Editor’s Note: New College student Liliana Solomon recently spent time in Ireland as a James Joyce Scholar, a program supported by a foundation created by Sarasota residents Tom and Maureen Steiner. The trip was timed to coincide with Bloomsday, June 16. Ulysses recounts the life of its central characters on June 16, 1904, and since 1954, Dubliners and visitors have celebrated Joyce’s life with pilgrimages to places cited in the book, as well as recitals and re-enactments.
After being home from Dublin for a week, I still feel so saturated with Irish history and culture that I kind of still feel like I’m there.
My time in Dublin was overwhelming and amazing, and it’s hard to sum any part of it up in one response, so I think I’ll just talk about the strange, but impressive experience I had at Bloomsday itself.
I spent the beginning of the day trailing behind official walking tours that were going to all the spots in Dublin where Bloom goes, many in costume, all with official Bloomsday hats. I listened to tour guides talk about the iconic Dublin streets and their history, and felt the pride of the walkers in hearing the stories of their city retold to them. Most of them seemed to have been on at least one or two tours before, and were really excited to see tourists like myself exploring Dublin with them.
I left the tour to spend more time in Sweny’s pharmacy, where Leopold Bloom becomes infatuated with the scent of lemon soap. The place was decked out with old-fashioned beakers and bottles, pictures of Joyce, and loads of Ulysses paraphernalia. There was even a man sitting on the bench dressed as lemon soap, his entire body painted yellow.
The girl at the counter asked me if I knew anything about Bloom’s time in Sweny’s, to which I answered a surprised, “yes, of course.” It soon became apparent, however, that many of the people stopping in didn’t actually know how the spot was connected to the book at all, although they were happy to hear an explanation from the volunteers behind the counter. I saw tourists from all over the world, young and old, and many native Dubliners dressed in full costume come into the shop with very little knowledge about its connection to the book. Many different editions of Ulysses were being sold there, and I watched as quite a few groups of people purchased their first copies ever, most looking apprehensive, but excited to begin reading.
It was there, at Sweny’s, that I realized that so many of the people who were eagerly celebrating Bloomsday had never even opened a copy of Ulysses. This became even more apparent when I went to hear some readings in a town square with the others on my trip. We watched as everyone from an Irish Times reporter, to an opera singer, to Irish Ambassadors came up to the podium to earnestly read from a book that they had never opened before. The crowd listened with rapture and I wondered how many of them were experiencing these passages from the book for the first time. Now, granted, Ulysses is by no means an easy read, and requires a good amount of patience and determination to get through, but it still struck me as very odd that so many people would want to celebrate something they hadn’t even read.
The fact that so many people who came out for Bloomsday had never even read Ulysses puzzled me for a few days, and kind of frustrated me. However, the more I learned about Irish history and nationalism, the more I began to understand the appeal of this particular work. Considering how small and oppressed Ireland is and has been for most of its history, it’s impressive how many famous and talented writers have come from the island (something that Irish people are very aware of).
However, no writer writes about Ireland quite like Joyce. Even though he spent most of his life on the European continent and, in Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man described Ireland as a “sow who eats her farrow,” his descriptions of Dublin itself and Irish life is unparalleled in anything I’ve read so far. For native Dubliners, the knowledge that there is an incredibly famous and influential, 800-page book detailing their hometown in such a familiar way is enough to warrant fandom even without having read it. The more I learned about Ireland’s brutal struggle for their independence, and how much their culture was stifled at the hand of the British, the more I began to understand that a book so incredible being about their home is something to be excited about in itself.
Having been home for a week to digest the trip and Bloomsday, there is a part of me that still thinks, if this book is so important to your culture, why not actually read it? But at the same time, I began to understand while exploring Dublin that the pride of the residents is so important that the content of the book might not matter so much. The knowledge that millions people all over the world have been enraptured by an insanely detailed and trying story of a lonely man wandering the streets of Dublin is enough for them.
I’ve realized that there is a sense of ownership over Ulysses and Joyce’s other works that is inextricably tied to being an Irish national. Being able to claim something so influential, so universally loved and respected, is just as important as actually reading Joyce’s books. This concept still somewhat confuses me, and I don’t know if I’m completely comfortable with it. While I still think that all the people who love celebrating Bloomsday should definitely read at least some of the book — mostly because it’s so incredible — I also feel that the joy and pride of the Irish people on Bloomsday and about their Joyce in general is genuine and gratifying by itself.