Celebrating Bloomsday 2023
News29 June 2023
At the annual Bloomsday garden reception at the Ambassador's residence on the 16th of June 2023, guests gathered to enjoy an evening program of Joycean entertainment. Bloomsday is celebrated around the world on this date to recognise the life and work of James Joyce, as it is the day upon which the entire events of his epic novel, Ulysses, take place in the year 1904.
This year's Bloomsday program featured songs from Joyce's various works, beautifully performed by Mezzo Soprano Laura Murphy and Jeremy Bines of the Deutsche Oper, as well as readings and reflections on Joyce and his vast legacy, delivered by contemporary Irish author Rob Doyle. These reflections explored a vast range of themes including Joyce’s abiding relevance for modern audiences, the significance of his early emigration on his creative output, the historical context in which Ulysses was produced, and the increasingly malleable notion of home.
Significantly, in the year which marks Ireland's 50th anniversary as a member of the European Union, Doyle also highlighted the continued migration which shaped Joyce's life, and the blueprint that this set out for modern writers and artists. Memorably, he emphasised that long before the advent of open European borders, "Joyce lived as though the idea of a unified Europe was already an established fact."
See full reflections on Joyce by Rob Doyle below.
1. Perhaps the most evocative line in the nearly one-thousand pages of Ulysses comes at the very end, with James Joyce’s glamorous sign-off: Trieste-Zürich-Paris, 1914-1921. It’s the one moment in the entire novel when Joyce breaks out of the finely wrought edifice of his great fictive masterwork to acknowledge the conditions under which it was produced, and more specifically, to name the places where he produced it. The literary influence of Ulysses on the generations of writers who came after Joyce, both in Ireland and around the world, is, of course, immense. But there is another kind of influence which Joyce has exerted, by way of the model he provided for a new kind of literary and artistic internationalism, his odyssean existence demonstrating that a writer may ultimately prove to be of most value and most service to his own country by making the wider world his home, being a citizen of nowhere… and everywhere. Joyce likely wasn’t the first Irish writer to leave his country and seek inspiration in self-imposed exile and an immersion in foreignness, but it is he who did most to make it seem a viable, attractive mode of living and working. A century on from the publication of his most celebrated novel, there is still no writer less parochial than James Joyce.
Personally, I didn’t get around to reading Ulysses until I was in my late twenties — and temporarily living, as it happened, in San Francisco. I’d left Ireland after finishing college — not, like Joyce, to gain breathing space from a stern and repressive Catholic morality, but simply to wander, to see what else was out there, to take a reading of the world. But although I gathered extensive notes about the places I visited or lived in, when I finally sat down to write what would be my first novel, which I did the day after moving from Italy to London, I found myself writing not about any of the cities I’d passed through or made my temporary home, but the one I’d left, namely Dublin.
I mention this not to compare myself to James Joyce, but rather to emphasise the enduring creative fertility in the Joycean tension between an outer life of cosmopolitanism and exile, and an imaginative life whose rootedness in a homeland is nourished rather than wilted by distance and removal. Joyce famously said that if his native city were ever to be destroyed by war, it could be entirely reconstructed with reference to the pages of his great novel. This is the beautiful paradox of Joyce and of Ulysses: it was only through leaving Ireland and staying away, by being a ‘good European’ as well as a critic of nationalism, militarist chauvinism and patriotic mythologies, that he could pay his ultimate and eternal tribute to Ireland’s capital, the colonial city that had formed him and that continues to generate gifted writers, even if more of them than ever seem to be leaving to write their books in Berlin, Paris, Athens, London, Lisbon, New York, or wherever. The question of whether Joyce could have written Ulysses had he stayed in Dublin is moot: he did not, and it’s intrinsic to the book’s hyperdimensional, psychedelic scope that when we read it, we are reading not only Dublin, but Trieste-Zürich-Paris… and beyond.
2. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Ireland’s membership of the European Union. While James Joyce may not have enjoyed the full, easeful freedom of movement that Irish men and women have enjoyed since January 1st 1973, he lived as if the idea of a united Europe, facilitating an interflow of people, commerce and ideas, was already an established fact. Joyce, it might even be said, was a living personification of Europe, carrying within him as he did all of European literature, and speaking or at least reading quite a few of its languages too (along with the odd extra-European one).
Basing the structure of his masterpiece on Homer’s Odyssey — an epic about wandering warriors finding their long way home after great military conquests — Joyce wrote Ulysses at a time of war, and indeed the Great War, with its unprecedented barbarity and senselessness. In mirroring the form of the Odyssey and imagining his meek, decent Everyman, Leopold Bloom, as a contemporary reincarnation of heroic, seafaring Odysseus, Joyce wanted not only to exalt modern life in all its minutiae and mundanity, but to subvert and transcend the ethos of chivalric militarism that animated the ancient Greeks and underlay Europe’s great foundational epics the Odyssey and the Iliad.
Today, as we celebrate Joyce’s endlessly fertile novel that was first published a hundred and one years ago, Europe is again a place of war. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has generated scenes at least as terrible and brutal as anything to be read in Homer. And yet, beyond the frontlines and the blackened, smouldering shells of Bakhmut and Mariupol, throughout Europe art is still being made, novels being written, plays and operas and concerts being performed — just as they were even in a Europe shaken by the generalised carnage of the First World War. (‘What did you do in the war Mr. Joyce?’ asks a character in Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. And Joyce’s answer: ‘I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?’) Joyce’s artistic response to the slaughter, maimings, noise, ugliness, and brutality of war was to write an epic of sensuality, a work of extravagant fidelity to the human body with all its base, everyday and joyful functions. The story of this deeply European Irishman writing his modernist epic against a backdrop of industrialised killing and the brute objectification of human flesh is one with a moral, and it is this: art, like life, goes on, just as it will go on when Ukraine is eventually reconstructed, in whatever kind of Europe we emerge to after the current war has ended. Among much else, Ulysses demonstrates that war comes and goes, but literature is immortal, the creative impulse indestructible, and Europe endless.
3. If you’re an Irish writer, or even just someone who pays attention to Irish literature, James Joyce can feel like an inescapable presence. Really, there’s no getting away from him. Whenever I’m asked about Joyce’s influence on my own writing, I answer honestly: there hasn’t been any influence, at least not a direct one. And yet, when I’m in Dublin I’m often keenly aware of moving through a city that conceives and experiences itself through Joyce’s imagining of it, a city forever regarding its reflection in Joyce’s Dublinesque prose. Last year, with Joyce-mania in full effect for the centenary of the publication of Ulysses, I gratefully accepted an invitation to spend a few months living and writing in a Martello tower on the south Dublin coast which was identical to, and actually very near, the one Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan inhabit in the novel’s opening pages (you could see the Joyce tower from the roof of the one I was in). On the walls of each room inside the Martello tower there were beautiful, shimmering artworks in the form of enlarged, annotated and decorated pages from Finnegans Wake. If I’d been one of those writers of an earlier generation to whom Joyce’s legacy was so vast as to seem oppressive, living there might well have sent me over the edge. Everyone in the city has some sort of link to Ulysses, as if by living in Dublin we’re all collaborating in an immense, holographic simulation dreamed up in Joyce’s teeming mind. Until a few years ago, my uncle was the manager of Davy Byrne’s pub in Dublin city centre, which features in the novel — just like everything in Dublin seems to feature in the novel. It’s as if Ulysses is the fabled map in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story which was coextensive with the empire it described. (Incidentally, Borges proudly declared himself the first Hispanic to have read Ulysses, describing Joyce as ‘a millionaire of words and styles’, and observing that ‘for Joyce every day was in some secret way the irreparable Day of Judgment; every place, Hell or Purgatory.’) Really, I can’t think of another city on earth that is so intimately linked to and, in a sense, defined by, a single novel. Such is its imaginative grip on the city that I’m tempted to wonder if Ulysses really is a novel about Dublin… or if Dublin is a city about Ulysses. In an almost occult way, the book seems to influence and permeate even those few aspects of Dublin that are not named, taxonomied and immortalised within it. My mother, who left school at fourteen and has certainly never read Ulysses, happens to have been born on the 16th June, on Bloomsday. Her long, breathless, punctuation-free text messages and emails remind me of nothing so much as Molly Bloom’s rapturous soliloquy that is in every sense the novel’s climax. Must I entertain the suspicion that my mother was in fact written by James Joyce? It’s as likely or unlikely as anything else, as likely or unlikely as the inhabitants of a beautiful colonial city meeting up yearly to enact a dense, allusive, exhaustive modernist novel written a century ago, by an Irishman who left young and never came back.