Bloomsday 2020 goes virtual as Joyceans adapt to Covid-19

A 36-hour Zoom reading is among the events amid this year’s celebrations of James Joyce

“Bloom plodges forward again. He stands before a lighted house, listening. The kisses, winging from their bowers fly about him, twittering, warbling, cooing.”

Sabri Con Okyay stands below a series of shelves packed with multicoloured glass bottles as he recites page 422 of James Joyce's Ulysses. Five others are sitting inside Sweny's Pharmacy listening to the young man from Istanbul speak, while a laptop propped on a nearby sideboard displays the attentive faces of readers in cities across the globe who want to take part in this Bloomsday event.

Outside the apothecary building, which is now run by volunteers and functions as a second-hand bookshop, a dozen people have gathered on Lincoln Place to mark the June 16th celebration of Bloomsday. PJ Murphy O’Brien, who runs the former Dublin chemist, says there was never any question as to whether the annual reading of the Joycean classic would go ahead.

"We decided to do a 36-hour reading of Ulysses on Zoom and we've had people from Buenos Aires, from Moscow, from Brazil, from all over the US taking part," says Murphy O'Brien. "It started at 10am yesterday morning and will finish at 10pm this evening with Molly's wonderful soliloquy."

Famous soap

The literary pharmacy has remained open during the Covid-19 pandemic, selling the bars of lemon soap made famous by the 20th-century novel. “The soap is oil based, it’s a natural product and keeps your hands moist,” says Murphy O’Brien. “Most other sanitisers dry out your hands.”

Nastaise Leddy, company secretary of the Sweny centre, says the June gathering is a lifeline for many "slightly eccentric" Joyce enthusiasts. "This is a place for lonely hearts; anyone you meet here is a friend for life. The Zoom event means we can connect with people who are completely on their own."

Director of the James Joyce Centre Darina Gallagher says the Irish writer would understand the sense of yearning and loneliness many have felt through the pandemic. "I've been thinking about him almost in exile in Trieste and Paris. He only returned home for such short visits through his life and yet he always had that longing for his home. All his work is about Dublin and its smells, noises, music and laughter."

Writer Fulvio Rogantin, originally from Trieste in Italy, spent the past week cleaning the 14 Ulysses memorial plaques dotted around the city. Why did he do it? "Because they were dirty," he replies. "Some are damaged so I will ask the city council to repair them."

Striking resemblance

Across the city, John Shevlin is getting ready in his North Great George's Street home for his annual outing around the city dressed as Joyce. A milliner by profession, Shevlin strikingly resembles the Irish writer and has taken part in Bloomsday celebrations since 2014. "Bloomsday isn't only celebrated in Dublin, it's worldwide now. People associate themselves with characters in the book and even though Joyce wrote about Dublin it could be about any city in the world."

Further down the river Liffey, another virtual Bloomsday celebration takes place at Áras an Uachtaráin, where President Michael D Higgins hosted a cultural performance as part of a call to support Irish artists during the Covid-19 crisis.

Irish artists are in crisis and have sought “our solidarity and our support” which we should give “unstintingly”, said Mr Higgins.“In times of crisis and isolation, it is the arts which so often bring us reassurance, contribute to our wellbeing, and allow us a means of collective expression, a crucial vehicle for citizen participation,” said the president, adding that artists are often not appreciated and “sometimes dismissed as a luxury that cannot be afforded”.

The Government on Tuesday announced extra funding of €25 million for the arts and culture sector to help tackle the challenges posed by coronavirus.