James Joyce and me
It’s Bloomsday tomorrow, and if you haven’t read Ulysses you should give James Joyce’s masterpiece a go. It can be pure entertainment
Genius: James Joyce around 1918, while he was writing Ulysses. Photograph: C Ruf/Archive Photos/Getty
Joycean: Anne Colgan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
Not long ago, while visiting my son in San Francisco, I noticed that the toilet paper in his bathroom bore the legend: “Do you suffer from bathroom anxiety over not having the right tissue?” I could not help but remember the torn-up newspaper we used instead of tissue long ago. For some reason I thought of the Calypso chapter in Ulysses, in which Leopold Bloom sits on the throne in his outhouse, reading his “toilet tissue ” – an old copy of Tit-Bits.
I first tried to read Ulysses in 1958, when I was 15. I could not afford to buy the book, and of course it was still unavailable in the library. So I took myself to Eason, where I was able to read it surreptitiously.
The first chapter was grand: three lads hanging out in the Martello tower in Sandycove. The second was also to my liking. I enjoyed Stephen Dedalus’s journey to Dalkey and his dialogue with the teacher Mr Deasy, that dyed-in-the-wool Orangeman, who was trying to have his article on (of all things) foot-and-mouth disease published.
I rejoiced when Stephen managed to extract his money from Deasy – money earned from teaching Latin to young boys – and headed off with his coins.
The third chapter was more difficult. I could not make head or tail of it, being unfamiliar with the angst and with the stream of consciousness. There were far too many words I hadn’t yet come across. So that was that. I got on with my life.
Fast-forward many years to Klear Adult Education Centre, in Kilbarrack, where I joined Anne McGrath’s class “Reading Ulysses”. They were reading the chapter called Hades, about Paddy Dignam’s funeral. It was pure entertainment. I was hooked.
I subsequently attended St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra as a mature student and found Tom Halpin’s lectures on Ulysses to be memorable. I took over McGrath’s class when she retired, and I have now read Ulysses many times, encouraging those of my generation who had been nervous of taking it on.
I believe we Dubliners have a special affinity with Ulysses. Many people come from abroad to gain a flavour of the book – indeed, Joyce is responsible for a huge amount of literary tourism, particularly around Bloomsday, which this year falls tomorrow.
But people from Japan, Germany, France and elsewhere don’t necessarily understand all the nuances of our language. It is said they sometimes interpret “chizzlers”, which we understand as a pet word for children, as “people who work with wood” – and there are many attempts to translate “chainies”, which we remember as the pieces of delph dug up in gardens and used as toys in our childhood. These are just two examples of the language that we Dubliners have a special handle on.