Shameless Literary Tourism in Dublin: Bloomsday 2009

It’s rather striking how much of a commodity James Joyce is in Dublin; there’s nothing comparable to it in any American city. You hear mentions of Bloomsday activites on Dublin radio stations, and see events described in some of the newspapers. There are two Joyce museums in the city, a proper statue to Joyce on one of the biggest commercial streets in the city, and plaques on the ground and on buildings all over the place. Every other pub has a picture of Joyce or Yeats somewhere; there is even something called a "James Joyce Pub Award" (for "being an authentic Dublin pub"). On Bloomsday there are performances at big as well as small venues all over the city related to Ulysses. We saw a flyer for an actress doing a solo show as Molly Bloom, and we even saw something about a reenactment of a brief dialogue between Ned Lambert and J.J. O'Molloy at St. Mary’s Abbey (from "Wandering Rocks"; a rather minor incident in the novel).

That said, some of the events not involving pubs didn't seem to be all that well attended. And while there were a fair number of knowledgeable readers of Joyce on the two tours I went on (many of them American college students, interestingly), there were plenty of people who just came because their guide book recommended it as something to do in Dublin.

The only dissenting voice I heard on James Joyce was in a pub in a village called Bunratty, north of Limerick. There, at a pub named "Durty Nelly's," I was accosted by a rather inebriated Irishman who wanted to tell me all about his time at the Kumbh Mela in India. When Joyce came up in the conversation later (this man knew a fair bit about literature), he scoffed: "Joyce was a lackey, he was nothing but a lackey." I didn't have the presence of mind to ask him why he thought so, and now I wonder what exactly he meant.

As an intellectual exercise, I'm not sure whether there was much value in spending a day walking around Dublin with Joyce-tinted glasses on; it's admittedly tourism, not scholarship. But it certainly was fun to see Dublin this way.

1. Sandycove and Howth

On the morning of the 16th, I took the DART train out to Sandycove early in the morning, leaving Samian asleep at the hotel in central Dublin. It’s a pretty long ride from Tara Street Station in central Dublin, which surprised me a little in itself; I had always envisioned Sandycove, where Buck Mulligan is staying in the novel, in the Martello Tower, and Dalkey, where Stephen has been teaching, as a relatively short hop to central Dublin. In fact, it’s a forty minute commute at rush hour, even in a fast subway train. How long would it have taken by tram in 1904?

I was pleased to see a handful of people, men and women, bathing in the water by the tower, now a James Joyce Museum. There were people in period costume, though not many who were identifiably a particular character in the novel (elsewhere, we did see people dressed as "Leopold Bloom" and "Stephen Dedalus"; the Molly Blooms, I'm guessing, stayed home).

A Dublin-based actor and writer named Barry McGovern did a brilliant reading from “Eumaeus” at the top of the tower, with about twenty people crammed in around the small circle. I thought the choice of passages was great – it would be tempting to just do “Telemachus” at the top of the Martello Tower in Sandycove, but in fact the dialogue between Stephen and Bloom in Eumaeus walking through Dublin on their way to the cab shelter has some really poignant moments; it works especially well as a passage for recital. In terms of seeing Ulysses as a living text, this was the high point of the day for me.

Incidentally, if you watch this slideshow of the event at the Irish Times, you'll see a picture of me along the way, and hear a little of Barry McGovern reading. Proof that I was there!

I decided to forego the “Bloomsday Breakfast” (focusing on pork kidneys, and “snotgreen soup” – really) at a local restaurant in Sandycove. I didn’t have all that much time, and anyway, 18 Euros is a little too steep for me for breakfast.

All in all, things were pretty quiet out at Sandycove. I noticed a couple of families with young children at Sandycove’s little beach (i.e., the actual cove at Sandycove), playing in the sand, as I walked back toward the train station. They were there for the beach on a warm, sunny morning, not related to Bloomsday. There was a serious-looking man in a black turtleneck who spoke halting English in an Eastern European accent there, frequently consulting what appeared to be a Polish or Russian translation of the novel, and another man (a nurse by profession) who had flown in from Leicester, England, that morning, just to participate in Bloomsday.

A week earlier, we had gone to Howth, on the north side of Dublin Bay. In fact, it was an accident – not literary tourism, but plain old tourism. (We had been given, as a present from relatives, a gift certificate for dinner at a nice seafood restaurant called “Aqua,” on Howth Pier –a gift given with no connection whatsoever to Joyce.) Howth is a pretty little fishing village, with some upscale restaurants, working fishing boats, and a few places selling takeaway fish and chips a bit more cheaply. The view of Ireland’s Eye to the north is pretty spectacular at sunset from the “Nose of Howth.” Here is what happens in Ulysses at Howth:

Glowing wine on his palate lingered swallowed. Crushing in the winepress grapes of Burgundy. Sun's heat it is. Seems to a secret touch telling me memory. Touched his sense moistened remembered. Hidden under wild ferns on Howth below us bay sleeping: sky. No sound. The sky. The bay purple by the Lion's head. Green by Drumleck. Yellowgreen towards Sutton. Fields of undersea, the lines faint brown in grass, buried cities. Pillowed on my coat she had her hair, earwigs in the heather scrub my hand under her nape, you'll toss me all. O wonder! Coolsoft with ointments her hand touched me, caressed: her eyes upon me did not turn away. Ravished over her I lay, full lips full open, kissed her mouth. Yum. Softly she gave me in my mouth the seedcake warm and chewed. Mawkish pulp her mouth had mumbled sweetsour of her spittle. Joy: I ate it: joy. Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft warm sticky gumjelly lips. Flowers her eyes were, take me, willing eyes. Pebbles fell. She lay still. A goat. No-one. High on Ben Howth rhododendrons a nannygoat walking surefooted, dropping currants. Screened under ferns she laughed warmfolded. Wildly I lay on her, kissed her: eyes, her lips, her stretched neck beating, woman's breasts full in her blouse of nun's veiling, fat nipples upright. Hot I tongued her. She kissed me. I was kissed. All yielding she tossed my hair. Kissed, she kissed me.

It's a memory both Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom hold fondly and come back to at various points in the novel, as representing the emotional core of their relationship. The scene is very, very intimate. After seeing the place, all I can say is: I hope they were warmly dressed; to us, it felt a little cold and desolate out there. (Perhaps it was just a windy day.)

2. Daytime in Central Dublin

We decided to skip the obligatory lunch of a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of burgundy at lunch, though half the pubs in the Temple Bar district were advertising it as a special, including of course, Davy Byrne’s, on the 16th of June. (I think people don’t really realize that Bloom, though he had an intense reaction to the Burgundy, didn’t really respond much to the Gorgonzola Cheese.) Instead, we had a much more satisfying meal at the Joy of Cha on Essex Street East, near Meeting House Square.

The biggest crowd we saw was about 200 people at noon, at Meeting House Square, where there were readings and performances related to Ulysses for three hours in the middle of the day. We walked in on the tail end of an operatic performance of one of the Italian songs mentioned in Joyce’s novel (I couldn’t quite figure out which one), but after that the various speakers weren’t particularly exciting. After a little while, they turned it over to audience members to come up and read favorite passages from the novel. Unfortunately, it seemed like people were reading quite badly, and without explaining why such-and-such passage might be important for themselves personally. The adjacent Irish Film Institute was screening John Huston’s film version of “The Dead” on the night of the 16th, but it was sold out. We moved on.

Later in the afternoon, we did the Bloomsday walking tour that starts at the James Joyce Centre on North St. Georges Street (just a couple of blocks from Eccles Street, on the north side of the city). The guide presented himself as Stephen Dedalus, and in his opening spiel he announced, I thought quite cleverly, that while he was going to show us around some of the landmark sites in Ulysses, it wasn’t really his favorite book by Joyce. (Obviously, if you’re Stephen Dedalus, your favorite book should be Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.) He also made an appropriately irreverent comment about the deification of Joyce as follows: "we’re here to celebrate the author James Joyce, the creator of everything, the father, the son, and the holy ghost..."

The spots in Ulysses on the Bloomsday tour aren’t really that thrilling to see, unless you’re the kind of Joyce reader that obsesses over the little details in Joyce’s novel. The spot that would have been Dlugacz’s butcher (always a fictional store, but a real address), is now a dry cleaners’ – wow, thrilling. Still, to see the church clock tower, and be able to visualize the streets and topography does help give a better picture of some of the key events in the book. The red light district (“Night-town”) is completely gone; today, that neighborhood has a big bus station and a train station. I also found, at several points in the Bloomsday tour through north central Dublin, that the mundane activities of the city – passing buses, construction work, routine traffic – overwhelmed our tour. If it was anything like this in 1904, Dublin at mid-day was a loud, busy place in which to walk around.

For me, the most poignant shift between the Dublin of Joyce’s day and the present moment entails the disappearance of Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street, mentioned particularly in connection with the "Parable of the Plums" in the Aeolus episode. In 1966, the IRA blew up the pillar, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Uprising. Dublin has replaced what was once a symbol of British Imperialism with a 500 foot tall, abstract metal spike, which now stands anomalously (and ominously?) above the rest of the skyline of central Dublin.

On the tour, I met two Chinese women carrying the Chinese translation of Ulysses with them. The mother was a big Joyce fan, while the daughter seemed to be cramming a little bit to try and understand what the fuss was about. I asked them what the translation is like – is it full of neologisms, words borrowed from other languages, and so on? But they didn’t seem to understand the question; they simply said they’d never looked at the original in English, so they couldn’t make a comparison.

3. Evening

Davy Byrne’s was too crowded in the early evening with people in period costume eating cheese sandwiches, so we went to the Duke, across the street. All of the action is at Davy Byrne’s, since it’s still there, but people generally neglect to mention that Burton’s, the first pub Bloom had walked into in the same episode of the novel, is now a travel agency.

We ended our evening with the "Dublin Literary Pub Crawl," as part of a group of overwhelmingly American tourists. The actors who run this popular evening tour do really good (and funny) short bits from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” James Plunkett’s “The Risen People,” and a winningly fey enactment of one of Oscar Wilde’s letters from America (the letter they used was Wilde writing from Leadville, Colorado). They also pepper their anecdotes about literary Dublin with quotes and references to a number of Irish writers and historical figures. Some of the people cited that I can remember included Brendan Behan (the "drinker with a writing problem" quote), Oliver Goldsmith, Jonathan Swift, Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, and the labor activist Jim Larkin.