AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY
TODAY sees more people than ever, in Ireland and elsewhere, celebrating Bloomsday, the immortal date associated with James Joyce's Ulysses.
As a journalist in a British Sunday newspaper remarked last year, the Irish find not a hint of irony in the sons and daughters of parents who once labelled Joyce a pornographer now celebrating his greatest work.
The first Bloomsday celebration, in 1954, was a bit unsteady and unsure on its feet.. Organised by Mr John Ryan, the editor of the periodical, Envoy, it included writers such as Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O'Brien and lacked even a trace of organisation.
Some of the participants, "tired and emotional" from alcohol, found difficulty in following the now traditional route and got lost in various public houses not mentioned in Ulysses at all. Their lack of punctuality at various meeting points was not helped by several urinary emergencies which afflicted them on the way.
Things are a bit different now and the day is a multi million pound tourism bonanza. Having said this, all the essential elements have remained in place. In the end the book is the winner by attracting an ever larger audience, which is what Joyce always wanted, despite popular mythology over the years.
Certainly Virginia Woolf's description of the novel as "the product of a queasy graduate scratching his pimples" finds few supporters now.
June 16th is the anniversary of the first date between Joyce and his future wife, Nora Barnacle. They spent the day walking around Ringsend in wary, but deep conversation.
The one criticism which could be made of present day celebration is the lack of attention paid to the part played by Nora.
From the start Joyce admired her simplicity, honesty and pithy wit. While he was prone to arrogant outbursts and considerable self regard, she tended to puncture his ego at the right moments. This even extended to being distinctly underwhelmed by his literary career.
Once, when asked about Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, she replied: "Jim should have stuck to music instead of bothering with writing." During the writing of Finnegans Wake, when a number of literary associates were questioning the stylistic road on which he had embarked, Joyce felt besieged and entered a period of crippling self doubt.
Nora, who originally met him while working in a Dublin hotel, asked him: "Why don't you write sensible books that people can understand?"
Most Bloomsday celebrants end their afternoon listening to readings at the Martello Tower in Sandycove, where the gestation of Ulysses took place and where the first chapter is set.
Joyce lived for a short time in the tower with the surgeon, wit and writer Oliver St John Gogarty. The impression created by the novel is that Joyce was miserable there, depressed by the flamboyant posturing and affected mannerisms of Gogarty. This is underlined by the nature of Joyce's final departure from the tower after a late night incident with a shotgun.
But the sunny spirits of Bloomsday devotees nowadays is a truer reflection of much of Joyce's time there, when Gogarty and himself played out the life of two boisterous students, drinking heavily and turning their back on any hard work, at least in Gogarty's case.
Living in the tower, with views of Howth Hill on a clear day and the Forty Foot below, seemed to animate Joyce. Gazing across at Dublin, he remarked to Gogarty: "There it is, the seventh city of Christendom".
The beginnings of the novel were conceived there, as far as one can tell, on summer afternoons, with Gogarty sunning himself on the roof while Joyce sat in the dark room below, determined to stay out of the light, constantly reading.
Of course there was plenty of horseplay and amusement at the time. One incident involved Joyce stealing a suitcase full of women's underwear, which he carried around the town for some time, before presenting it to a mutual female friend of Gogarty and himself, who seemed very grateful.
As Gogarty later recorded, the cheap prices of mackerel and lobsters caught by local fishermen meant the two emerging writers "could save for those nutritious pints of Guinness without which half Dublin would be half starved". This, no doubt, a reference to spending night after night having "quick ones" in Davy Byrnes, Mooneys, Fannings and Kennedys.
The later estrangement between Gogarty and Joyce had deep ramifications. Joyce saw the sundering as further proof of Dublin's paralysis and the limited horizons of its literary aspirants. Soon after he would journey to Europe and start a new life.
Obsession with Dublin
His break with Gogarty and the Irish literary set fuelled a bitterness, but it also provided material for his greatest work. He often talked later about his time in the tower and Yeats complimented him on the "full beauty" of the Martello section of the book.
The musical and bawdy element of Bloomsday has been maintained over the years by Joyceans such as Senator David Norris, particularly in his one man show.
The self exiled Joyce's lifelong obsession with Dublin is illustrated by a meeting in Parish with Mrs Sheehy Skeffington. When she asked him why, if he was so hostile to Dublin, did he write about virtually nothing else, he replied with a smile: "There was an English queen who said that when she died the word `Calais' would be written on her heart. Dublin will be found on mine."
For those who have the means, The Irish Times on the Web has created a fascinating Bloomsday Internet site that goes by the intriguing name Dyoublong, taken from Finnegans Wake. Articles, old photographs, a virtual tour of Dublin, audio readings by David Norris, competitions and a collection of other timely odds and sods. The address is http://www.irishtimes.com/