June 16th can only mean one thing: Bloomsday. Contrary to what you may think, this has nothing to do with flowers or gardening. Bloomsday is an annual celebration of the life and work of Ireland's most famous author, James Joyce. Every year the events of his best known novel, Ulysses, are recreated in their exact locations and lots of literary events are held around the country. Plenty of people walk around Dublin in period costume for the day too, which really brings the whole day to life... and often confuses the locals!
How Bloomsday Began
The particular date of Bloomsday – June 16th, 1904 – was chosen by Joyce to be the date the events of his novel takes place for a special reason. It was when he and his eventual wife Nora Barnacle had their first date. Its name comes from the main characte of the novel, who is called Leopold Bloom. The very first Bloomsday dates way back to 1924, and caught the attention of Joyce himself. In a letter to an acquaintance he mentioned that 'there is a group of people who observe what they call Bloom's Day - 16th June.'
It wasn't until the 50th anniversary of the events detailed in Ulysses that things really kicked off however. John Ryan and Brian O'Nolan, two important literary and media figures at the time, organised a day-long pilgrimage of sorts along the route that the novel's protagonist takes through the streets of Dublin. Joyce's cousin, the poet Patrick Kavanagh, and a few other highly esteemed guests came along for the ride, although the party didn't get too far in the end – they stopped halfway along the route in John Ryan's pub and that was the end of that!
Ever since then die-hard literary fans have celebrated on 16th June all over the world with a range of different activities, from public readings of Ulysses to pub crawls, walking tours of all the sites mentioned in the novel, and even eating the same meals as the protagonist for the entire day. Traditionally, the festivities begin at the Martello Tower in Sandycove, South Dublin, since this is where the novel opens. For the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday in 2004, ten thousand people took to O'Connell street in Dublin for a free open-air traditional Irish breakfast, and in 2011 Bloomsday was brought into the digital age with a world wide tweeting of the entire novel. Since it's approximately 265,000 words long, you can imagine how many tweets that would have taken.
The life of James Joyce
James Joyce was born on 2nd February 1882 in Rathgar, Dublin, where he lived until he was 22 years old. He came from a middle class family and was the eldest of twelve children, two of whom died of typhoid. His first foray into writing was at age nine, when he wrote a poem about the death of Charles Stewart Parnell. His parents recognised his aptitude and intelligence and, despite their troubled finances, sent him to a Jesuit boarding school in Kildare and later Belvedere College. He went on to study English, French and Italian in University College Dublin, graduating in 1902, and then immediately left Ireland for France. Intending to study Medicine, he gave up after a few months and returned to Ireland as his mother was dying of cancer.
Joyce had begun writing regularly by the time he graduated, and attempted to publish an essay-story called 'A Portrait of the Artist' in 1904 for the magazine 'Dana'. It was rejected so he attempted to turn it into a novel called Stephen Hero. He abandoned the novel half-way through and left it for years, but eventually rewrote it decades later into one of his best works, 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'. He did get his first short story published in Homestead magazine however, and 1904 was the same year that he met his future wife Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid from Galway who worked in Finn's Hotel on Nassau Street. He had a complex relationship with his native country however and decided to emigrate permanently from Ireland. He spent the rest of life between Ireland, Trieste, Zurich and Paris.
After staying for a week in the Martello Tower in Sandycove, Joyce and Nora moved to Trieste, with brief stints in Zurich and Pula along the way. The story goes that after an altercation with another student in the tower, Joyce woke up to find his nemesis shooting at some pans directly above his bed. He walked some twelve kilometres into the centre of Dublin, stayed with relatives for the night, and the next day sent someone to pick up his belongings, never returning. He began teaching English in Trieste while continuing to write. In 1905 Nora gave birth to the couple's first child George, with daughter Lucia following in 1907.
1914 was the year when Joyce published his first book, Dubliners. On the success of this, he was able to begin writing Ulysses. Considered his greatest work, Ulysses was finally published in Paris in 1922 but on its release, sharply divided critics because of its innovative style. Thankfully, this only made the book more successful, although the controversy over the obscenity of some of the events lead to it being banned in several countries. His new found success came with a price however, and he suffered from eyesight problems for much of the latter half of his life, undergoing over 25 eye surgeries.
His next major publication was Finnegan's Wake in 1939, coinciding with the outbreak of the Second World War. The family moved to the south of France to avoid the Nazi invasion of Paris, and eventually made their way to neutral Switzerland, settling in Zurich. Sadly, Joyce's health took a turn for the worse in the coming years, and he died at the age of 59 after an intestinal operation on January 13th, 1941.
Ulysses is notoriously difficult to read and understand – many people need a dictionary on hand when reading it, and even more people give up before the end! It is divided into eighteen episodes and tells the story of an ordinary day in the life of Leopold Bloom, an advertising salesman living in Dublin in 1904. Bloom spends his day wandering the streets of Dublin encountering a variety of different characters, and to be honest, not a whole lot happens. The book isn't famous for its plot.
What the book is famous for is its writing style and context. It is classified as a 'modernist' novel and is one of, if not the most important pieces of modernist literature. Ulysses is the latin version of the name Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey. The novel of the same name has parallels with this ancient work throughout; Bloom is comparable to Odysseus, his wife Molly with Odysseus' lover Penelope, and the 'sidekick' type character of Stephen Dedalus with Telemachus. Stephen's character can also be loosely compared with that of Joyce himself, as he is the protagonist of 'A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man' which is a semi-autobiographical account of Joyce's youth.
Ulysses is written mostly as a 'stream of consciousness' of Bloom and some other characters, something which had never been done successfully at the time and was considered to be highly innovative. The thoughts and actions of the characters are written simultaneously in a fragmented way, just like how thoughts, memories and details appear in our minds. By incorporating real people and real places, the novel also achieves a high level of realism. With each new chapter, the narrative style and voice shifts dramatically and it is also filled with puns, parodies and pastiches of various different writing styles popular at the time. So in short, it's nothing like an average beginning, middle and end type of book.
Over the course of the day, the characters of the book take in the Martello Tower at Sandycove, Clifton School in Dalkey, Sandymount Strand, Glasnevin Cemetery, Princes Street, the National Library of Ireland, Grafton Street, the Ormond Hotel, and Little Britain Street. Some of the locations such as Davy Byrne's pub still stand today, although they no longer serve the same food as the book purports – Gorgonzola sandwiches may not be so popular anymore! These locations are naturally where all of the Joycean events are held every Bloomsday.
The Bloomsday festival is no longer just for one day, but takes up an entire week, and most events are run by the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. This year, there are four separate walking tours taking place; a Bloomsday walk, a Dubliners walk, a Leopold Bloom walk and a Joyce walk. There is also a Joycean literary pub crawl, several academic talks and theatre re-enacments of Joyce's works.
For an up to date schedule of events, go to the James Joyce Centre's website.
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