Suzi Feay: Keepers of the oldest living flame

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The Independent Culture

I'm just back from Dublin, where the preparations for this year's Bloomsday are well underway. James Joyce's epic novel Ulysses takes place over the course of a single day - 16 June 1904. Yet it's a little difficult to describe what exactly is being celebrated. It's not the centenary anniversary of the novel itself (that was published in 1922). It's not the anniversary of an imaginary date, either, because 16 June 1904 really did happen (it's the day Joyce finally got a date with Nora Barnacle; she'd already stood him up once). So it's a slightly whimsical excuse for a party, but hey, what is Dublin for?

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I'd been looking forward to seeing the famous Martello tower at Sandycove, which now houses a museum. Despite the freezing cold, there were swimmers in the sea at the famous Forty Foot bathing place, immortalised in Ulysses, but also celebrated rather more recently in Jamie O'Neill's epic novel At Swim, Two Boys. From the roof, the curator, Robert Nicholson, all snowy white hair and pink cheeks, pointed out Howth across the water, which features at the end of Ulysses in Molly Bloom's soliloquy. The opening of the novel, of course, takes place at the tower. "And the rest of the action takes place back there somewhere," Nicholson said, dismissing Dublin with an airy wave.

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One of the oddest people I met on the trip was Brendan Kilty, the owner of "The James Joyce House of The Dead", or 15 Usher's Island, the gracious Georgian house where Joyce's marvellous short story was set. Kilty was full of mad schemes: as well as restoring the junkie-infested slum and filling the Liffey with coracles on St Patrick's Day, he wants to identify the oldest flame in rural Ireland - where many hearths are never put out from one day to the next - bring it to Usher's Island and bake brown bread with it. Highly entertaining stuff, but it left me reflecting that a national culture thus fetishised is probably already dead.