Today, June 16th, is Bloomsday. It has become aday for Dublin to commemorate and celebrate the life of Irish writer, James Joyce – because this is the very date, in 1904, when the events of Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, unfold. From 8am on the 16thof June, through to the wee small hours of the next day, we follow a day in the life of the novel’s main character, Leopold Bloom.
Last weekend I was in Dublin and saw posters and notices promoting Bloomsday events throughout the city. Walking tours retracing Leopold’s steps; bus tours for those less able or willing to put in the miles (he did cover some ground); Bloomsday breakfasts (food features large in the plot); and open-air readings and enactments. Today, Dublin will be filled with people dressed as characters from the book: high-necked blouses, striped ties, long skirts and straw boater hats aplenty. If I were there I would go, at lunchtime, to Davy Byrne’s pub on Duke Street to order a gorgonzola sandwich (I have no idea if it’s on the menu, but let’s hope so) and a glass of burgundy like Leopold did.
Bloomsday would have passed unnoticed for me had I not been in Dublin last week following a trip to a book festival in County Carlow. There I heard Dublin writer, Joseph O’Connor, speak. Almost inevitably, he mentioned Joyce. O’Connor has a low, mellifluous and beguiling speaking voice; one you could close your eyes to and fall in love with just by listening, so he could have said almost anything and I would have found it mesmerising. ‘Writing is about an openness to the word,’ he told us. He suggested that each of us have a deep yearning to seek to understand what it is like to be someone else and he said that Joyce described this best in Ulysses, when Joyce wrote, ‘Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-law, but always meeting ourselves.’ Joyce tells us to look out beyond the ruminations of our minds; to notice every other man and woman we meet, and we’ll find ourselves looking right back at us.
I have no idea where this passage comes in the book, and I can’t give you the context, for Ulysses tops the charts as the book most people begin only to leave unfinished – I’m one of them. Yet, having been around for 115 years, we have all heard of it, it hasa certain cachet, and has even has crept into popular culture, referenced outside of what might be expected. For example, there are a number of famous photographs of Marilyn Monroe, in various poses and forms of dress, balancing a thick volume of Ulysses upon her knee, a look of deep concentration on her face. If she can, surely I can!
My favourite reference to Ulyssesis in the American comedy song, Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, (Allan Sherman, 1963) sung in a mobster New York accent by a grown man pretending to be a child at summer camp and writing home to tell his parents how awful it is and that they mustbring him home: come save me! Gently humorous, changing the emphasis on the pronunciation for the sake of the rhyme, it’s a classic: ‘All the counsellors hate the waiters / And the lake has alligators / And the head coach wants no sissies / So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.’
Living in Edinburgh, it is very obvious how a book can take over a city as year round Harry Potter aficionados wander the streets bandaged in maroon and mustard striped scarves and round metal rimmed spectacles in search for where JK penned her early drafts. Someday I will be in Dublin for Bloomsday with a ribbon in my boater, a thick volume under my arm, in search of myself in every other person I meet.