It was exactly 50 years ago that I attended my first Bloomsday. At age 22 I had a strong sense of priorities, so I skipped my college graduation in order to wake up early in Dublin on June 16th, ready to trace the routes followed on that day in 1904 by the two protagonists created by James Joyce for his masterpiece, Ulysses.
The year was 1970, but the crowds of scholars I anticipated joining at various Joycean landmarks did not materialize. I wondered if I were the only Joyce enthusiast in Dublin who was celebrating Bloomsday, named in honor of the book’s main character, Leopold Bloom, whose peregrinations, along with those of Stephen Dedalus, are described in the 1922 novel.
Looking back, I would have been safe on that deserted Dublin day from coronavirus, had it then existed. The empty streets of 1970 will be replicated for this year’s Bloomsday, but this time out of necessity rather than neglect. Although there undoubtedly will be more Bloomsday celebrants than in 1970, they will not be strolling, but confined to the Hollywood-Squares-style boxes of Zoom meetings.
According to what I have read, Dublin didn’t officially start honoring Joyce and his literary achievements until the centennial of his birth, in 1982. Resentments lingered over Joyce’s sometimes uncharitable depiction of Dublin and Dubliners, not to mention embarrassment from 1930s obscenity trials in both the US and UK over the novel’s content.
In 1982, however, a slew of international Joyce scholars picked Bloomsday in Dublin for
the date and site of their symposium. The city, at last deciding to let bygones be bygones, rolled out the red carpet. Dublin never looked back. In 1990 the city even erected a bronze statue of the author holding his walking stick. Ever irreverent, Dubliners dubbed the statue “the prick with a stick.”
In 1996, the James Joyce Centre was established in a 1784 townhouse just down the street from Joyce’s alma mater, Belvedere College. On Bloomsdays past the center has offered Joyceans a number of Ulysses-themed walking tours of Dublin. It also houses exhibits and artifacts, including the actual front door of No. 7 Eccles Street, the address Joyce chose for the fictional home of Leopold Bloom. In 1970 I viewed that exact same door in a pub, The Bailey, where it had been on display since 1967.
A more recent local tribute was in 2003 when the James Joyce Bridge was built across the River Liffey and dedicated on Bloomsday. Better a bridge than a “disappointed bridge,” the term Stephen Dedalus uses in the second chapter of Ulysses to describe a pier.
The first Bloomsday is thought to have occurred in 1924, the 20th anniversary of the day recounted in the novel. In a June 27 letter that year to his patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, Joyce makes mention of “a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day – 16 June.”
Thirty years later, on the 50th anniversary, a small group of Dublin authors famously attempted to visit all the landmarks mentioned in Ulysses by horse-drawn carriage, the same transportation used by Leopold Bloom on his way to a funeral. Once the group of literati hit the aforementioned Bailey, however, the drinks flowed freely and the tour came to a sudden and sodden halt.
Meanwhile, Bloomsday came to be an annual event in locations around the world. In 1992, for example, the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia held its first Bloomsday event. The next year, the street on which it’s located was closed to vehicles for what became a tradition of beginning-to-end outdoor readings of Ulysses by local notables. The Rosenbach bears the distinction of housing the original hand-written manuscript of Ulysses.
Since 1994 there has even been a Bloomsday celebration in the Hungarian town of Szombathely. Why? Joyce described Leopold Bloom as the son of Rudolf Virag (which means bloom in Hungarian), a native of Szombathely. The town repaid the compliment by erecting a bronze statue of Joyce in time for the Bloomsday centennial, 2004.
But this year the celebrations will either take a year off or will bloom in a vast bouquet of Zoom meetings around the globe. In New York City, Symphony Space’s annual staged readings of Ulysses, Bloomsday on Broadway, will go on. Since the event’s beginnings in 1981, this will be the first Virtual Bloomsday on Broadway, and will be shown on YouTube. Stephen Colbert kicks off the event at 8 a.m. (the time at which events of Ulysses are launched) with a reading of Telemachus, or Chapter One.
Similarly, there will be (mostly free) online events at Dublin’s James Joyce Centre, at the Rosenbach Museum, at the University of Buffalo (which boasts the largest Joyce collection in the world), at San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute and in many locations around the world.
My dream for Bloomsday 2020 was to recreate my visit to Dublin of 50 years ago and then
to embark on a true Joyce journey across Europe, visiting again the places where Joyce lived and wrote: Trieste, Paris and Zurich. Obviously, I’m now prevented by a pandemic from carrying out my plan.
But in a sense, the online activities I have lined up for June 16th will allow me to out-Bloom Bloom. He spent that day going from place to place, all within the confines of the city. I will spend the day traveling the world, dropping in on one Bloomsday celebration after another, soaking up the festivities, all within the confines of my computer. Who wouldn’t say “Yes” to that?