Monday 21 October 2019

Bloomsday in New York - 'It's the thinking man's Paddy's Day'

Led by poets and authors, New Yorkers will celebrate James Joyce's big day in some style

A Joycean jamboree: New Yorkers get into the Bloomsday spirit in Bryant Park. Photo: Slaven Vlasic
A Joycean jamboree: New Yorkers get into the Bloomsday spirit in Bryant Park. Photo: Slaven Vlasic

Siobhán Brett

The first Joyceans are expected at 11.30am. Not to the Martello tower in Sandycove, nor to the Ormond Hotel on the Liffey or to Glasnevin Cemetery, but to a memento-filled bar on East 58th Street in Manhattan which sells $1.50 oysters and features on its cocktail list a drink known as the 'Bloomtini'.

Flanked on either side by Sichuan and Indian restaurants, Bloom's Tavern has been welcoming fans and followers of James Joyce (and, indeed, the fictional star of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom) to an annual June 16 celebration since its opening five years ago.

Eschewing the "thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, and fried hencods' roes" of the book for the more familiar constituents of a traditional Irish breakfast, the bar's event attracted 200 people last year for readings and song in celebration of Bloomsday.

114 years on from Bloom's day in Dublin, New Yorkers continue to mark the day with some, if not all, of the vivacity of their Dublin counterparts. The city is far from alone: an Oxford-based academic has this year used Google Maps to crowdsource links to more than 60 public readings and events taking place worldwide this year, from Brazil to Hong Kong.

But New York can feel particularly full of the type of writer, artist, and musician with deep and motivating connections to the author and to the text. A New York Times' feature published last week reflected on an "all-night readathon" on the Upper West Side in the 1980s. "Read aloud," the writer noted, "the 24 hours of the book's action take 24 hours to read."

It was excerpts-only at Bloom's Tavern last year, where the writer and actor Malachy McCourt was presented with an award for his work.

Roughly three miles uptown, the poet Paul Muldoon was among those taking part in a marathon reading at a 95th Street theatre called Symphony Space for Bloomsday on Broadway (a "Joycean jamboree," per the New York Times, hosted since 1981), where the actress Fionnula Flanagan delivered the famous closing monologue by Molly Bloom.

Roughly five miles downtown, the author Colum McCann, in a flat cap and waistcoat - a habitual, rather than ceremonial ensemble -joined a host of actors and others in a dramatic rendition outside Ulysses', a bar in the Financial District. At the wave of a hand, the gathered crowd would intone and chant along.

Larry Kirwan, not an actor but a rock musician, is one of the regular participants in the Stone Street celebration and estimates that he has been playing the role of Gerty MacDowell (a young girl who Bloom encounters on the beach) for more than 10 years.

Kirwan's Bloomsday, by his own telling, "began on June 3 this year" with a three-hour episode of the radio programme he produces and presents (Celtic Crush on satellite radio station, Sirius XM) dedicated to James Joyce.

"The Joyce show is popular around the country," Kirwan says. "I talk about various aspects of his life, play empathetic music, and read from both the end of Ulysses and 'The Dead'. I think I also read his poem to Parnell on his death. Written when he was nine years of age! Jimmy was born with genius.

'Make the book accessible'

"But the actual Bloomsday event I've taken part in for a long time is the one at Ulysses'. Colum McCann hosts it, Aedín Moloney [daughter of Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains] plays Molly Bloom and I do Gerty, with a cast of many, including celebrities who might drop by. It's outdoors, much gaiety and not a little booze. The best Joycean conditions."

Thirteen years ago McCann founded the Stone Street gathering ("the oldest paved street in New York City, right in the shadows of Wall Street," he points out) with the help of the late Frank McCourt.

"It's quite a sight, all these bankers walking along the cobblestone street while the readers belt out the 20th century's best novel," says McCann. "We generally get about 200 people attending, some of them in various forms of Victorian dress or redress, or even undress.

"There's a great respect for the day in the city, particularly since St Patrick's Day is, in my opinion, such a farce. This is along the lines of the thinking man's Paddy's Day."

There are smaller events and tributes that take place more quietly across the city, too, such as the reading by American author Robert Seidman at the Soho-based bookstore McNally Jackson. Seidman is the co-author of an annotation of Ulysses which took seven years to complete ("no assistants," he explains).

"The idea was simply to make the book accessible," Seidman says. "A lot of scholarly texts are protective of their information - we wanted to democratise the thing."

Seidman complements the effort with two readings a year at McNally (the first on Joyce's birthday), as well as with appearances before the American Irish Historical Society and the James Joyce Society, a group - founded by TS Eliot in 1947 - which convenes in New York City a few times a year. "It is remarkable to see who comes to learn about the book," Seidman said. "Sometimes there are people who seem not deeply literary types, and all ages, which I love. People wander in from I don't know where."

The late Russian-born art historian Leo Steinberg felt that Joyce, and Ulysses in particular, had fallen into decline in the 21st century. Seidman feels contemporary evidence points to the contrary.

"It still tickles people's interest," he says. Seidman once had a young multilingual babysitter with whom he left the book for a couple of hours. "I walked back in and she was laughing," he recalls. "There are people who just get it, and really get it."

When Seidman travelled to Dublin in the late 1960s to research the annotation, he says he struggled to find a copy of Ulysses. For him this memory contrasts starkly with the "major tourist occasion" Bloomsday has since become in Ireland.

He attends some events in New York City, but as a formalist, he finds some of the celebratory flourish to be at times "uneven". "Some actors overact," Seidman says. "It's often not as finely tuned as one would like it to be."

Fine-tuning and fun need not be mutually exclusive, according to Noel Donovan, managing partner at Bloom's Tavern, whose bar professes to offer the only Bloomsday breakfast in the city. Donovan and his staff collaborate on the day's programming with another New York-based Limerick man, George Heslin, the founder of Origin Theater Company.

The crowd is diverse in age and nationality, Donovan says, and declares himself "shocked" at the turnout which has been increasing steadily. Bloom's offers prizes for the best-dressed attendees and last year threw readings of the letters between Joyce and Sylvia Beach - first publisher of Ulysses and the founder of Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company - into the mix.

The young teen who played Malachy McCourt in the 1999 film Angela's Ashes, Peter Halpin, grew up to pursue acting and directing in New York City where, for the first time, he met McCourt. "We rapidly became great buddies," Halpin says. "He's not only a fine actor, but a great friend, mentor, sounding board, and true gent."

Shortly after the two met, McCourt asked Halpin to read at Bloomsday on Broadway. This year's appearance will be his fourth. "I went along in 2015, a bag of nerves," says Halpin, who was wowed by the luminaries the event routinely attracts.

"People love Joyce's words. No one wrote like him," he says. "We can hear people in the audience turning the pages of their own copies of Ulysses as we go through it."

Meet the woman taking the helm of Bloomsday for the first time

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