If any literary figure seems synonymous with being Irish, the legendary author James Joyce fits the appellation. And, thanks to having written the 730+ pages of his intellectually unparalleled tome, “Ulysses,” (released as one complete book in 1922) with its incredibly complicated telling of one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, that date has led to the yearly celebration known as Bloomsday. The novel parallels the life and thoughts of Bloom and a host of other characters — real and fictional such as Stephen Dedalus — with the Greek story of the Odyssey which takes place from 8 am on June 16th, 1904, through to the early hours of the following morning.
In March 1914, Joyce had started writing “Ulysses” but put it aside to finish his play “Exiles.” On June 16th, 1915, he wrote his brother Stanislaus to say he had finished the first episode of it. After a long serialization, it was then was published as a full version in a very limited edition, and shortly after, Joyce’s friends began to mark June 16th as Bloomsday.
The first Bloomsday event celebrated in Ireland was in 1954, the 50th anniversary of the original Bloomsday, when writers Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien visited the Martello Tower at Sandycove, Davy Byrne’s pub, and 7 Eccles Street, drunkenly reading parts of “Ulysses” throughout a long day of imbibing. Today, it is celebrated by Joyceans across the globe with readings, performances, re-enactments, and many other events. In Ireland, a Bloomsday Festival runs from June 11 to the 16th.
Among those celebrations are several which take place in New York City. The day kicks off with the 5th annual immersive Bloomsday Breakfast hosted by Origin Theatre Company and Bloom’s Tavern in Midtown (208 East 58th Street). Since the annual free event lands on a Saturday, it starts a little later at 11:30 am but will still fit in all the festivities such as readings from the book, musical interludes, and a juried costume contest. As New York’s only site-specific Bloomsday breakfast, it commemorates the Dublin summer morning chronicled in “Ulysses,” which takes place on that singular day.
The event also features the “Origin in Bloom” Literary Prize presentation, honoring an Irish or Irish-American author with a unique connection to New York. The beloved writer/activist Malachy McCourt won the inaugural prize last year — chosen by a nominating committee which includes the Irish Voice’s Cahir O’Doherty, Irish America Magazine’s Patricia Harty, and the Irish Echo’s Peter McDermott.
Among the performers, writers, and musicians taking part are Elmore James; David O’Hara; Charlotte Moore; Sean Gormley; Ciarán Sheehan; Paula Nance; Terry Donnolly; Fiona Walsh; Patrick Fitzgerald and The James Joyce Reading Group, and David O’Leary of Trí — The New Irish Tenors. the event’s music director Irish-folk-rock troubadour Alan Gogarty performs on guitar as well.
For the third year, the breakfast also features a costume competition for the “Best, or Most Creatively, Dressed Molly or Leopold Bloom.” The winner — man or woman — will be selected from among the guests by a blue-ribbon panel of judges led by the internationally recognized image strategist Margaret Molloy. A $1,000 Dinner and NYC fun package is offered to the grand-prize winner. Contestants are invited to come period-attired, or in a summer-festive outfit — a modern interpretation of that 1904 Dublin morning. Couples and individuals are eligible.
Later on, The 37th Bloomsday on Broadway starts at 7 pm in the Peter Norton Symphony Space (95th & Broadway), co-produced with the Irish Arts Center. Directed by Lisa Flanagan, Symphony Space’s celebration of Joyce’s masterpiece features a tour through the first 17 episodes hosted by beloved Bloomsday regular Mia Dillon, with musical interludes by violinist Dana Lyn, guitarist Kyle Sanna, piper Ivan Goff, vocalist Carrie Erving, and a chorus of Mollys performed by Valorie Curry, Kirsten Vangsness, and more. A cast which includes Keir Dullea, Barbara Feldon, Peter Halpin, Neil Hickey, Peter Francis James, Khris Lewin, Malachy McCourt, Terry Moran and Sam Underwood perform the readings until about 9:30 pm.
Festivities continue with an after-party in Bar Thalia where guitarist Matt Stapleton, Dylan Foley (four-time All-Ireland fiddle champion), and Isaac Alderson (2002 All-Ireland flute, tin whistle, and pipes champion) will perform.
Up in Albany at the Irish American Heritage Museum (370 Broadway, Albany, NY) is the “Ulysses Seen”exhibit based on a comic adaptation of the 1922 edition of James Joyce’s epic by Robert Berry. Berry uses the visual aid of the graphic novel to foster understanding of public domain literary masterworks. He’s pointed out that “Ulysses Seen” isn’t meant to replace the original but rather it’s meant to be a visual companion to Joyce’s book. It uses the comic narrative to “cut through jungles of unfamiliar references” and to help readers “appreciate the subtlety and artistry” of Joyce’s text.
If you’ve wanted to read Ulysses, but have been intimidated by its size and density, this is a great new way to experience literature such as this. Original artwork in the form of bookmarks are available to buy. In addition, Bloomsday evening at the Museum begins at 6 pm and then continues on a local pub crawl, where participants receive one drink and will be regaled by extracts from the famous book and songs about Dublin. It costs $30.
Finally, the day continues into Sunday, the 17th, at a Post-Bloomsday Celebration in McNally Jackson Books at 52 Prince Street in New York’s Soho district. Starting 4 pm, Emmy-winning screenwriter, critic and novelist, Robert J. Seidman celebrates Leopold Bloom’s odyssey. Author of the novel “Moments Captured” he is also co-author, with Don Gifford, of “Ulysses Annotated” and thus has a bit to say about Joyce.
Obviously, the best was to celebrate Joyce is to grab a copy of the book and try to wend your way through it. Once done you can backtrack to his previous novel,”A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1916) and his even more obtuse and intellectually challenging re-definition of the novel, “Finnegans Wake” (1939).
Born on February 2nd, 1882, at 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, Dublin, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was the foremost purveyor of stream-of-consciousness writing and basically wrote in ways no one had ever written before and became undoubtably one of the 20th century’s most important authors. Though he’s been dead since January 13th, 1941, his impact still resonates. For some, reading Joyce is a life-long challenge, for other he’s worthy of a day’s drunken literary adventuring.