A Beginner’s Guide to Bloomsday
Happy Bloomsday all! Confused? Don’t worry, Ulysses has that affect on people. Let’s just start at the beginning shall we?
It may surprise you to learn that June 16 is one of the biggest dates in the literary calendar. Bloomsday is a celebration of the life of Irish writer James Joyce and his acclaimed novel, from which the day takes its name and date, Ulysses.
The events of the novel take place over the course of a single day, June 16, in 1904 following the stream of consciousness of protagonist Leopold Bloom in his jaunts around Dublin. The city celebrates the day with great fervor, hosting dramatisations of the novel, walking tours, pub crawls and for the more hardcore devotees, marathon reading sessions, much of which is organised by the James Joyce Centre. Enthusiasts dress in Edwardian costume to retrace Bloom’s route around the city, including landmarks such as the Martello Tower, Sandymount Strand, Glasnevin Cemetery, the National Library and various pubs and bars.
“Every year hundreds of Dubliners dress as characters from the book … as if to assert their willingness to become one with the text. It is quite impossible to imagine any other masterpiece of modernism having quite such an effect on the life of a city.” – Declan Kiberd, The Guardian
There are also Bloomsday celebrations in Hungary, Italy, Australia, Canada, France and across the United States.
How did it start?
Ulysses was an arduous and long work in progress to write (as it can be to read too!). Joyce began the manuscript in 1914, and after putting it aside to pursue other writing projects, it was serialised in The Little Review in America, to outcries of obscenity and indecency. After a long battle with censorship laws Ulysses was finally published in full in 1922 and Joyce’s friends celebrated by marking the date. In a letter to his patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver in June 1942 Joyce writes about a group of people who “observe what they call Bloom’s day – 16 June”.
On the 50th anniversary of the novel’s events, a group of writers (including Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien) planned a daylong trail around Dublin, visiting the sites of key events in the novel and playing out the narrative. However the pilgrimage had to be abandoned halfway through when the players succumbed to inebriation and rancour at the Bailey pub, which may testify to the spirit of the ceremonies, or to the abundance of pubs mentioned in the course of Ulysses.
Bloomsday has since expanded into week long celebrations including writing courses, theatre productions, music events, street parties, guided tours and an after party hosted by The Poetry Brothel (oo-err!) which marks the novel’s more debaucherous Nighttown chapter with live poetry readings, burlesque performances and tarot card readings. There really is something for everyone!
Some Bloomsday Trivia!
- It’s thought that Joyce chose this specific date in 1904 because it was the occasion of his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle – what an old romantic!
- The official Bloomsday Breakfast is a common celebration which involves eating the same breakfast that Leopold Bloom consumes in the novel. This includes liver and kidneys alongside the typical ingredients of an Irish fried breakfast.
- Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married by special licence of the Archbishop of Canterbury at St George the Martyr Church, Holborn, on June 16 1956 in honour of Bloomsday.
- In Mel Brooks’ 1968 film The Producers, Gene Wilder plays Leo Bloom. In the 2005 musical version of the film, Leo asks “When will it be Bloom’s day?” Eagle eyed spectators would have noted that a wall calendar displayed earlier in the production showed it was in fact June 16, Bloomsday.