Bloomsday 1982: when Jorge Luis Borges and Anthony Burgess came to pay homage

Anthony Cronin, begetter of the first Bloomsday celebration in 1954, organised one of Dublin’s greatest literary events to mark the centenary of James Joyce’s birth in 1982

 

The year 1982 was the centenary of Joyce’s birth and it was generally felt that something should be done to celebrate it. By a stroke of good luck the poet Anthony Cronin was the cultural adviser to the then taoiseach, Charles Haughey. Cronin had been one of the original begetters of the Bloomsday celebration in its present form, when, on June 16th, 1954, he, John Ryan, Patrick Kavanagh, Brian O’Nolan and others famously made a Bloomsday pilgrimage in a horse-drawn carriage, starting on Sandymount strand and heading for Glasnevin. Cronin thought that the best way to celebrate Joyce in his native city, cosmopolitan modernist that he was, was to bring writers from all over the world to Dublin. Haughey gave the project the nod, and what resulted was perhaps the most memorable literary event that Dublin would host for a very long time.

Just a few years before, I had walked into Easons on O’Connell Street and bought a paperback with a psychedelic cover and the strange title: Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges. Reading Borges was a life-changing experience, and I could hardly believe that this demi-god would soon grace the streets of Dublin. But Borges came and held court in a suite at the Shelbourne. There, a group of writers and scholars went to pay homage, presented like blushing debutantes to a blind dowager queen. He was tiny, impeccably dressed in black suit and tie with shiny shoes, exuding old-world courtesy as he chatted to all, and recited Anglo-Saxon poetry. Hovering about was the mysterious muse-like presenc e of his beautiful young Japanese companion. I can still feel the dry, tissue-like sensation of his featherlight hand in mine. I mumbled somthing of my awe and admiration and left before I said something foolish.

Another of my idols, and almost the opposite of Borges, was the large, shambling figure of Anthony Burgess. As a teenager in the wilds of Dublin I had rushed out to buy the Observer every Sunday, mainly to read his long book reviews. I learnt more from him about literature than in any university course I took, as he effortlessly combined enormous erudition and insight with a witty, accessible prose style. And here he was, larger than life, with his Italian contessa wife, drinking tea in the Shelbourne tearoom in the wee small hours of the morning , and listening patiently to my callow literary opinions.

Also present was the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, whose poems and essays had defined what political engagement meant to a poet in the ’70s and ’80s. Like Anthony Cronin, he had written an epic narrative poem about the sinking of the Titanic. Tall, blond and elegant, he was the embodiment of radical European chic as, with a trenchcoat carelessly thrown over his shoulders, he expounded on the workings of international capitalism.

A writer I had a more personal connection with was the Catalan writer Manuel Vasquez Montalban, some of whose poems I had translated. I had recently spent some years in Barcelona, his hometown, where I had learnt Spanish by painstakingly reading his columns and articles in the local newspapers. In later years he would become famous as the creator of the gastronome detective, Pepe Carvalho. And here I was drinking a pint with him in Kehoe’s of South Anne St, discussing Catalan politics.

There were many other encounters with eminent writers like the Italian poet, Luciano Erba, and even some Anglo-Saxons, like William Empson and David Wright. All of them would read in a gala evening on Bloomsday, of which my abiding memory is the magical presence of Borges reciting sonnets by Rossetti in his perfect but strangely accented English.

But the event that made the most impression on me was the lecture delivered by Anthony Burgess to a packed Mansion House, where with a virtuoso display of learning and linguistic insight, he talked of Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins, teasing out the the similarities of their approaches to language. He pointed out that shortly after Joyce’s birth, Hopkins had come to teach in University College Dublin, where a few years later Joyce would commence his studies. What demiurge of literature haunted those gloomy Newman House halls, speculated Burgess. You might well ask, what demiurge of literature was present that weekend in Dublin?

Nowadays, most literary festivals seem to be organised by a committee of publishers, marketing men and PR companies, with the main aim of promoting the most recent books by best-selling novelists. As for writers in other languages, if they haven’t won the Impac, they’re unlikely to figure. So, what still seems to me the greatest Bloomsday celebration of all time is unlikely to be equalled any time soon.

Michael O’Loughlin is a poet and translator, whose works include Another Nation: New and Selected Poems (New Island, 1997) and In This Life (New Island, 2011)

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