Suzi Feay: Panthers and striped coats

James Joyce fans are gearing up for the centenary of Bloomsday, the day in 1904 when 'Ulysses' is set. So just what has Joyce's 'dear, dirty Dublin' got in store? Readings, breakfasts - and an awful lot of people wearing boaters
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The Independent Culture

A few years ago I happened to be in Dublin sometime in June. As the cab crawled down to the city centre, I spotted a man in peculiar garb wobbling along the pavement on an old-fashioned bicycle. Against a backdrop of Georgian terraces, it really didn't look all that strange. But further down O'Connell Street, I spotted two women strolling arm-in-arm in floor-length cotton frocks. I glimpsed a flower in a buttonhole here, a trio of striped blazers chatting animatedly there. It was a bright, sunny day and it looked as though all of Dublin's eccentrics had decided to go out for a walk.

A few years ago I happened to be in Dublin sometime in June. As the cab crawled down to the city centre, I spotted a man in peculiar garb wobbling along the pavement on an old-fashioned bicycle. Against a backdrop of Georgian terraces, it really didn't look all that strange. But further down O'Connell Street, I spotted two women strolling arm-in-arm in floor-length cotton frocks. I glimpsed a flower in a buttonhole here, a trio of striped blazers chatting animatedly there. It was a bright, sunny day and it looked as though all of Dublin's eccentrics had decided to go out for a walk.

It wasn't until later that evening that I realised that I'd walked straight into Dublin's legendary Bloomsday without even registering the fact. Belatedly I checked the date: it was of course 16 June, the day on which Ulysses is set, and now the day on which James Joyce's admirers gather to celebrate his most resonant work.

Ulysses, though its themes range over vast tracts of intellectual history, though it pushes back into history and forwards into dream, essentially deals with 24 hours in the life of James Joyce's town, Dublin. The novel was eventually published in 1922. Over the years, aficionados began to use the day to read extracts, act out scenes and wear tokens of Joycean apparel. Though Bloomsday is celebrated around the world, the best place to be on 16 June is Dublin itself. There you can walk in the footsteps of the characters, particularly its father-son, Odysseus-Telemachus duo, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, making their various appointments and eating the foods cued in the narrative. But what began as a whimsical tribute by ardent fans is elevated this year into a huge, formal celebration - officially billed as ReJoyce Dublin 2004 - lasting not for one day, but for several months. Because Ulysses is set in 1904, on the day that James Joyce finally got it on with his beloved Nora Barnacle, this year marks the centenary of the world's most famous literary date.

The story begins out at the Martello Tower in Sandycove, now the James Joyce Museum. The opening scene takes place there, and is a fictionalised version of Joyce's very brief stay. Here, visitors can marvel at the primitive accommodation and climb up to the roof where "Buck Mulligan" (in real life, the author Oliver St John Gogarty) blesses "gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding countryside and the awakening mountains" with an Introibo ad altare Dei, the first spoken words of the novel (and also the opening words of the Mass). On Bloomsday itself, the tower will be open at 6am for readings.

The setting is spectacular, though the sea was not so much "snotgreen" as steel grey, on the windswept day I visited. But it was business as usual at the Forty-Foot bathing place, the hardy swimmers coming out bright red, like lobsters, from the waves. The museum's curator, apple-cheeked, white-haired Robert Nicholson, alluded darkly to the James Joyce estate: "If they had their way, no one would even read aloud from Ulysses without them earning something from it."

Down in the kitchen area, he pointed out one of the more humorous relics of Bloomsdays past - a large china "panther" by the hearth. The panther is an allusion to the nightmare suffered by "Haines", Mulligan's friend. The donor, recalled Nicholson, struggled up with the china cat and said: "I think you should have this." Nicholson accepted the hideous object with the cheerful lack of pretentiousness that characterises the festival.

Bloom, rather unpleasantly, "relishes the inner organs of beasts and fowls" for breakfast. The James Joyce Centre (35 North Great George's St, Dublin 1) hosts its own Bloomsday breakfast (€15, booked in advance), but this year there will also be a mass outdoor breakfast for 10,000 people in O'Connell St.

Another key scene in the novel takes place in the National Library, where Stephen Dedalus airs his theories about Hamlet. The Library has a uniquely rich collection of Joyceana, the highlight of which is copy No 1 of the first (1922) edition of Ulysses. This battered book is considered one of Dublin's cultural treasures, on a par with the Celtic gold in the National Museum, or the Book of Kells at Trinity College. The book will be the centrepiece of "James Joyce and Ulysses at the National Library of Ireland", which opens on 15 June. The Library acquired a collection of Joyce's manuscript notebooks in 2002. They include the earliest set of notes, and drafts of several of the episodes, including the earliest known Ulysses draft. Visually striking, they are full of crossings out and additions in multi-coloured crayon.

Why did my heart sink when one of the Joyce scholars talked excitedly about the unfixed nature of the text? Partly because, autodidact that I am, I just want to read a book and be able to tick it off my list. But the scholars love the idea of texts: multiple versions, fluid and shifting. The festival organisers know they need to offer something to everyone from neophyte to scholar. A lot of the people they want to attract will have no intention of reading the book at the centre of all the fuss.

The festival organiser, Laura Weldon, pointed this out in her welcoming speech. "We understand many people buy Ulysses, get to page three and quit, and that's okay. We're not suggesting that reading Ulysses is effortless... we're not watering down Ulysses," she insisted. Helen Monaghan of the James Joyce Centre was equally gentle. "People often ask me what they can do to celebrate Bloomsday," she told me. "They want to get involved, but are intimidated. I just tell them to focus on one detail, like wearing a buttonhole, or a hat. One character makes a brief appearance wearing a pair of bright yellow gloves, and I know of one group who did just that, wore yellow gloves for the day as a way of being part of it all."

All the same, I got a little tired of the assumption that no one in their right mind would ever want to read the novel, and kept wanting to shout out: "But I've read it twice!" However, I was grateful to be given a copy of the James Joyce Centre's invaluable An Aid to Reading 'Ulysses', by David Butler. It's all here: the parallels with the Odyssey, the literary techniques, the main themes, the plot and the "art" assigned to each episode (for example, Episode 8 - Lestrygonians - Peristaltic - Architecture - lunchtime, when Bloom eats another yummy-sounding meal, a gorgonzola and mustard sandwich with a glass of burgundy). But even Butler admitted: "Don't bother with Finnegans Wake!"

Of all the obscure, difficult novels, why has Ulysses spawned such a cult? I think I glimpsed the answer in the National Library, scene of Episode 9, "Scylla and Charybdis". We were escorted up to where Stephen discusses Hamlet with the real-life AE and others. The room where they met is not open to visitors and is now full of photocopiers. "This is the very door Stephen knocks on!" said the librarian, and we all gazed at the door in awe, before realising that Stephen, as a fictional character, never knocked on anything of the kind. Joyce, on the other hand, may well have done, and I realised that all day people had said "James Joyce" when they meant "Stephen Dedalus", and vice versa.

Surely this is where the magic lies. The very city seems to be on the interface between reality and myth. Because Joyce put his characters in such specific locations - the bars, streets, houses and establishments namechecked in the novel all exist - he made the real-life Dublin into a fictional place, and the imaginary characters as corporeal as people you might bump into in the street.

Nowhere is this strange feeling more acute than in a house not mentioned in the novel, but in Joyce's immaculate short story, "The Dead". The tall Georgian house, on the quay overlooking the Liffey, belonged to Joyce's aunts. As in the story, they rented the upper rooms over the offices of a corn factor. Joyce would have attended many family gatherings like the one in the story, outwardly jovial, but hemmed around with the darkness and strangeness of human life and death.

Long reduced to a slum, the house on Usher's Island is being restored. Bone cold - appropriately there had been a few flakes of snow the day I visited - it is slowly coming back to life. It's even possible to hire it for parties, where the full dinner of "The Dead" can be served: "A fat brown goose... a great ham... a round of spiced beef... bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds..."

The candlelit room in which the dinner is served is the most complete part of the restoration. But as I made my way up the stairs, lit by tea-lights on each step and windowsill, how could I not think of Gretta Conroy, leaning over the banister, listening to Bartell D'Arcy singing, and thinking of Michael Furey and his grave out in the snow. Perhaps nowhere else can you feel literary ghosts so distinctly, shiver, and pass on.

For details of Bloomsday 2004, see the website www.rejoycedublin2004.com. For events at the James Joyce Centre, see www.jamesjoyce.ie. For events at 15 Usher's Island, see jamesjoycehouse.com.

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