Yes. With pint in hand, potato in pocket, and the “fine tang” lingering on the palate from the breakfast kidney, we celebrate that most epic literary holiday: Bloomsday. It commemorates 16 June 1904, the day on which James Joyce set the action of his masterwork Ulysses (1922)—well, most of it, as the Dublin misadventures of protagonists Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus extend, with mounting surrealism, into the early hours of the following morning. As biographer Richard Ellmann explains, Joyce, ever eager to weave personal details into his work, selected the date for a variety of reasons: on it he began formulating an idiosyncratic theory about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a version of which is delivered by Dedalus to some literary acquaintances in an early chapter from the novel. It was also around this time that Joyce began writing the stories of Dubliners (1914), and a bit later on that he made the fateful decision to leave Ireland. However, love was undoubtedly the primary motivator, as 16 June 1904 marked his first date with Nora Barnacle (she’d stood him up 2 days earlier). Joyce quickly fell in love with the tall, handsome, auburn-haired girl from Galway, and they became lifelong partners, eventually marrying in London in 1931. Nora was Joyce’s muse, inspiring his two great female characters, Molly Bloom, wife of Leopold, and the protean figure of Anna Livia Plurabelle from his final novel, the ever-baffling Finnegans Wake (1939).
How fitting that Ulysses, the great hymn to everyday life and the wonderful complexity of love, would commemorate Joyce and Nora’s anniversary. And as notable as Ulysses was upon publication, precipitating obscenity trials and condemnations from friends and fellow writers, there was no guarantee that it would become what it is today: a modernist classic and perhaps the most notorious novel of all time. Feeling underappreciated and recuperating from one of his many eye surgeries on 16 June 1924, Joyce wrote in his diary: “Will anyone remember this day?”
The beginning of Bloomsday’s popularity can be attributed to a group of Irish writers spearheaded by poet Patrick Kavanaugh and novelist Flann O’Brien, who decided on 16 June 1954 to honor the fiftieth anniversary with a drunken peregrination through Dublin, visiting various sites depicted in the novel and reading relevant passages along the way. Wonderfully, footage from this inaugural event survives (where else can you see great writers urinating together in public as one?). The celebration caught on, and it is now a veritable holiday, with Joyceans the world over reading from the work, reenacting scenes, drinking prodigiously, and, somewhat more rarely, seeking out fresh mutton kidneys for breakfast. In fact, that 1954 celebration may have been too successful, as Flann O’Brien himself, writing experimental Irish fiction after Ulysses, is reported to have said in response to a question about his predecessor’s influence: “I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob.” All together now, let’s lift a frothy Guinness to our gobs and read aloud: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan….” Yes.
Hollis Beach, Senior Editor, Layman Poupard