James Joyce explored many facets of the human experience and he wanted to represent the minutiae of everyday Dublin life. For this reason, his books are full of wonderful descriptions of sport, gastronomy and travelling, the kinds of things that ordinary people enjoy.
Let’s jump in!
Joyce & Sport
Despite not being a natural athlete, Joyce loved sport. And despite opposing British imperialism, he was a keen rugby enthusiast, and British sports like cricket and horse racing feature in his work. Such was his devotion to this pastime, he subscribed to numerous sports dailies, but given that he was such a barfly, it is also inevitable that he would talk about it with an assorted cast of drinking buddies and general bar patrons. But his impulse to write about sport was also provoked by a desire to represent the full gamut of Dubliner lives, from music to food, and sport invariably formed part of that as well.
Until recently, Ireland’s adoption of what were British sports has been controversial in some quarters. When the Irish football team needed a new home in 2007 while Lansdowne Road was being converted into the Aviva, it was not a given that the GAA would allow them to use Croke Park. In Joyce’s time, this tension was more keenly felt as Irish nationalism was asserting itself. Ulysses was written in 1920, two years before the foundation of the Irish Free State. Because of this, Joyce approaches sport in his works with an element of parody and deconstructivism. On one hand, he rejected the British occupation of Ireland, but on the other, Joyce bristled at Irish nationalism’s desire to reshape Ireland around an imagined past. What he wanted was a free Ireland, but one based on a realistic understanding of what such a country would be. This is best seen in the Great Fight passage in Ulysses.
That’s just not cricket
Cricket and rugby pop up in the first chapter of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, though it is in Ulysses that we find most of Joyce’s sporting references. The rituals around horse racing in particular reveal the difficulties in Bloom’s marriage and the complications presented by the presence of his love rival. Horse racing is also a means for Joyce to examine the poverty of the working classes and the desperation of Dublin wives as their husbands gamble what little money they have away. In addition, and this is something that is relevant for our world today, Joyce comments on how newspapers all have different accounts of the same race, which begs the question of whether newspapers can be relied upon to cover any topic is an accurate way.
Cricket is used by Joyce to underline the hypocrisies in the British idea of fair play. While celebrated in cricket, it was rarely seen in the colonial rulers, in Ireland or elsewhere. But Joyce also takes it to a personal level, and the sport is used to highlight how Stephen, in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, is isolated from others because he can hear people playing cricket, but he cannot see them.
Thus, sport is employed expertly by Joyce as a way to examine contradictions and complexities, both of the individual and of the collective whole.
Joyce & Food
Food is ever-present in the works of Joyce for two major reasons: he wanted to show how poor people really enjoyed their meals whenever they got a chance to eat, and he was also a gourmet, a man who really loved food. Shortly after he moved to Paris, he wrote home and gave descriptions of the seven-course meals he enjoyed in his hotel, though later, when finances were strained, he made sure that one meal would be enough to keep him going, and his later letters lovingly detail the price of food and drink in the French capital. One shilling could get you soup, fish, meat, vegetables, and dessert, though considering that Joyce was an inveterate anti-vegan, he would have happily removed one part of that particular meal deal. And when it came to drink, black coffee helped him cope with the Parisian weather.
Speaking of drink – he was a drinking companion of Ernest Hemingway, a burlier and bigger man than Joyce. In the event of an altercation, Joyce would hide behind Hemingway and plead with him to ‘deal with it!’.
Steeping over into the literary realm, Leopold Bloom makes his first appearance in Ulysses as he contemplates a sumptuous breakfast that has been prepared by his wife Molly. It’s quite the entrance – he talks about devouring the innards of birds and beasts, and the somewhat pungent smell of the food is appetizing for him. Food, in this magnum opus, becomes a Joycean symbol of identity, both personal and national, as well as familial and religious. What’s more, food becomes representative in the novel of hopes, dreams and even fears.
From there, the book stretches out cannibalism in The Lotus Eaters, cheese in Hades, and the famous Lestrygonians. Leopold Bloom wanders around Dublin on this fateful day looking for gastronomic satisfaction, something which is only partially achieved at the end of the book. Throughout this long day, food is a pick-me-up after painful realisations or bruising encounters, and Leopold see his own wife through food metaphors at the end of the novel. It is the prism through which he, and Molly, sees the world.
Food has a more sincere meaning in Dubliners. In various stories, from Clay to An Encounter, Joyce celebrates how sharing a meal can bring people together, and he laments when it does not. The aforementioned Clay is the best example of this duality, as the main character makes a meal for people she cares about, yet she is still wracked by pangs of loneliness.
It is little wonder, then, that when we celebrate Bloomsday, or any event connected to Joyce, we place a huge emphasis on food. At least we do with the modern equivalents of the food he describes. The culinary world has moved on in the last century, and based on the descriptions in his novel, it has probably changed for the better!
Joyce the Emigrant
Joyce died in 1941 and he never returned to Ireland after 1912, meaning that he spent a huge portion of his life out of Ireland. As a result, his relationship with his native land was a complex one, and in a sense, his imagination still resided there as his works deal with Irish themes and characters, and as an Irishman living in Paris, he attended international rugby games that featured Ireland. Indeed, he was known to seek out other Dubliners on the continent so that he could hear them describe the city, with its establishments, sights, and sounds. It was if, from afar, he had the necessary distance to develop his manifold and multi-layered themes.
On a personal note, he tried his best to encourage his family to come and live with him on the continent, and he had some success with these entreaties.
Interestingly, like many Irish people today, he made a living abroad as an English teacher. He dedicated himself to this in both Pola and Trieste. He had left Ireland, considered becoming a singer and failed medical school, but the biggest push factor for Dublin was his aversion to religion, conservatism, and censorship. Joyce had endured an uncomfortable time during the publication process of Dubliners, which had been repeatedly held up for what was considered obscene content. But his final work, Finnegan’s Wake, is an undiluted celebration of the musicality of Dublin speech, though one could also argue that it was France’s modernist, artistic ambiance that gave Joyce a platform to write the books in such a challenging and experimental style; a style which sometimes confused his admires and, when it came in the shape of Ulysses, confounded the analyst Carl Jung.
Bloomsday around the world
It should also be noted that Joyce was presumably so wedded to Dublin because, when he left Ireland, he was middle-aged and practically blind. In fact, his strongest association with Zurich, apart from being buried in the Swiss city – there was a briefly a controversial drive from the Irish Government to repatriate him – is that he travelled there for frequent operations. Unfortunately, these did little to improve his health. As we have heard above and in other posts, he did lead a somewhat active life in the city, but he did not have the health nor the youth to throw himself into a new culture and a new way of life. The writer himself gave his own explanation when he said:
‘For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world. In the particular is contained the universal’.
Bloomsday, the day that celebrates Ulysses, is now an internationally recognized event, which fittingly honours the man that lent his genius to many different cities around the world. It is enjoyed on every continent, with Japanese, Brazilian, American and many other Joyce enthusiasts, that don the clothes, eat the food, and who remember one of the greatest writers Ireland ever produced.
For more on Irish history, check out our piece on the forgotten Olympian. Listen to our podcast for more cultural pieces, and head to our online shop for some literary-inspired fashion. You can also buy our book on Amazon.
Thanks for reading!