A great walk of fiction

When James Joyce wrote Ulysses, he could not have expected that the journey his hero makes around Dublin on 16 June 1904 would take on cult status. But a hundred years on, celebrations for 'Bloomsday' are bigger than ever. John Walsh joins the party
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For a man who spent most of his life anywhere but his native Dublin, James Joyce was obsessed with the place. Virtually everything he wrote was set in the Irish capital. His habit of name-checking real-life pubs, restaurants and shops in works of fiction was unusual (and was considered indecorous). When the Irish judge, Eugene Sheehy, called on the Joyce family in Paris in 1928, he was surprised to find "pictures and sketches of old Dublin on the walls. Even the design of the large rug, with which the floor was carpeted, portrayed the corkscrew course of the river Liffey".

For a man who spent most of his life anywhere but his native Dublin, James Joyce was obsessed with the place. Virtually everything he wrote was set in the Irish capital. His habit of name-checking real-life pubs, restaurants and shops in works of fiction was unusual (and was considered indecorous). When the Irish judge, Eugene Sheehy, called on the Joyce family in Paris in 1928, he was surprised to find "pictures and sketches of old Dublin on the walls. Even the design of the large rug, with which the floor was carpeted, portrayed the corkscrew course of the river Liffey".

The writer used habitually to contact friends in Dublin, asking them to verify physical details: would it be possible for a man of 5ft6in to shin over the railings outside such-and-such a house in so-and-so street? He would grill Irish visitors to Zürich and Paris for details of Dublin life - not just gossip about former friends and "characters", but about the look of the place: how, for instance, were the shops in Sallynoggin main street? He was genuinely shocked to hear that a new statue had been added to the monumental figures in O'Connell Street, without his having been instantly informed about it.

Once, somebody confronted him about his exile sentimentality. "Mr Joyce, you pretend to be a cosmopolitan," she said, "but how is it that all your thoughts are about Dublin, and almost everything that you have written deals with it and its inhabitants?" "There was an English queen," he replied, "who said that when she died, the word 'Calais' would be found written on her heart. 'Dublin' will be written on mine."

You could say that the name of "Joyce" has been imprinted on the heart of Dublin for years. He may, in the decades since the publication of Ulysses, have been a chronic embarrassment to his Catholic birthplace, a social pariah, the writer of the Big Dirty Book (which features not only the F-word and C-word, but the first-ever spectacle of a fictional character sitting on the lavatory "surrounded by his rising smell"), but he has been comprehensively forgiven.

The reputation of Ulysses as the Bible of modernism (and the template of postmodernism, in its embrace of different voices, styles and idiolects) has survived its fame as a byword for literary smut. Now that it is considered by many to be the finest prose work of the 20th century, the Irish are immensely proud of their rude-but-clever son. They may not read him, but they think he's a gas character, as the saying goes. And that is why today, Dubliners and visiting Joyce fans will turn out in their thousands all over the Hibernian metropolis, to celebrate a book, a writer, and the city that was his best subject.

Today is the centenary of Bloomsday - that is, 16 June 1904, the day on which most of the action of Ulysses takes place. The book itself was published in 1922, but nobody bothers about that. Joyceans know the significance of 16 June 1904 - it was the red-letter day on which James Joyce first stepped out with Nora Barnacle, his future life-partner and true love. She was working as a maid at Quinn's Hotel, Dublin, when they went for a walk. At the end of it, he kissed her and, to his astonishment, she stuck her hand down his trousers. Their relationship remained intensely sexual, as we know from the eye-wateringly frank letters that passed between them when apart.

Why "Bloomsday"? Because the book's main figure is Leopold Bloom. He is, at first glance, a curious hero for an Irish novel - an uneducated Jewish ad-space salesman on the Freeman's Journal newspaper; a fat cuckold whose wife Molly is having an affair with a notorious ladies' man called Blazes Boylan. Bloom is also a furtive masturbator who is conducting a passionate correspondence with a lady called Martha in Dolphin's Barn. Considered objectively, he is a failure, the butt of many jokes, disrespected by his workmates, betrayed by his wife, condemned, it seems at first, to wander the streets in search of fulfilment - the Wandering Jew in search of a home. But as we follow Mr Bloom through his ordinary day, a more sympathetic picture emerges.

We discover how intelligent he is, his mind always roving over the world before him, wondering how it could be improved. We discover that what sets him apart from his fellow-Dubliners isn't his race but his fastidious soul; he has a natural graciousness, a European sophistication that is at odds with the bowsies, gougers, knackers and thimbleriggers of Edwardian Dublin whom he encounters at every step. We also discover the emotional bruise he carries - the memory of his young son Rudi, after whose death he and Molly ceased to have sexual relations. Bloom is a man looking for a son, a home, and a return to his wife. He is the modern Odysseus, who, in Homer's original epic poem, travelled for 10 years in search of his island home of Ithaca, his (faithful) wife Penelope, and his son Telemachus, while beset by dangers, giants, sirens, ogres, treacherous rocks, whirlpools, and women who wanted to turn him into a pig.

It has often been said that Joyce's picture of his native city is far from fond or flattering. The characters he brings to life are often unpleasant people: sour, bullying, sly, mannerless, racist, xenophobic and violent. Like the Citizen in the Cyclops chapter, they are suspicious of outsiders such as Bloom. This does not stop the population of Dublin from dressing up in character every 16 June. By mid-morning, the streets around O'Connell Bridge are pullulating with men in Edwardian flat caps, funereal black jackets and jaunty bow-ties, and carrying ashplant sticks; while the ladies affect white lace blouses, picture hats and their grandmothers' cameo brooches. Some men will come as Leopold Bloom; some in curly top hats as mourners at Paddy Dignam's funeral; some as Stephen Dedalus, the saturnine poet; some as Molly Bloom, plump and bare of arm, generous of lipstick and bosom. There will be lots of muslin skirts and boaters.

Some start their pilgrimage at the Martello Tower in Sandycove, one of a number of defensive buildings thrown up on the Irish coast to withstand a Napoleonic invasion. At the beginning of Ulysses, it is where Stephen Dedalus is temporarily living, with two men - Buck Mulligan (a portrait of Joyce's on-off friend and rival, the surgeon and wit Oliver St John Gogarty) and Haynes, an Englishman. The tower now houses the James Joyce Museum, with its collection of letters, photographs, rare editions and assorted Joyceana. It is open from 8am, for readings and celebrations. Barry McGovern, the Irish actor and Samuel Beckett scholar, will be there all day, declaiming from the book. Visitors can explore the gun platform with its panoramic view (anoraks will note that you cannot see Howth Head from here, although Stephen apparently can in the book) and find both it and the living-room just as Joyce described them.

Hardcore fans will brave the "Forty-foot" bathing hole where Stephen, Haynes and Mulligan go to swim. You could then walk up Dalkey Avenue, a posh Dublin suburb where Stephen teaches at the Clifton School (where Joyce taught in 1904) and is lectured by the anti-Semitic Mr Deasy, who thinks that England is being destroyed by the Jews. You could recite Joyce's gorgeous word-picture of Stephen's remembered mornings in the French capital: "Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets. Moist pith of farls of bread, the froggreen wormwood, her matin incense, court the air."

But most pilgrims desert the glum young poet and head for Eccles Street, just off Dublin's North Circular Road, where Leopold Bloom is contemplating breakfast in Chapter 4. The most famous literary street in Dublin was and is a pretty nondescript thoroughfare, but one that held an emotional resonance for Joyce. When he had been in turmoil in 1909, after hearing that his beloved Nora had been unfaithful with a nasty piece of work called Vincent Cosgrave, Joyce had called at the home of his friend John Francis Byrne, who had supplied vital solace by persuading him that Nora was innocent. Joyce always remembered the address as a place where his trusting soul had come back to life: 7 Eccles Street. The story is told by Frank Delaney in his fine book, James Joyce's Odyssey: A Guide to the Dublin of 'Ulysses' (Hodder, 1981).

The Bloomsday perambulation didn't start, fully fledged, just after the publication of Ulysses. It began in disgrace in 1954, when a starry group of Dublin literary drinkers, led by Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Flann O'Brien and Anthony Cronin decided to mark 16 June with a group excursion. Kavanagh later wrote:

"I made the pilgrimage
In the Bloomsday swelter,
From the Martello Tower
To the cabman's shelter."

In fact, they did no such thing. The pilgrims called in to several hostelries on the way to Sandycove, began drinking at a ludicrously early hour, urinated against the wall of the Martello Tower, and were photographed for posterity, standing on the strand looking comprehensively off their faces. In the Sixties, however, small gatherings of scholars would meet in key streets and read extracts from the book. Soon, scenes were being enacted, for which the participants naturally dressed up. It is only in the last 10 years that the whole town has started dressing up and showing off.

Those who have read Ulysses with close attention have to face an uncomfortable fact, as expressed by David Butler, education officer at the James Joyce Centre: "I'm afraid that I must dispel the myth that the reader always knows where Bloom and Stephen are in the book, and that there's a simple itinerary to pursue in the course of Bloomsday. In fact, there are so many gaps in the narrative, it's impossible.

"At the end of Chapter 5, Bloom is at the Turkish bath on Merrion Square. At the start of Chapter 6, he's in Irishtown, several miles away. He disappears for three hours between 5pm and 8pm, and we don't know where he has gone. Stephen Dedalus teaches a class in Dalkey at 10am; at 11am, he's seen walking on Sandymount beach, six miles away. He wouldn't have had time to get there."

So, you can't "walk the book" in real time. You must instead succumb to some touristic initiatives. The James Joyce Centre, a government-sponsored "interpretative centre", is organising a mammoth Bloomsday Breakfast - not at Bloom's house in Eccles Street ("It's not a very nice street") but in North Great George's Street, near Parnell Square. Bloom famously starts his day with a fried pig's kidney from Dlugacz's butcher shop (one of the few inaccurate Dublin names in Ulysses - in fact, Dlugacz was a conceited Hungarian Jew whom Joyce met and disliked in Zürich, and took his revenge by making him a pork butcher), and so the street will be closed off for a gargantuan Irish fry-up, complete with alfresco singing and recitals and street theatre.

Determined souls will visit Glasnevin Cemetery where Joyce's parents are buried, and where, in Ulysses, Bloom attends Paddy Dignam's funeral. At lunchtime, we will all do the Chapter 8 promenade, crossing the Liffey over O'Connell Bridge and heading for Grafton Street ("Grafton Street gay with housed awnings lured his senses. Muslin prints, silk, dames and dowagers, jingle of harnesses, hoofthuds lowringing in the baking causeway"), and there, we discover that Bloom is hungry: "Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely he mutely craved to adore."

Disdaining the sight of the lunchers in the Burton restaurant spitting gristle on to their plates, Bloom opts instead for Davy Byrnes pub, where he enjoys a Gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of red burgundy. Every year, the Bloomsday pilgrims queue up to order the same immortal repast. This year - the centenary - they'll be shifting mountains of cheese and lakes of burgundy. "We don't have to do anything special for Bloomsday," said Steve Delaney, the pub's assistant manager. "Bloomsday comes and finds us. The place will be packed. We're expecting about 400 people, dressed in Edwardian gear. Yes, we've ordered pounds of Gorgonzola - although, of course, it's not to everyone's taste. Some people will make this their base and stay all day. And the whole celebration will go on for another couple of weeks."

In the afternoon, any survivors of the Davy Byrnes experience can go on one of the serpentine walking tours around town, taking in Belvedere College, the "Monto" red-light district, St Francis Xavier's church, Eccles Street (Bloom's front door at No 7 was rescued from a skip when the house was demolished, transferred to a pub called The Bailey, and now resides at the James Joyce Centre, where American tourists queue to be photographed knocking on it), through Mountjoy Square to Dorset Street, Parnell Square, and then home.

Elsewhere, there are walks on the south side, taking in Stephen Dedalus's walk to the National Library. At the library, enraptured tourists are shown "the actual door that Stephen banged on to achieve entry" - presumably only dimly aware that Stephen is a fictional character who never did any such thing.

Dedalus and his creator will show up on all available media this summer. RTE, the Irish radio and TV station, has commissioned a slew of Joycean programmes (a 10-part series, no less, features "contemporary writers [sharing] their thoughts on Molly Bloom and the world of Ulysses in general"). The Irish Museum of Modern Art has put on High Falutin Stuff, an exhibition of "Joyce-influenced art", with contributions by the British artist and Joyce illustrator, Richard Hamilton. Bloomsday will also be celebrated in Cork city and, mirabile dictu, in Paris, where Ulysses was first published.

And the point of all this effortful carousing? The point of Ulysses is the elevation of the common man into a hero, an endlessly enterprising, essentially kindly hero who believes in the ameliorating power of love, and searches for home through an obstacle course of dangers, moral, mortal and psychological. But the idiom in which the book is presented - an echo-chamber of different styles and voices, by turns journalistic, novelettish, academic and mock-heroic - suggests that none of it is to be taken entirely seriously; only the flow of thoughts, the stream of consciousness in one's head and heart is important, the ceaseless, unmediated flood of impressions that constitutes reality.

"The pity is," Joyce once said to Nora, "the public will demand and find a moral in my book, or worse, they may take it in some serious way, and, on the honour of a gentleman, there is not a serious line in it." That's fine for the thousands of Guinness-swilling pilgrims who'll streel about Dublin today in their curly bowlers and cycle-clips, or brocade shawls and amber necklaces. They're celebrating the fact that their countryman is taken very seriously indeed by the world. They are basking in glory by association. And if you can't follow a difficult writer along the lines on a page, surely following his shadow along the streets of his fictional world is just as good?