Whack for the hurrah, take your partners
Welt the floor ye trotters shake
Isn’t it the truth I told you,
Lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake.
June 16 has come to be something of a literary holy day. It was on this date in 1904 that James Joyce first rendezvoused with the love of his life Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid from Galway, and it was the date he romantically chose to immortalize in his epic novel Ulysses as the day on which Leopold Bloom undertook his odyssey through the streets, the pubs, the landmarks and the characters of Dublin City.
I attended my first Bloomsday more than 30 years ago in Toronto, where I was living at the time. Courtesy of Anna Livia Productions, the craic kicked off at 8.30 a.m. (these Joyceaholics can be obsessive about authenticity and if Bloom began his wanderings early in the morning, bejasus they will too). The waterworks on the shore of Lake Ontario represented the Martello Tower on Dublin’s Sandymount Strand, where we were introduced to stately plump Buck Mulligan. From there we set off on our trek, stopping for songs and readings and raucous revelry at various locations that stood in for Dublin landmarks visited by Bloom on his journey.
All the old, familiar characters of Joyceworld were on display – the bemused, besotted, horny Bloom, his yes o yeswoman wife Molly, the engaging and often engorged Stephen Dedalus, the brassy Bella and, of course, Mister Tim Finnegan, dead and rising on the bed. It was a masterful performance, with buckets of audience participation, full of Joyce’s ribald Dublin wit. There was poetry, passion, patriotism, delicious profanity and woe-begotten piety, all stirred in together to make a marathon coddle of rich and lusty entertainment.
I was enchanted and I haven’t missed a Bloomsday since. I’ve heard some excerpts from the Joycean oeuvre performed so many times that I could nearly recite them backwards.
But in all those years I never read the book. Started it three times and fell by the wayside each time, unnerved and discouraged by the density of the prose and its intellectual expansiveness. So, when I turned 66 and retirement beckoned, I decided to give it another lash. Then came our current plague and Ulysses became a Coronavirus project. Armed with thesaurus, reference books and good old Google, I began my odyssey.
I had a precarious start – you’d need a literary machete to hack your way through the jungle of rhetorical wizardry, daunting language and obscure etymology. The ineluctable modality of the visible, for example. Sweet Jesus!
But I persist. I follow the advice of Joyce himself and I sometimes read the book aloud. It helps. I’m glad to say I’m prevailing. I’m now on Page 101 and going strong. I know that there are challenges ahead but, like the unwavering devotion to his art of the masterful scribe himself, my involvement is keen and my resolve is stout.
These days, June 16 is celebrated in more than 60 countries around the world and is an annual fixture in the calendar of cultural life in Dublin. Over the years, the city has responded to this literary glory and the resultant tourism bonanza by etching Joyce’s work into the urban infrastructure. Among other treasures, we have the Joyce Museum in Sandycove, the James Joyce Centre on North Great George’s Street, the statute of the great man on North Earl Street and the 14 bronze plaques embedded into the pavement in a series of streets from Liffey Street to the National Museum on Kildare Street; the plaques follow in the footsteps of the fictional Bloom.
A staple of the day is the Bloomsday Breakfast, which is served in hostelries throughout Dublin City and recreates, to varying degrees, some of the dishes that would have been popular in Joyce’s time. Bloom, no slouching vegan him, liked his grub and his preferred comestibles gave us what must surely be one of the most memorable culinary expositions in the history of the novel:
Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with breadcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys, which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
I eagerly anticipate the Hairy Bikers’ take on these dietary tendencies.
Alas, even the Bloomsday festivities have fallen by the wayside in the chaos of abandonment and cancellation unleashed before the whirlwind of Covid-19. Dublin will be empty of the costumed revellers, replete in Edwardian splendour, who customarily colour the city on June 16, and we’ll all be the poorer for this. We will enjoy a virtual Bloomsday that promises a feast of readings, recitations and revelry to be delivered by some of Ireland’s finest talent and Bloomsday’s greatest espousers, but we will enjoy this in the privacy of our own homes and our pleasure will be tempered by the compromised, less spontaneous, more solitary zeitgeist that the virus has caused us to inhabit.
Dublin, like many of the world’s grand cities, has resembled a ghost town for the past two months and is only now slowly beginning to come back to life. I live in the suburbs and haven’t been in town since mid-March and even then the emptiness and silence were so eerie and off-putting that I couldn’t get out of the place quickly enough.
What would Joyce make of this, I wonder? He’d hate it, I suspect. He was, after all, a quintessential boulevardier if ever there was one, fond of his taverns and wenches, who liked nothing more than a singsong and a knees-up. Lockdown, I suspect, would be murder for him.
As for me, I have Ulysses. My odyssey continues. A hundred and one pages done. Only 832 to go. Gulp. Will that see me through to the dying days of the virus? Or will the cursed plague outlive my mission?
If it does, there’s always Finnegans Wake.