally saw himself as a citizen of the world, and illustrated this through his allusions to such worldly writers as Dante and Shakespeare. It is this layering of literary references that creates the experience of reading Ulysses and makes audiences feel as though there is room within the novel for their culture.

It’s the stuff like Dante that tends to make people think that Joyce – and lovers of Joyce, and scholars of Joyce, and basically anyone who claims to have read and adored Joyce – is a load of pretentious codology. Ulysses – the bible of the literary modernist movement – is one that comes irrevocably tangled in a web of elitism. It’s to be expected that this would be reflected in Bloomsday revellers. I mean, imagine trying to explain Bloomsday to an alien: “We dress up in clothes arbitrarily chosen by a politician based on what he had in his wardrobe at the time, follow the footsteps of a character in a book to often highly unnecessary levels of accuracy (who even enjoys eating kidneys anymore?), and get rip-roaring drunk in public places.” By and large only those completely enamoured with the literary magnitude and significance of such a novel would devote a whole day to it.

When asked if the academic reputation of the novel manifests in the class division of the celebrants, Mark does concede that the majority of those who take part tend to be of the educated middle class. Usually there is not much participation from the traditional working classes. That isn’t to say that the working class are unaware of the significance or point of the day, Traynor asserts. They are well aware of Joyce and the novel, but find no interest in taking part.

“Bloomsday festivities are at their best when they occur organically – a few mates, a few cans and even the weakest of Joyce references cannot fail to please”

Traynor is positive, however, that a change is occurring in this and much of this work is being done by the James Joyce Centre. For the last few years the centre has held one of its most exciting and popular events, the Bizarre Bloomsday Brunch, on North Great George’s St, a traditionally working class area of the city. On this street alone there is a sense of diversity, with David Norris – who famously lives on the street – mingling with a number of middle-class families and migrant ones. Traynor says that holding the brunch on this street was done to provide “a point of entry” for those who would not ordinarily become involved in Bloomsday.

Bloomsday festivities are at their best when they occur organically – a few mates, a few cans and even the weakest of Joyce references cannot fail to please. However, the James Joyce Centre does act as the most official of the organisational bodies for the day, not to mention for Joyce-themed events during the year. When asked about the funding that enables this, Traynor explained that 50–60 per cent of their budget comes from grants provided by the Department of Arts and other organisations. The rest of their budget is made up from ticket sales for walking tours and the like run during the year.

Over the years, however, funding has decreased if only slightly. A grant received from Fáilte Ireland of €24,000 in 2014 slipped to €20,000 in 2015, and the centre often seeks donations in kind from sponsors such as Bewleys who provided the breakfast these last two years. Cuts in funding for the arts are an ongoing issue and ever worsening. However, to imagine Dublin city without a Bloomsday of worthy magnitude one day is a truly disconcerting thought.

Regardless, the centre has gone from strength to strength in developing what started off in 1954 as a souped-up session with some literary tossers. The festival in 2015 began on June 11th, ending on June 16th, featuring such delights as a Joycean pub crawl, an evening with poet Susan Howe and the all-important readings. The stand-out event is arguably David Norris’s interview with Stephen Fry – due to happen later today – an event specially sought for by Traynor. He explains that in previous years the Bloomsday guest speakers have predominantly been academics, undoubtedly valuable to the festivities but often inaccessible to larger audiences. Traynor devised the interview series in the last two years to bring a sense of inclusivity to the celebration and asserts that Fry helps it “reach beyond normal audiences.”

“Ireland should be proud of Joyce! People should be proud that he wrote a book that is such a remarkable portrayal of our city”

“Accessibility is what it is all about,” states Traynor, “while not oversimplifying the event.” There will always be Joyce purists who bemoan the flippant attitudes of readings and gimmicky variations of tours, but this is in no way a negative thing. When the first incarnation of a festival is four of Ireland’s literary darlings staggering around the city centre and drunkenly urinating against a wall in Sandymount Strand (video footage of this can in fact be found online), anything is an improvement. As Traynor asserts, if Bloomsday becomes a little superficial it does not besmirch the novel, “in the same way that Baz Lurman adapting Romeo and Juliet doesn’t undermine the play.” In any variation and at any point in history, Bloomsday is an event to be proud of. “Ireland should be proud of Joyce! People should be proud that he wrote a book that is such a remarkable portrayal of our city.”

Any efforts made to make such a wonderful event more accessible and strip away some of the academic elitism are simply admirable, be them Norris’s emphasis on the human aspects of the work or the increasingly inclusive celebrations popping up around the city. In no time at all Bloomsday will cease to seem so pretentious – it’ll be more merry, more bawdy, more moving but not pretentious.

So what will take its place in the circle of hell where pretention lives? Oh, most likely articles about Bloomsday. Ahem.

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