Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Our intrepid diarist trudges the streets of Dublin in the literary footsteps of James Joyce's one-day wonder Leopold Bloom

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IT'S BLOOMING HARD ON THE KIDNEYS

Wednesday was Bloomsday in Dublin, celebrating the most famous character of James Joyce: expatriate, Antichrist, blasphemer, scrounger, pornographer whose books, while never banned, were most definitely not for sale in his homeland during his life. They are now. Bloomsday is all about Leopold Bloom, the anti-hero of Joyce's great novel, Ulysses, which is set in Dublin on 16 June 1904.

For Joycean devotees - and I would say they represent 0.01 per cent of the city - it is a time for dressing up; to follow Bloom's wanderings around Dublin; to eat the breakfasts he ate ('grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine'); and Gorgonzola cheese at Davy Byrne's public house for lunch. Interspersed with some rather heavy drinking are readings from the novel and Joyce's other works. After a while it is hard to tell which is more important: James Joyce or the booze.

Tourists love it, especially Scandinavians and Japanese I was told. One scholar told me that by the time you get to Finnegans Wake, Joyce's last novel, the language resembles Old Norse. And as for the Japanese: well, many of them were taught English by Irish nuns. I thought this was an odd explanation as I imagine Irish nuns would make pretty sure James Joyce never saw the light of day in their classrooms.

Captain Moonlight ate his urine- scented kidneys at 35 Great George's Street in north Dublin where the poseur Denis J Magini, originally plain McGuinness, had his dancing academy in Ulysses. It is now the James Joyce Cultural Centre and I was in the august company of the leader of the opposition, the British ambassador, the minister for fish and ships (Marine and Defence), Ireland's film censor, a prime minister's former companion, a gaggle of academics, a few socialites, some actors, an occasional poet and the singer Sinead O'Connor.

Like the others, Ms O'Connor was to have read selections from the novel between bites of kidney and glasses of Guinness. But she stayed outside patting a couple of horses because she was too shy to go in. In New York she rips up pictures of the Pope. In Dublin two weeks ago she bought a page in the Irish Times for Ir pounds 11,000 to print a poem she had written to her neuroses. No one quite knew why she turned up.

Bloomsday is odd since it celebrates events that have never happened. There is even a brown plaque - Ireland's equivalent to London's blue plaque - on a house at 52 Upper Clanbrassil Street, south Dublin, to say Leopold Bloom, citizen, husband, father, wanderer and reincarnation of Ulysses was born there (in Joyce's imagination) in May 1886.

It is a huge subversive joke.

I DISCOVERED my origins in Dublin. Captain Moonlight comes from a long line of distinguished Irishmen which includes Captain Rock, Captain Right and Captain Starlight - all heroes who at one time or another over the past 200 years have defended landless Irish workers and tenant farmers against repression, landlords and rapacious agents.

Our methods were not legal, but they stirred the authorities into action. After some injustice, for example, the peasant representatives of Rock, Right, Starlight or Moonlight might throw a stone through a landlord's window with a threatening note attached, signed by one of us. More likely the dispossessed would burn down a hayrick or disable stock. In really serious cases they might level a house.

Captain Moonlight was a close ally of Charles Stewart Parnell during the Land League agitation in the 1880s for 'fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure' for tenant farmers. The Irish were after the same sort of rights that Parliament is giving the Duke of Westminster's tenants in London this year.

The threat of Captain Moonlight being let loose in the countryside was always present during the agitation. At one stage when Britain was shilly- shallying, Parnell warned that Captain Moonlight might replace him as leader of the campaign. It had the desired effect.

I like to think that I can prod authority whenever it misbehaves, though nowadays, of course, Moonlight would always act within the law.

THE SYNAGOGUE THAT NAZI GERMANY BUILT

Joyce's character Leopold Bloom, husband of the accommodating Molly, was the son of a Hungarian Jew called Virag. Virag converted to Christianity, changed his name to Bloom (flower in Hungarian) and married an Irish Catholic girl, thus excluding his offspring from the faith.

I went looking for the Jewish area where Leopold was born, and its synagogue, Greenville Hall, on Dublin's South Circular Road near Leopold Bloom's Clanbrassil Street with a taxi driver who seemed to think the world's great religions were mere sects of the Roman Catholic Church. At first he thought the Jewish and Islamic faiths were one until we spied in the distance a large crescent moon on top of what was once a Presbyterian church.

'Oh yes,' he said, 'I know them. They're the people who go to mass on Friday.'

Greenville Hall almost did become the mosque. But the church was bigger and therefore preferable. The synagogue is now a factory. Or rather its replacement is now a factory. The original was hit when a German bomber dumped its payload after a mission over Belfast or Liverpool - no one is quite certain which - but when the Irish government complained Hitler paid up. So, while the Nazis were slaughtering Jews in Europe they were paying for rebuilding a synagogue in Dublin.

Ireland's Jews, like all Irish, are migrating in search of work, mostly to the United States and Britain. According to Asher Benson, 65, an amateur archivist and former draper, the community has declined from a peak of 4,000 in 1946 to some 1,300 today. Only one kosher butcher remains in what was once known as Little Jerusalem around Clanbrassil.

Each Bloomsday Gerald Davis, 54, an artist whose family came from Lithuania at the turn of the century, dresses as Leopold Bloom. The Irish government sent him to Australia last year to play the part. But, where, in Ulysses, Bloom wanders through Dublin as a passive figure in the lives of Joyce's other characters, Davis is garrulous and extrovert - as one might imagine Jack Joyce, James's father, on his better days.

'I feel temperamentally closer to the Irish than to Anglo- Saxons. In fact we have more in common with Irish Catholics than with English Jews,' he said. The Jewish community has been so assimilated that it is hardly noticed. There is nothing that sets it apart. The mix is almost too successful; Ireland might not have a Jewish community in 50 years.

'What's your religion?' a man once asked Davis. 'Jewish,' he said. 'I said what is your religion?' the man replied. Davis had no answer. 'I really do believe the Irish are the missing tribe,' Davis said. 'The (ex) president of Israel (Chaim Herzog) is Irish. Isn't that enough?'

JOYCE FAMILY'S GENETIC FAULT

It was a shocking sight, this old man holding back tears. He was a nephew of James Joyce and is now keeper of the family's collective memory. He had just finished telling me of the appalling mistreatment of the Joyce family by its patriarch John (Jack) Stanislaus Joyce.

Ken Monaghan, 65, is the son of May Joyce, one of James's six sisters. 'My ungrateful bitches of daughters won't look after me,' Jack Joyce wrote to James in Paris, asking for one pound. His daughters lived in fear of the man, begging for food and clothing from relatives and neighbours.

'He beat them just for being around, another mouth to feed. They really hated him. They were always afraid when they heard his key in the door,' Mr Monaghan told me.

Jack Joyce adored James, his eldest son, and saw him as the restorer of the family's fortunes, which Jack had dissipated in booze and bad investment. James, according to Mr Monaghan, loved and admired his father. He saw this drunkard, this storyteller, a man who lived by his wits, as a life force. They died within 10 years of each other, Jack in 1931 at the age of 82, James in 1941 aged 58.

'The kindest word I ever heard used in the family to describe Jack Joyce was 'blackguard'. To everyone except Jim he was the quintessential street angel and house devil.'

When Jack lost his job as a rating officer in 1891 (a salary of pounds 60,000 by today's standards) and his inheritance had gone, he moved his wife and 10 children from fashionable south Dublin to the crowded inner city.

'It was a terrible shock,' Mr Monaghan said. 'The family had no security and stepped straight into poverty, flitting from one flat to another to avoid paying the rent. Jack's drinking got worse and he treated my grandmother with contempt. There were times when the police were called.'

Mr Monaghan said his aunts were reluctant to speak about this time because it was 'just too painful'.

Drinking seems to be a genetic fault in the male line of the family. Charlie, James's youngest brother, was also a heavy drinker but pulled himself up in later years. James, too, was a heavy drinker, and Mr Monaghan has also had his problems with the demon, but hasn't touched a drop for 16 years.

James Joyce's sisters became God- fearing women who prayed for their brother's soul. The eldest, Margaret, fled Ireland for New Zealand in 1909 where she became a nun. Eileen joined James and the other brother, Stanislaus, in Trieste, where she married a Czech, returning to Ireland with her children after her husband committed suicide. Ken's mother May married a shopkeeper and her in-laws called her the sister of the Antichrist.

The other sisters, Eva and Florrie, never married and urged the family not to talk about James. Ken Monaghan, now curator of the James Joyce Centre, has chosen to break the silence.

I WAS beginning to believe the Irish revered their great writers as much as their sports heroes, but a walk down O'Connell Street on Bloomsday afternoon buried that lie. Ireland was playing Lithuania in a qualifying game for the World Cup and the street was empty. I asked the few left on the street if they celebrated Bloomsday. 'Celebrate what?' they said. Ireland won and is virtually assured a place in the tournament in the United States next year.

However, one problem threatens a serious rift between Washington and Dublin and will test the skills of America's new ambassador, Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of former president Jack. She takes up her post on Tuesday. The US Immigration Department is not happy about issuing tourist visas for the World Cup to an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Irish fans. Last year the Americans issued 70,000 tourist visas to the Irish and 6,000 'over-stayed'.

The Irish government realised with concern that many of the fans would fit the typical profile of a visa reject - under 30 years, unemployed or in a low-paid job and with no domestic ties. Since football is the country's most popular sport, no politician is prepared to be caught offside, so to speak.

Visitors to America from other EC countries don't need visas because they are assumed to want to go home as fast as they are mugged and assaulted. The formidable Irish lobby in Washington has been put on the case and President Clinton is said to be keeping a close eye on the matter.

SAY WHAT YOU LIKE ABOUT . . .

. . . Ulysses but:

it's easier to read than Finnegans Wake

Joyce's Molly Bloom was better at describing sex than Lawrence's Lady Chatterley

at least there's no theme park

onlyifyouvereadthepenultimatechapterwillyouunderstandthefullstopbelow

.

no one will contradict you

(Photographs omitted)

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