James Joyce is the ultimate writer’s writer. You cannot be a writer and fail to read Joyce and, as an Irish writer, you cannot fail to be influenced by him, whether you like that fact or not. The controversies Joyce provoked when he was alive – bawdy books and unconventional life choices – are as compelling today as they were when he was writing in the early to mid-1900s.
Joyce was, for a long time, the classic Irish penniless drinker who loved song and women but who was, unusually – and thankfully – able to harness his genius and put it to use. He ‘lived in sin’ with the mother of his two children, Nora Barnacle, and he wrote avante garde prose. But, in Holy Catholic Ireland, how did he get away with it? By leaving Ireland, of course. He and Nora, a twenty year-old from Galway who worked as a chambermaid in Dublin, moved first to Zurich and then to Trieste, Rome and, later, Paris and finally back to Switzerland. It was as an exile that Joyce wrote his masterworks about Ireland and the Irish, in all their devout impurity. He and Nora eventually married in 1931.
The default eldest of ten children – his brother John died at birth – James Joyce was a favourite of his mother, May Murray. She supported him financially and emotionally when he went to Paris to study medicine. Joyce was both distant and demanding towards his mother; he was convinced of his own importance from an early age and had a tendency to lord it over people, including his mother. May sent loving letters to Paris, urging her son not to drink unboiled water, and sending money that left the family at home short. Joyce travelled back from Europe when she was dying but, even then, he seemed disdainful of the woman he had loved so well as a boy. He later regretted his ‘cynical frankness of conduct’ towards her.
In Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus – Joyce’s alter ego – dreamt that his mother ‘had come to him after death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful …’ But how could Joyce expect anything other than reproach from the dead? His elopement and out-of-wedlock children brought shame on his family first and then his lewd prose did the same. Reading Ulysses, and hooting with laughter and drinking in the salacious parts, it is clear that it is a book that would be controversial if it was published today, never mind in 1922.
Bloomsday is a day dedicated not just to Ulysses but to Joyce himself and his wild bravery and spirit. Bloomsday is an invention not of Joyce but of critic John Ryan and writer Brian O’Nolan, AKA Flann O’Brien. Ulysses is set on 16th June 1904; Joyce chose that date as it was the day of his first outing with Nora Barnacle. Fifty years after that date Ryan, O’Nolan and others walked the Ulysses route in pilgrimage. The novel is a homage to the passionate young woman who had captured Joyce’s heart. Edna O’Brien wrote of Joyce’s attraction to Nora: ‘In her he was to seek and find earth mother, dark, formless, made beautiful by moonlight … this young girl was a summons to his blood.’ The love Joyce had once given to May Murray, who died in 1903, was now directed towards a Galway girl with scant education.
Nora was Joyce’s muse – he mined her life and memories for his stories – but he also used the stuff of his earlier years. It was May Murray’s rambling letters to him as a student in Paris – the letter writing style of many Irish mothers – that is evident in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Molly does not punctuate or draw a breath as she flits from one subject to the next, similar to Joyce’s mother’s letters. Molly says: ‘… I love flowers I’d love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven there’s nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is as for them saying there’s no God I wouldn’t give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why don’t they go and create something I often asked him …’
Bloomsday plays to the theatrical side of Irish people – it is not just a party but it is an all-day, dressing-up party. In Dalkey and in Sandymount and at other locations around the city, men and women put on Edwardian clothes and re-enact scenes from the book. At the Joyce Centre on North Great George’s Street, Bewley’s Café starts the day with a Bloomsday Breakfast of kidneys, not almost charred, one hopes, like Bloom’s much-anticipated kidney and not oozing ‘bloodgouts’ either, I’m sure. Sweny’s Pharmacy, on the other side of the Liffey, opens all day for performances and purchases of ‘sweet lemony’ soap, and ends with an evening of stew and singing.
Traditionally in Galway, a crowd gathers at the house in Bowling Green where Nora Barnacle lived, to celebrate the woman who inspired the indomitable Ulysses character Molly Bloom. Nora only ever returned to her Galway home twice after leaving it and, both times, she left in a hurry. The cottage, now a museum called the Nora Barnacle House, was built in the 1800s, and is the smallest house in Bowling Green, with just two rooms and a tiny back yard. Drinks are served, passages from Ulysses are read and crowds troop through the tiny house to get a feel for Nora’s young life. Sadly in 2012 the museum did not open due to a lack of funding and it remains to be seen if it will open for the 2013 season.
This year the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin is hosting a unique Bloomsday event. Eighteen writers have been asked by the Centre to rewrite the eighteen episodes of Ulysses. The stories and poems are to take inspiration from the novel but must be set in present day Dublin. On the 14th of June, the eighteen of us will gather at the Centre to read our episodes from this Telmetale Bloomnibus to celebrate Ulysses and Joyce. My episode? The bawdy, beautiful Penelope, of course, and a 21st century Molly Bloom. Joyce referred to the Penelope section as his ‘most secret conception’ as he was writing it; and he left the last word of the book to Penelope/Molly – a simple, positive ‘Yes’.
Dubliners, like myself, are both uplifted and comforted by the humour and language of Ulysses: it is our humour and our language. The Irish are a nation who likes to celebrate and it is fitting that Ulysses has a day to call its own, though it is now known as the Bloomsday Festival and lasts a week. Bloomsday encompasses not just the city the novel is played out in but Galway city too, a place to which Joyce, naturally, owed such a debt. Long may both cities memorialise James Joyce and the women who inspired and made him, May Murray and Nora Barnacle.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis