Every year on June 16, literary aficionados across Dublin (and other major cities around the world) celebrate Bloomsday. The day is a tribute to the work of Ireland’s most famous author, James Joyce, and his groundbreaking slice-of-life novel, Ulysses. Since the first Bloomsday (named for a key protagonist in the book, Leopold Bloom) in 1954, the yearly event has grown into a major literary holiday enjoyed by Joyce fans from Dublin to New York, and thousands come together for readings, musical concerts, pub crawls, and other events for an homage to this special book. It is common for revelers to dress in clothing fitting the style of era, including bowler hats, trousers, and waistcoats for the men, and long dark skirts, white blouses and shawls for the women. So if you find yourself in Dublin on June 16, don’t be alarmed by what you might encounter. You haven’t actually traveled back to the Dublin of over a century ago, but you are lucky enough to find yourself the the middle of one of the city’s most lively public celebrations.
Ulysses is a modern retelling of Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, recast to chronicle the everyday experiences of three Dubliners: Leopold Bloom (Odysseus), Molly Bloom (Penelope), and Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus). The story is, to put it simply, an odyssey of the ordinary, and uses 732 pages to cover the events of a 16-hour period in Dublin on June 16, 1904 (the date of Joyce’s first date with his wife, Galway native Nora Barnacle).
A part of what makes Bloomsday special is that it is partly a reenactment of events and scenes from the novel which the novel’s characters experience over the course of the day. This tradition goes back to the very first Bloomsday in 1954 (the 50-year anniversary of the book’s publication), in which Irish comedic writer Brian O’Nolan, poet Patrick Kavanagh, novelist Anthony Cronin, Trinity College Registrar A.J. Leventhal, publisher John Ryan, and Joyce’s cousin Tom Joyce, attempted to retrace Bloom’s pilgrimage throughout Dublin. Each member of this motley crew also agreed to represent various characters from the book. The journey began at Joyce’s Tower in Sandycove, the same place the book starts. The party members were drunk not long after their first encounter (O’Nolan, who was known around Dublin for his constant, heavy drinking, was highly intoxicated before the group assembled, having started drinking at 8 a.m. that morning). From Sandycove, the group decided to climb Martello Tower, however, the rowdy drunkenness of the men by this point made it impossible to do so. Next they rented two horse-drawn carriages in an effort to reenact the part of the book where Bloom and his friends drive their own carriages to Paddy Dignam’s funeral. Instead, O’Nolan and company took the carriages along the Dublin Bay seafront and into the city. Although the objective was to end up at the brothel quarter of the city, called Nighttown in the novel, the group wasn’t able to make it through half of their planned stops, having consumed too much alcohol before noon and losing interest (and the ability) to keep the journey going. Instead, they resigned themselves to simply enjoying each other’s company.
In Joyce’s hometown of Dublin (and the place in which most of his fictional universe is set), Bloomsday is actually celebrated over the course of a week. In 2019, the Bloomsday Festival will be held from June 11-19 and as in years past, will feature numerous walking tours, bus tours, readings, concerts, and a pub crawl. The pub crawls of Dublin might be what sets Bloomsday celebrations apart from other cities. Joyce perfectly captured Dublin’s pub culture in his book, and some of the story’s most important scenes take place in public houses around town. Some of these locations include Davy Berne’s, the Ormond Hotel, and Barney Kiernan’s. It is common for Bloomsday participants to congregate at any of these locations for a Ulysses-theme breakfast, fashioned after Bloom’s morning meal in the novel: gizzard, stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, and blood pudding. Walking tours taking place throughout the week include Belvedere College, Glasnevin Cemetery, Howth Head, and Martello Tower (known today as the James Joyce Tower & Museum, open daily and free to the public). Tours usually include a stop at the James Joyce Museum at Sandycove Point as well, where permanent exhibitions Each of these locations will likely feature someone bellowing their favorite passages from Ulysses for anyone to hear, and it is the one day of year such activity (and dress code) won’t seem quite so out of place.
New York City is probably the second most significant place Bloomsday is celebrated, if anything, because of the sheer number of people who take the time to commemorate this most sacred of literary holidays (even the Irish American Bar Association recognizes it). It is also the city where the story was first published, serialized in the pages of the West Village-based magazine The Little Review in 1918. Like their Dublin cohorts, NYC-based Joyceans congregate for a meal of relevant Bloomsday-esque food, readings, reenactments, musical shows, and of course a Dublin-day’s worth of drinking via numerous Irish-themed pub crawls. One of New York’s biggest Bloomsday draws is Bloomsday on Broadway on the Upper West Side, which is simulcast on WNYC Radio and listened to around the world. The yearly event is long-standing collaboration between Symphony Space and the Irish Arts Center that has been running consecutively for nearly 40 years. The event includes various actors and musical groups who take turns interpreting the book’s eighteen individual episodes. Irish actress and political activist Fionnula Flanagan is often spotted there, and has read for the event in the past (Stephen Colbert and Alec Baldwin have also made appearances in years past). A popular gathering for a Bloomsday Breakfast in NYC is held at Bloom’s Tavern (of course!), and typically includes a slew of writers, actors, musicians and local business leaders who take turns reenacting events from the novel over the course of the day. The event is hosted by the Origin Theatre Company and Edwardian dress code is strongly encouraged. Of the many bars that pay tribute to Joyce on Bloomsday, Ulysses Folk House, located on Stone Street in the Financial District, offers patrons complimentary drinks, Ulysses-appropriate food, and usually features a variety of actors and readers to bring life to the novel throughout the day. In good weather, the staff expand the celebration into an adjoining outdoor space and make the event into a bona fide street party.
Joyce first conceived of the idea for a story about a Jewish advertising canvasser named Leopold Bloom when he was finishing Dubliners in 1906. He didn’t begin sketching out the idea for Ulysses until 1914 however, and began publishing it in The Little Review in 1918. The story was published in book format on February 2, 1922 (Joyce’s 40th birthday) by Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company. The first English edition was published by Egoist Press, London in October the same year.
Immediately upon its publication, the story was met with both high praise and utter disdain by readers. Joyce’s contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound warmly received the book. Eliot described the novel as “a book from which none of us can escape and to which all of us are in debt.” However, Virginia Woolf famously dismissed the book as a product of “a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” Anti-obscenity advocates around the English-speaking world universally condemned it for the explicit sexuality and other bodily functions described in detail throughout the story. In 1921, the United States Post Office began seizing copies of The Little Review which contained segments of the book, and the magazine’s editors were taken to trial and lost, each of whom were issued a $50 fine for publishing obscene material. The book was banned in the United States until 1933 when the book finally won its right to exist in the court case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses. Up until that point, copies of the book that were intercepted by U.S. customs agents were seized and burned. The book was similarly banned in the United Kingdom until the mid-1930s, and it was sporadically banned in Australia up until the mid 1950s. Similarly today, there are those who celebrate Bloomsday as a gateway to the brilliance of Joyce’s work, and others such as James Murphy, writing in Vanity Fair, who view it as a superficial opportunity for “cultural validation that’s about as substantial as sharing an author quote on Instagram.” Joyce himself was leery of lionization, and according to Murphy likely wouldn’t have appreciated an event that today seems to uplift the act of the celebration first and the actual reading of the book second, “if at all.” But who wants to listen to this grump anyway?
Born on February 2, 1882, Joyce is to this day one of the most studied and admired authors of all time. During his lifetime, his explicit, stream-of-consciousness style gained him worldwide acclaim and criticism. But the experimental nature of his work, coupled with a love of mythology and history, produced intellectual contributions that have been ranked alongside Einstein and Freud. He moved away from Dublin at the age of 22, but his love for the city never waned, and much of his stories recreate parts of the city in striking, realistic detail and accuracy although many have pointed out some imaginary embellishments of the city throughout his work.
Joyce was the oldest of ten children. His parents, John Stainslaus Joyce and Marry Murray Joyce, struggled to provide for the family and although his father was a talented singer and performer, he was not able to offer a stable home environment and struggled with alcoholism. Nevertheless, Joyce’s parents recognized their son’s incredible intellect at an early age and strongly encouraged him to further his education. At the age of thirteen, he was invited to attend Belvedere College and he enrolled at the University College Dublin in 1898. Joyce taught himself to speak Norwegian in order to read plays by Henrik Ibsen, and went on to learn 17 different languages. After graduating, Joyce left Ireland to study medicine in Paris, but returned to his native land when he learned his mother had become seriously ill. After her death in 1903, Joyce stayed in Ireland for a time and met his wife Nora, and together they moved between Trieste, Paris, and Zurich.
Joyce’s writing left a lasting mark on the literary world, and served as a major influence for other writers and scholars including Samuel Beckett, Seán Ó Ríordáin, Jorge Luis Borges, Flann O’Brien, John Updike and Joseph Campbell. The continued interest in Joyce’s work lives on in the numerous university courses and study programs that are dedicated to his books, ensuring future generations get to experience the defiant Irish mind that set a new course for literature. But no amount of academia or skepticism can replace the joy and camaraderie shared by Bloomsday revelers, and there is perhaps no better way to introduce people to one of Ireland’s most prolific authors.