Saturday 22 October 2016

Nation's love of all things Joyce in full Bloom again

Maggie Armstrong

Published 12/06/2016 | 02:30

Poet Patrick Kavanagh with writers John Ryan and Anthony Cronin at Sandymount Strand on Bloomsday, 1954.
Poet Patrick Kavanagh with writers John Ryan and Anthony Cronin at Sandymount Strand on Bloomsday, 1954.

On the evening of June 16, 1904, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle went walking in Dublin's Ringsend. On Sandymount Strand, Nora unbuttoned Joyce's trousers - or, as Joyce wrote to the Galway barmaid afterwards, "You made me a man". Joyce and Nora's private congress became Leopold Bloom's peregrination when Joyce set his novel Ulysses on that date. The world then claimed it for itself, and on June 16 this year, Bloomsday comes around as usual.

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The celebration has become a reliably quaint Dublin street spectacle, the capital dotted with folks in boater hats and pinstripes, constricting dresses and petticoats. Politicians are at large, as well as a host of Dublin faces you associate more with the crumbling corners of Grogan's lounge.

The inner organs of beasts and fowls are eaten for breakfast and Burgundy is drunk for lunch. (Though you won't find Joyceans eating the "lukewarm pig's crubeen" and "cold sheep's trotter" which are also consumed in the novel at "Nighttown", Dublin's old red light district.)

In all, no harm is done: Dublin's most famous, and famously least-read, novel is brought alive, and people outside university walls are reminded of its glories. It is probably Dublin's best-behaved festival, even if it didn't begin that way.

The first Bloomsday happened in 1954, created by six men whose improvident drinking turned the commemoration into a shambles. Brian O'Nolan (aka Myles na gCopaleen and Flann O'Brien) and the publisher John Ryan hired two battered horse cabs and invited poets Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Cronin, the Jewish scholar AJ Levanthal, and Tom Joyce, who was a dentist and distant relative of James Joyce.

Their mission was theatrical, each man given his part to play. Dressed in dark pinstripes and period hats, four were to symbolise literary men from the novel, while Levanthal was to represent the Jewish Dubliner Bloom, Tom Joyce the family. Fittingly, he had not read Ulysses.

The plan was to cover the same ground as the characters in the book, starting from the Martello Tower on the south coast and ending up at 'Nighttown' in the north inner city. They were to take in Sandymount Strand, Holles Street National Maternity Hospital, Davy Byrne's and The Bailey for "lunch and liquid refreshments", as told in John Ryan's choice memoir Remembering How We Stood.

The day kicked off with an "altercation" between Myles na gCopaleen and Patrick Kavanagh while both were attempting to scale the rock face at architect Michael Scott's house next to the Martello Tower. They were drunk. "Paddy, even on the journey out, appeared to be absorbing refreshment by some secret chemical process known only to himself," wrote Anthony Cronin in his memoir, Dead as Doornails.

"More pubs were visited en route than even the most faithful adherence to the Joycean master-plan demanded," wrote John Ryan. It was also the day of the Ascot Gold Cup, which meant some of them had to stop at the bookies to place a bet.

"By the time we reached the purlieus of Duke Street," wrote Ryan, "communications became unreliable, transport broke down and the strict order of procedure was permitted to lapse."

At one pub they were mistaken for a funeral party. Colour footage captures some literary figures urinating against the sea wall at Sandymount Strand. The 'pilgrimace', as they called it, disintegrated at The Bailey.

But Joyce's banned book was sacred to these men in 1954. Cronin wrote of the empty pubs and "a certain atmosphere of gloom and rancour" in the post-war years. It was not a confident time, and Bloom's wandering odyssey must have held a lot of appeal for hungry writers. What, we have to ask, are the things that draw us to Ulysses today?

The first Bloomsday touched a nerve and this year Nora and Joyce's romp, Leopold Bloom's fictional ramble, are celebrated in such places as Athens, Barcelona, the Dominican Republic, Auckland, Los Angeles and Cork city.

In Dublin, readings, talks and walking tours run at the James Joyce Centre next to Joyce's school, Belvedere College. For the Bloomsday Fringe, you'll find free events at the James Joyce Tower in Sandycove from today until June 16. Listeners who arrive early will pack into the defence tower Joyce lived in for six days when he was 22, where he set the opening of his story.

A highlight: on Bloomsday, from 9am, the fine and deep-throated actor Owen Roe will read from Ulysses. And if you haven't read Ulysses, look no further than Gerry Farrell's one-man compression of the novel into a theatre piece, Blooming Ulysses, returning to Bewley's Café Theatre.

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