What is Bloomsday?
Every June 16th, people gather in Dublin, Ireland to celebrate the life and works of Irish writer James Joyce. The day, known as Bloomsday, is a chance for fans of Joyce and his novel Ulysses to relive the events of that novel, all of which took place on June 16th in Dublin in the year 1904. The name “Bloomsday” comes from Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of the novel Ulysses. Interestingly enough, June 16th was also the date of Joyce’s first lengthy date with his future wife Nora Barnacle. On June 16th, the young couple walked to the Dublin village of Ringsend. June 16th is a very important day for fans and scholars of Joyce.
The country of Ireland loves Joyce, even though he had an on again off again relationship with that country and its people. Famously, Joyce once wrote: “How sick, sick, sick I am of Dublin! It is the city of failure, of rancour and of unhappiness.”
Though Ireland is in as deep a recession as any other Western country, the celebration of that country’s most celebrated writer will not slow down one bit. The annual literary festivities will still include devoted fans of Joyce dressing in the fashions of 1904, attending marathon readings of the lengthy novel, eating meals composed mainly of offal — the organs of various animals, and drinking and celebrating at pubs and other venues mentioned specifically in the book. The 700-page novel Ulysses charts the adventures of the novel’s hero Leopold Bloom, a rather feckless Jewish advertising salesman, and his friend the young poet Stephen Dedalus as they wander the streets of Dublin over 100 years ago.
Joyce himself once worried that Leopold Bloom and his most famous novel would be forgotten. On just the 20th anniversary of Bloomsday, Joyce said “Will anyone remember this date?”
The first Bloomsday celebration in Dublin took place on the 50th anniversary of June 16 — in 1954. It started when a group of writers and literary critics set off in carriages and on horseback intending to visit all of the locations named in the novel. Interestingly enough, Bloomsday was first celebrated in 1929 in Paris, only eight years after Joyce’ novel ‘Ulysses’was published. The celebration has now become a June 12 to 16 festival in the Irish capital of Dublin as followers of the country literary star come from around the
world to drink and be merry.
Just like in the first celebration in 1954, fans and followers of Bloomsday are often kicked out of pubs, libraries, and private estates.
Though there is no “official Bloomsday schedule”, people tend to follow the same route from place to place. Fans of Bloomsday start with a traditional Irish breakfast. People wander around and turn up at various predetermined locations around the city. For instance, there is a specific lunch mentioned in the book that becomes quite popular every June 16th. That lunch? A gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy.
Traditionalists can be seen touring Dublin in Edwardian costume — this means straw hats, waistcoats, long skirts and parasols for the ladies, blazers and watch chains for the men, and any number of additional trinkets to heighten the realism. If you’re a true Bloomsday purist, that traditional Irish breakfast will include a grilled kidney, giblet soup, gizzards, a roast heart, and slices of liver fried with bread crumbs — and of course, plenty of booze. Weak stomachs need not apply.
Part of the daily itinerary is sure to include a brisk swim at the “Forty Foot bathing spot” followed by a cleansing with lemon soap. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, these fans are quite commited.
Bloomsday is not just for Dubliners — there are celebrations in at least forty countries worldwide. Bloomsday is also a major cause for celebration in the Hungarian town of Szombathely, the fictional birthplace of Leopold Bloom’s father, Virág Rudolf, who is an emigrant Hungarian Jew.
The event is usually centered around the Iseum, which is the remnants of a Roman temple to Isis, and the “Blum-mansion”, which was rechristened such and commemorated to Joyce in the year 1997.
There have also been many Bloomsday events in Trieste, where the first part of the novel Ulysses was written. In fact, a James Joyce Museum was opened there on Bloomsday 2004.
Since 2005, Bloomsday has been celebrated every year in Genoa, Italy, with a reading of Ulysses (in Italian) by hundreds of volunteers, including students, actors, literary scholars, and professors. Much like the marathon readings in Dublin, the readings in Genoa occur across 18 different places in the town center, one spot for each chapter of the novel, and the reading spots are chosen based on their resemblance to the settings in the novel. For example, chapter 1 is read in a medieval tower, chapter 2 in a classroom of the Faculty of Languages, chapter 3 in a bookshop on the waterfront, chapter 9 in the University Library, and chapter 12 in an old pub.
This year there’s a new twist on Bloomsday — fans of Twitter can follow along as the Twitterati post the entirety of the 10th chapter of the book, called “Wandering Rocks”, which follows a number of Dubliners as they go about their daily business.
Ulysses is known for its clever use of language, and for having been banned in many countries (including the US) until the early 1930s for “obscenity”.
While fans of Ulysses and followers of Bloomsday may attempt to recreate the day as accurately as possible, including a stop in the afternoon at the Ormond Hotel for an afternoon pint (a spot where Leopold Bloom was tempted by the barmaids in the “Sirens” chapter) an exact recreation is impossible. Bloom’s home at 7 Eccles Street no longer exists, and the red-light district (known as “Nighttown” in Ulysses) where the famous hallucinatory “Circe” chapter takes place, has been demolished, though the streets themselves remain intact.
Bloomsday celebrations also feature lengthy readings of Ulysses, several James Joyce look alike contests, and a good excuse for hoisting a few pints of Guinness. For many people, celebrating Bloomsday with drink and food is much easier (and a lot less time consuming) than trying to work your way through the novel Ulysses itself.