Bloomsday wanderings

June 16 is a day of celebration and extreme geekery for modernist lit types everywhere, but nowhere more so than Dublin, which is so explicitly and accurately mapped in Joyce’s Ulysses that if you care about it at all, it’s still possible (required, even) to trace the exact path its antiheroic protagonist Leopold Bloom walks on June 16, 1904. I’ve celebrated Bloomsday in San Francisco and Berkeley and London, at bookstore readings and private gatherings, but for the lit-dork completist, only Dublin will do. Having walked the city’s streets in Bloom’s footsteps on two different Bloomsdays (alternatingly pictured here), I’ve been humbled each time by the whole city’s embracing of this text that’s viewed as esoteric and elitist by so many non-Dubliners. This is a city that turns out in celebration and territorial pride for a modernist classic.

Collect your best Joycean pal and set out for a day to walk the town, paying homage to the master first:

Notice his bottle of Bushmill’s although it’s around 8 am. We’ll need it for our long day.

The novel begins at the seaside Martello Tower, with “warm sunshine merrying over the sea,” where Stephen Dedalus is renting a room and where “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” takes an early-morning dip off the cliffs into the snotgreen scrotumtightening sea:

On Bloomsday, the die-hards actually took the dive as well. I demurred.

At the seaside near the tower, you can start the day instead with your Bloomsday breakfast, and note how evident the restaurant’s delight in “Joyspeke”:

Our introductory detail to Leopold Bloom in the book is that he “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” They seem to have gone (only slightly) easier on the organs for this replica, but here’s what that breakfast looked like:

As you move through the town and the day, various Irish actors take turns reading from the 800-page work at the appropriate hour and location:

There’s a funeral for poor Paddy Dignam at eleven:

and again, people turn out in costume to read. The man reading here is actually Joyce’s nephew, who led a walking tour, and since Paddy Dignam doesn’t really have a stone in this cemetery (being fictional and all), Joyce’s brother Stannie’s grave had to stand in.

After the funeral it’s time for lunch where Leopold Bloom ate:

The bar is proud, of course, and the menu quotes the novel: “Davy Byrne came forward from the hindbar in tuckstitched shirt-sleeves, cleaning his lips with two wipes of his napkin. Herrings blush. . . . Nice quiet bar. Nice piece of wood in that counter. Nicely planed. Like the way it curves there.”

This town buys in. Everyone dresses up 1904ishly:

You stop by the hotel pub where two barmaids are described as the Odyssean sirens, and the entire chapter is structured following the complex forms and movements of a musical composition:

Later, out at Sandymount Strand, Bloom ogles a delusional young romantic as she dreamily flashes him her dainty unmentionables from a rock next to the beach. My own were thankfully covered by my leggings (hey, it’s 1991), but I couldn’t resist:

At various hours of the day, following Leopold Bloom’s wanderings will also lead you to the National Library, the hospital where a woman is having a baby (not replicated for the tour), a cabman’s shelter, a couple other pubs, the Freeman’s Journal office, the post office . . . daily landmarks in a regular town, as you follow what Virginia Woolf called “an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.”

The day ends at Bloom’s house where he brings home the young artist Stephen Dedalus and fixes him cocoa, but since someone lives there now, you can’t go in:

There’s far too much to say about the workings of this novel to be able to even begin here; rather, what interests me most about the celebration of this day is the way the citizens of Dublin feel it and live it. Yes, there are silly university scholars coming in from all over to hear academic lectures (for example, Anthony Burgess spoke on Joyce at Trinity College on the night before Bloomsday the first time I went, and it was a packed house of people getting in the mood for the big day). The real feeling of this day, though, is the way the people of the town own it. Many of the people I met on my Bloomsday adventures were not university educated; indeed, most of them had read only parts of the novel and confessed (like almost every reader if she’s honest) to not understanding big chunks of it. But the glorying in locale and in the beauty of the writing, their fondness for their favorite sections and the delight in their own “dear dirty Dublin” touched them all, barmen and cabmen and professors alike, and they were eager to lay claim to the text and its characters as their own story.

Of course, literary tourism is not unknown in the United States–I recently visited Salem with several of you, for example, and they’re all up in the Custom-Hizzy and the House of Seven Gables–but it doesn’t feel quite as deeply a part of the local identity as this particular fervor does in Dublin. Don’t you wish we lived in a country that honored artists on its currency?

Like so many Dubliners and readers everywhere, I’ve been moved by this man for all of my adult life, and I look forward to our continuing relationship. Happy Bloomsday!

13 responses to “Bloomsday wanderings”

  1. Ulysses, Seen is celebrating Bloomsday by (a) Posting the last panels of their illustrated version of the Calypso episode, and (b) Twittering the events of the book in real (Dublin) time.

  2. Rachel says:

    I am so excited to read this post that I can’t calm down enough to read this post. Go Swells!

  3. A White Bear says:

    Lovely, Swells. I spent a week there last summer and found it such a bizarre mixture of high and low, enlightened and backward. Everywhere we went, there were these incredible little bands playing, and even crappy corner bookstores were full of actual literature to read. I was chastised for having uncovered, painted toes, not wearing makeup, and drinking pints, instead of glasses, of beer, and congratulated on coming from a country whose rebels had fought so proudly in our Civil War–“tragedy they didn’t win, really, not that I’m anti-Negro or anythin.” But in talking to everyone from bums to intellectuals, I found that they talk about Irish people the world over like they’re neighbors. Famous musicians and authors, far-flung never-met relatives, are all just people you talk and gossip about. One man in a park (in Galway, must be said) kept promising to sing us a song that Luke Kelly was the only person who could sing, but not even Luke could sing the last verse, but he (the man) could… and he would have, too, if he hadn’t lost his train of thought while telling stories about old Luke. It felt like they treat Joyce the same way. He’s their cousin, not a God.

  4. LP says:

    This is sooooo incredibly great, on about 27 different levels… Thank you for a delightful Dublin tour, Swells, and god dern it if you’re not as charming as ever in your 1991 leggings!

  5. swells says:

    AWB: that’s it exactly. They treat him like family, not royalty.

    TMK: I’ve been skeptical about the Ulysses and Waste Land graphic novel adaptations, maybe out of protectiveness of my own images I’ve created in my mind, but I have to say I just passed the most perfect Bloomsday morning with toast and tea while enjoying that adaptation of “Calypso,” one of my favorite episodes. And the Twitter feed, about which I felt even more curmudgeonly and resistant when I first heard about it, made me all weepy to see how excited people are about this geek’s holiday. I love that people care!

  6. I love that people care

    Yep — the authors of Ulysses, Seen definitely care about the text they are adapting. Calypso is my favorite episode too, and is usually the last episode I read in full before giving up — The Lotus Eaters do nothing for me.

  7. FPS says:

    This was so intoxicating it made me waver on my years-ago decision that it’s fine if I never fucking read Ulysses. (At the time of the decision I started leaving my copy ofUlysses on the back of the toilet as a not uproarious visual joke.)

    It occurs to me that The Catcher in the Rye takes place in something like the span of a day and I wonder if one could stalk Holden around town. It’s been a while, but I think one couldn’t…the locations are mostly generalized, of memory serves. I’m just jealous. I want to live in a town that has an intense relationship with a book, not counting the southern towns of my youth and a book I’m not very interested in.

  8. FPS says:

    (Oh, you know what, I did once visit a place with such an intense relationship with a book, but it was a bit different in character: Prince Edward Island and Anne of Green Gables.)

  9. lane says:


  10. LP says:

    Hmm… posted a couple of comments with a link, but they didn’t go through and I don’t see them in moderation. So, no link, but here’s the comment, re: #8: Another great place with an intense relationship to a book, and where you can do a walk similar to the Dublin walk, is Raskolnikov’s neighborhood in St. Petersburg. Dark subject matter, true, but it’s really fun to wander the old part of Petersburg and imagine Raskolnikov skulking around. The neighborhood hasn’t changed all that much from his day – or hadn’t the last time I was there, anyway.

  11. J-Man says:

    Funny, I woke up this morning to find Ulysses on the coffee table. I thought to myself that perhaps T. couldn’t sleep, and so he must’ve gone out to the couch sometime during the night. But I was sure that didn’t happen, and now I know why it’s out: this Bloomsday thing! Our bookshelves groan with my ignorance; I haven’t read this book either, but I’ve got to now – the Joysepeke above is delightful! And so are the pictures of you, Swells, as a wee lass.

  12. Andrew says:

    What a great post. I sent it to my whole family. I’ve always wanted to be there for Bloomsday.

    I actually read Ulysses for the first time in a high school English class. I don’t think any of us really understood what it was about, but we felt very superior for having read Joyce at a young age. Later that year, to impress a girl, I even drunkenly lied that I’d read Finnegan’s Wake one night before going to sleep and I found it “totally simple and boring.”

    Anyway, again, great post. And kudos to you for eating that breakfast and keeping it down…

  13. Tim says:

    Of course I loved this post; I’ve been wanting to comment all day. Thanks for sharing these photos of Bloomsdays past. Here’s to many more in the future! As to the Gerty MacDowell pose, you were in very truth as fair a specimen of winsome Irish girlhood as one could wish to see.