The first Bloomsday in Ireland occurred 50 years after the events of Ulysses, when literary luminaries such as Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh abandoned their Leopold Bloom-inspired trek around Dublin when the effects of that morning’s serious drinking began to surface. To recover, they went to the nearest bar. Hair of the dog, and all that.
Prior to that ill-starred excursion, 25 years after the events of the novel, the first Bloomsday in France, which doubled up as a celebration of the publication of the first ever French translation of the epic novel, took place. Samuel Beckett turned up inebriated to that.
Despite these well-lubricated beginnings, the day itself is now international and in Dublin, the spiritual home of the celebration, thousands of people regularly dress up, eat Joycean food and traverse the city in honour of Bloom and a Dublin of another era.
An element of ritual surrounds this day, it must also be said. Once a year, we practice these aforementioned rituals and Joycean scholars, like latter-day preachers, speak from the Bible of James Joyce. By way of comparison, the same does not happen with, for instance, Dubliners, as it is far more accessible than Ulysses, making ritual and interpretation redundant. Thus, any efforts in the past to make a similar day of celebration for Dubliners have fallen flat.
International Writer of Mystery
There are many international links in and around the book.
For starters, Leopold Bloom is Hungarian – a fact which has helped popularize Bloomsday in that country – and Joyce wrote his most acclaimed novel in Paris, where the physical distance and the intellectual ambience probably helped the writer craft his work and render a faithful representation of his homeland.
This is not so unusual in Irish culture, that something so Irish could have links to elsewhere. Indeed, the famous Molly Malone, who sold cockles and mussels through streets broad and narrow, is an Irish character that was seemingly invented in Massachusetts in the latter half of the 19th century.
This hasn’t stopped her statue being a huge tourist draw in Dublin’s fair city, and it was placed there at the end of the 1980s to mark Dublin’s first millenium as a capital.
Dublin, Then and Now
Speaking of Dublin, let’s get under the skin of the Irish capital.
Dublin has always been a city that is easy to criss-cross. As such, it has the features of a European city, but with parochialism of a place with a large rural hinterland and a small urban space. Joyce was keen on capturing the gossip of Dubliners, and if nothing else, his books are a celebration of how great and bad events are covered by the same lashing, hilarious, cutting and insightful tongues. The late, great Brendan Kenneally wrote about modern Dublin, and his comments speak of the same cocktail of big events, hushed whispers and shared conversations.
Joyce, for his part, was surprised that no great work had ever been written about a city that had been a capital for such a long time, and he revealed in a letter to his brother – the wonderfully named Stanislaus – that he would rectify that by writing a book which captured the inertia and limitations of Dublin life. His overarching aim was to free the Irish people from their shackles so that they could reach the full extent of their potential.
Finally, we can say that Bloomsday and the masterpiece that created it have inspired modern books and novels which devote pages to the celebration itself or to updating the world and characters from Dublin of 1904. It’s fitting because we have so much in common with that Dublin, as Joyce’s characters felt a community on the street, outside their cramped homes. Modern Dubliners also struggle with housing, and life is found in the music-filled bars and winding backstreets.
For more on Irish history, check out our piece on Joyce and dancing. 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 about the potted history of Bloomsday! If you want to learn more about our Joyce exploits, check out this post from Groundhog Challenge.