Bloomsday in Dublin, Ireland

A sea of boater hats at a Bloomsday celebration near Dublin, Ireland. Faye Wolfe photos.
A sea of boater hats at a Bloomsday celebration near Dublin, Ireland. Faye S. Wolfe photos.

Bloomsday: A Celebration of James Joyce in his Native City

By Faye S. Wolfe

James Joyce spent his formative years in and around Dublin, drinking, writing, singing, studying, falling in love, and hating his homeland.

Bloomsday is a weeklong event in Dublin, with many different events.
Bloomsday is a weeklong event in Dublin, with many different events.

With good reason, maybe. After trying for years to find a publisher for The Dubliners, he got into a wrangle with the publisher that ended in the printer’s “guillotining” all the copies. Small wonder Joyce left Ireland for good after that.

That’s all water under Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge a century or so later, at least as far as Dubliners are concerned. On Bloomsday, June 16, every year, they seize the chance to celebrate Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, with readings, arts events, lunches, and general merriment.

Leopold Bloom, the Hero

The hero of the book, Leopold Bloom, moves about Dublin over the course of that near midsummer’s  day, and Joyce charted the course of his wanderings up and down and around Dublin’s streets with such specificity that “if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth,” Joyce said, it could be recreated from the novel’s pages.

If you happen to be meandering in Dublin on June 16, stop by Sweny’s Pharmacy . Now the home of a nonprofit dedicated to Joyce, the Dublin shop at 1 Lincoln Place, a hundred steps or so from Merrion Square in the city center, was where Bloom bought “a cake of new clean lemon soap.”

Sweny's Pharmacy, a place that figures large into James Joyce's Dublin days.
Sweny’s Pharmacy, a place that figures largely into James Joyce’s Dublin days.

On Bloomsday they hold readings, but they aren’t limited just to one day. At any time, various reading groups are making their way through Joyce’s books.

An Edwardian souvenir of a place, Sweny’s glass-fronted cabinets, and mirrored shelves display old bottles and apothecary jars by the dozen, and mahogany counters display second-hand books, old and new editions of Joyce’s works, in several languages … and cakes of lemon soap.

Many Events for Bloomsday

The James Joyce Center starts the festivities days before, hosts a breakfast on the day, and of course, all year round offers programming related to the writer.

Lunch al fresco at Dun Laoghaire
Lunch al fresco at Dun Laoghaire

Bloomsday Festival events can be as diverse as a pub tour with an expert guide focused on the role of whiskey in Joyce’s writings; “a good old-fashioned hooley”—defined as a “wild and noisy party”—where a musicians perform traditional favorites and songs Joyce referred to; and a chance to try the “Joycestick,” an “immersive virtual reality 3-D game, a Boston College project, that recreates scenes from Ulysses.

The Bloomsday Fringe expands the things to do during what is really more like “Bloomsweek.” Dublin comes at the holiday from all angles, with an abundance of tours, readings, performances, even gallery shows.

The high point of my Bloomsday was in a town just south of the city, Dun Laoghaire, on the C-shaped curl that is the coastline of Dublin Bay. Pronounced Dun Lairy, it’s accessible via the DART trains out of Dublin; you’ll want the Sandycove and Glasthule station.

Children sat wide-eyed with their mums in horse-drawn carriages that processed down the main street, while grown-ups clustered at tables set on the pavement just outside Cavistons Food Emporium and Seafood Restaurant. The al fresco lunch they serve there is an annual event, and you don’t have to be literary to love it.

Salmon with capers from Caviston's Food Emporium.
Salmon with capers from Caviston’s Food Emporium.

This being Ireland, you can expect brilliant sunshine one minute and a rain shower the next—one of the straw boaters on sale for five euros, which nearly everyone was wearing, might come in handy.

Three Course Lunch

But if your luck and the fine weather holds, you can sit at a white linen–draped table and enjoy a prix fixe three-course meal with a couple of options for each course, including delicious smoked salmon with capers, fresh hake (a relative of cod) and steamed baby potatoes, and strawberries and cream for dessert, along with a glass or two of wine.

At the Bloomsday outdoor luncheon.
At the Bloomsday outdoor luncheon.

Cavistons started as a fish store, and the emporium side stocks a dazzling assortment of seafood, lavishly arrayed on ice chips, as well as a panoply of cheeses, fresh produce, jams, and other comestibles.

Part of the scene on Bloomsday is dressing up. Women wear vintage Edwardian hobble skirts, fitted jackets, and wide-brimmed, fancifully trimmed hats, men stroll about in linen suits, bow ties, boaters, and white tennis shoes such as Joyce favored.

In Dun Laoghaire, there was even a celeb or two of sorts. The mayor made the rounds, looking dapper in a summer suit, with super-sized bling around his neck (his chain of office), only to be upstaged by the writer himself—well, actually, an impressive Joyce impersonator, complete with black eye patch.

There was music playing, lots of greetings, lots of selfies, lots of conversation.

The experience was more than the sum of its parts, namely, the food and drink, the light, the live music, the pageantry, and the pleasure everyone seemed to derive from being in the moment and in good company. As Dubliners like to say, lovely.

The Mayor of the town with some Bloomsday bling.
The Mayor of the town with some Bloomsday bling.

In Dalkey, just the next town over, you can get that much closer to Ulysses on the day, or any day, really.

The book opens at the Martello tower at Sandycove Point in that postcard-pretty town:

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Joyce stayed in that tower one summer, now a popular tourist destination, at the end of a lane that winds past the Forty Foot, a former men-only bathing beach whose bracing waters are now open to all. At the James Joyce Tower and Museum , you can go up to the top of the tower, view the collection of photographs and papers in the museum, and on June 16, take in its Bloomsday events.

Joyce taught—briefly—in the Clifton School in Dalkey, and only slightly fictionalized, the school is the scene of a conversation between another main character, Stephen Dedalus, and the school’s headmaster, in Ulysses.

Learning about longbows at the castle.
Learning about longbows at the castle.

On Bloomsday this year, that scene was given a vigorous dramatic reading at the Dalkey Castle and Heritage Centre, just one of the events it hosts, also as part of the Bloomsday Festival.

The center’s appeal goes well beyond Joyce. Don’t be misled by its name to expect some Disney fantasy structure: Dalkey Castle has its own authentic, stalwart character. Dating from the Middle Ages, it served as a fortified warehouse for goods that came by ship to what was then the port for Dublin.

We don’t know if the castle housed a cargo of deer destined for the royal park at Glencree that arrived in Dalkey in 1244, according to a 1902 history, but we do know that uninvited guests might have had hot coals or boiling water dropped on them from the “murder hole” in the second-story floor.

Friendlier Staff

Fortunately, today the staff at the center greet strangers in a friendlier fashion. Docents in period dress deliver lively, brief commentaries on what the homely details of life 800 years ago, such as what people ate, how they cared for their clothes (you’ll be surprised!), and perhaps more than you ever wanted to know about archaic medical practices—but the information is nicely delivered.

St Begnets and Dalkey Castle
St Begnets and Dalkey Castle

History goes way back in Dalkey. Just off the main street is the romantic golden-stone shell of 8 th -century St. Begnet’s Church, also part of the center, with one door sunk so low (or the ground has risen so high) that you need to bend over double to enter.

A Roofless Ruin

Easier, the main entryway, that brings you inside the picturesque roofless ruin, where wildflowers bloom in cracks in the wall. If you’re on a tour, a roguish archer in a tunic and tights may drop by to fill you in about longbows.

Another Irish writer of note, George Bernard Shaw, said the happiest moment of his life was in 1866 when his mother told him they were moving from Dublin center to a little house in Dalkey. (Last year, Torca Cottage, now much-altered, went on the market for 2.3 million euros.)

“I lived on a hilltop with the most beautiful view in the world,” he remembered later. “I had only to open my eyes to see such pictures as no painter could make for me.” The Nobel Laureate also said of the place, “I have never seen more beautiful skies.”

Those skies, they’re just as beautiful as ever.

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