Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 20 May 2019

'Joyce was the Andy Warhol of his day, he loved being famous...' - Jessica Peel-Yates

As she prepares for her first Bloomsday at the helm of Dublin's James Joyce Centre, Jessica Peel-Yates tells Andrew Lynch why the annual celebration has been a big part of her life for more than a decade

Promoting the Joyce legacy: Jessica Peel-Yates. Photo: Frank McGrath
Promoting the Joyce legacy: Jessica Peel-Yates. Photo: Frank McGrath

Jessica Peel-Yates has better reason than most to regard Bloomsday as a special date on the calendar. She met her partner in Grogan's pub on June 16, 2007, exactly 103 years since James Joyce's first outing with Nora Barnacle which he later immortalised in his iconic novel Ulysses.

Up until then, the copy that a friend had given Peel-Yates when she left London for Dublin had mostly sat on her shelf - but all that was about to change with a vengeance.

"It was very much love at first sight," Peel-Yates recalls. "So we decided to spend the next year reading Ulysses together and then celebrate on Bloomsday 2008. Joyce has been a big part of my life ever since."

Although Peel-Yates cheerfully admits that much of Ulysses went "over my head" at first, the book had clearly got under her skin. She began attending a reading group at Sweny's Pharmacy on Lincoln Place, the shop where Leopold Bloom goes to purchase a bar of lemon-scented soap.

Walking the same streets as Joyce's characters and imagining Dublin through their eyes, she says, gave her an even greater sense of connection with her adopted home. "I would regularly discuss Ulysses with people in Sweny's, then come out and feel hyper-sensitised to the city around me."

Today Peel-Yates's commitment to Bloomsday is both personal and professional. Last March, she was appointed manager of the James Joyce Centre, which runs the official Bloomsday Festival every June as well as promoting the great man's legacy all year around.

Looking forward to the festivities ahead, she borrows a line from the Cyclops episode of Ulysses: "It will be 'real Irish fun without vulgarity'."

Before our interview, Peel-Yates gives me a tour of the James Joyce Centre itself. This magnificent townhouse at 35 North Great George's Street was originally built for the Earl of Kenmare in 1784 and later housed a dance academy run by Professor Denis J Maginni, a flamboyant character mentioned several times in Ulysses.

In 1982, it was saved from demolition by David Norris, the equally flamboyant Senator and eminent Joycean who lives across the street.

"We use a Joyce lookalike on Bloomsday," Peel-Yates says, "but I'm starting to think that what we really need is a David Norris lookalike. Everybody wants him at their event."

On one level, the centre is a treasure trove for Joyce historians, containing artefacts such as his death mask, furniture from the Paris apartment where he worked on Finnegans Wake and the original door of No 7 Eccles Street which housed Leopold and Molly Bloom. When we sit down in the light-filled Old Library, however, Peel-Yates stresses that this is "a cultural space" rather than a museum.

"We organise walking tours, public lectures, contemporary art exhibitions. It's a place where everyone is welcome to come in and join the conversation."

Above all, Peel-Yates believes that there are lots of "entry points" for anyone to access Joyce's Dublin on Bloomsday. This year's programme proves her point.

Along with the traditional re-enactments of Leopold's troubled odyssey through town, you can attend a whiskey tasting session, take in a new opera based on Ulysses or get your body painted with Joycean images.

"The great thing about Bloomsday is that you've got Joyce scholars and Joyce virgins side by side," Peel-Yates says.

"It's an opportunity for people to hear Joyce on the streets and have the story really opened up to them. I think Dubliners feel a real sense of ownership over Ulysses, even if they haven't read it."

In fact, Peel-Yates does not claim to be a "Joyce scholar" herself, although clearly it's all relative. "Before my job interview, I realised that I'd never read Finnegans Wake from cover to cover," she confides (I decide not to mention that I've never got past page 10 of this notoriously difficult work).

"So I put it on my Kindle and read 5pc every day - it was really beautiful, just letting the text flow over me."

As you might expect from someone whose CV includes being a civil servant in two UK government departments, setting up her own dance company and co-authoring five interactive pocket guides to Irish literature, Peel-Yates exudes an air of calm efficiency.

She also has a mischievous sense of humour. Asked why she first came to Ireland, the English-Flemish woman replies: "I could say Feargal Sharkey," and explains that the former Undertones frontman's solo hit 'A Good Heart' is one of her favourite songs.

"Actually, the creative spirit of Ireland just pulled me over here. I love the culture, the buildings, the humour. I love the over-familiarity that means people will take the mickey out of you at the bus stop."

The James Joyce Centre welcomed over 22,000 visitors through its doors last year, while the Bloomsday Festival attracts more than 25,000 people from around the world. Joyce's modern-day status as a tourist attraction might be seen as somewhat incongruous, given that he once wrote: "How sick, sick, sick I am of Dublin! It is the city of failure, of rancour and of unhappiness. I long to be out of it."

Peel-Yates, however, suspects that Joyce would have delighted in the irony. "He was a bit like the Andy Warhol of his day, he really liked being famous. Somebody once asked him who were the greatest writers in English and he replied, 'Apart from myself? I don't know.'"

As the centre approaches closing time, I ask Peel-Yates if she has a favourite Ulysses quote.

"Give a bleeding whore a chance," she laughs, adding, "You can't put that in the Irish Independent, can you?"

She also likes a line from Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy: "I wouldn't give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning, why don't they go and create something?", while being careful to add that scholarship is still an important aspect of the centre's work.

Upon mature reflection, she emails me later and chooses a passage about how chance encounters (such as love at first sight in Grogan's pub) can sometimes change everything.

"I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself. that striking of that match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives."

"I like to say that I fell in love on Bloomsday and have been trying to figure it out ever since," Peel-Yates signs off. "Whatever 'it' is!"


Full Bloom on Dublin's streets

Although some of today’s Bloomsday events are sold out, many are still available. The Joyce Tower in Sandycove opens at 8am for a full day of festivities, with actor Bryan Murray reading excerpts from Ulysses (admission free, no booking required).

Dermot Bolger will be discussing his stage adaptation of Ulysses with fellow author Ferdia Mac Anna at 10.30am in the Abbey Theatre (€15). The play runs until July 21.

The novelist Peter Murphy hosts an afternoon of Joyce-related readings, songs and performances at 3pm in Wolfe Tone Square, Jervis St. (Free, no booking required.)

Dublin Body Paint is inviting both artists and models to create their own Ulysses-inspired artwork from 10am at the Fringe Lab, Sycamore St, Temple Bar (€30). At 4pm, participants will join a carnival parade through the city to show off their work.

Drag king Phil T Gorgeous presents Bella Cohen’s Bloomsday Blowout at 8pm in Twenty Two Dublin, 22 South Anne St. A literary salon with music, comic interludes and audience participation (€15).

Frank Kiely’s Dubliners, an exhibition of paintings inspired by the classic short story collection, can be seen at the James Joyce Centre until December 21 (€5).


For full details on all these events and more, see www.bloomsdayfestival.ie

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