Dublin has always been famous for its literary history and a close-knit relationship with some of the most well-known writers of our time. One of those writers is the famous Irish novelist James Joyce, whose novel Ulysses is still celebrated to this day through the Bloomsday Festival in Dublin.
What is Bloomsday?
Bloomsday is a celebration of the life of acclaimed writer James Joyce. The event is held every year on 16 June, the day his novel Ulysses takes place in 1904, which also happens to be the date of his first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle. The festival is named after the protagonist of the novel Leopold Bloom.
“Every year hundreds of Dubliners dress as characters from the book … as if to assert their willingness to become one with the text. They re-enact scenes in Eccles Street, Ormond Quay and Sandycove’s Martello Tower. It is quite impossible to imagine any other masterpiece of modernism having quite such an effect on the life of a city,” an article in The Guardian states.
When Did Bloomsday Begin?
The first celebration was held in 1924 as Joyce wrote in a letter to Miss Weaver referring to “a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day – 16 June”.
The 50th anniversary of the events in the novel came in 1954, so artist and critic John Ryan, along with novelist Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, Tom Joyce (a cousin of the author) and AJ Leventhal (a lecturer in French at Trinity College, Dublin) organised a trip following the Ulysses route.
They even brought along two old-fashioned horse-drawn cabs, similar to those used by Mr Bloom and his friends drive to Paddy Dignam’s funeral in the book Ulysses. Each person in the group was assigned a role from the novel as follows: Cronin stood in for Stephen Dedalus, O’Nolan for his father Simon Dedalus, John Ryan for the journalist Martin Cunningham, and A.J. Leventhal, who was playing the role of Leopold Bloom.
They planned to start their journey around Dublin at the Martello tower at Sandycove (where the novel begins), then they would visit each location that was featured in the novel until they end up at what had once been the brothel quarter of the city. The area was named Nighttown by Joyce.
Sadly, the journey was abandoned at the Bailey pub in the city centre, as the weary pilgrims succumbed to inebriation.
The reputation of Bloomsday continued to grow and expand then in 1956, English poet Ted Hughes and American poet Sylvia Plath were married by special license on 16 June in honour of Bloomsday.
On Bloomsday in 1982, the centenary of Joyce’s birth, Irish state broadcaster RTÉ transmitted a continuous 30-hour dramatic performance of Ulysses on the radio.
A five-month-long festival, titled ReJoyce Dublin 2004, took place in Dublin between 1 April and 31 August of that year on the centennial of the fictional events described in the book. 10,000 people showed up at the festival in Dublin.
The one-day festival includes several cultural activities, such as Ulysses readings and dramatisations, pub crawls and other events, some of it hosted by the James Joyce Centre in North Great George’s Street. Admirers of Joyce’s work often dress up in Edwardian clothing to celebrate Bloomsday.
They spend the day walking the same path that the novel’s protagonist took around Dublin and visiting several of its landmarks, such as Davy Byrne’s pub. Marathon readings of the entire novel are also held, some lasting up to 36 hours!
The James Joyce Tower and Museum
The James Joyce Tower and Museum at Sandycove is the location where the opening chapter of Ulysses takes place, which is why it’s the hub of many of the activities held on Bloomsday, including theatrical performances, musical events, and readings from Joyce’s masterpiece.
The Tower was named after the author who spent six nights there from September 9 to 14 in 1904, inspiring the opening scenes of his novel Ulysses. The Tower was managed by the British War Office, but it was leased by Joyce’s university friend Oliver St. John Gogarty. The tower has become a must-visit for Joyce enthusiasts, especially on Bloomsday.
A museum dedicated to Joyce has been established inside the tower, displaying some of his possessions and memorabilia associated with Ulysses. The interior living space is set up to resemble its 1904 décor.
The Tower itself was built in the early 19th century as a defensive stronghold against the Napoleonic invasion. It opened as a museum on 16 June 1962. Nowadays, it is open to visitors every day of the week free of charge.
It offers panoramic views of the south coast of Dublin and “the awakening mountains” as Joyce refers to them in Telemachus, the opening chapter in Ulysses.
What to do and Where to go on Bloomsday?
If you’re unsure of exactly how to start your Bloomsday journey, then read on:
Dublin’s Northside: James Joyce’s old neighbourhood:
Most Bloomsday festival goers start their day with the traditional Bloomsday Breakfast, the same that Leopold Bloom had for breakfast in the ‘Calypso’ chapter of the novel. Another option is to visit the Glasnevin Cemetery to re-enact the ‘Hades’ episode. In the novel, Leopold Bloom and his friends travel to Glasnevin to attend Paddy Dignam’s funeral. In real life, Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce is buried there as well.
Tours of the cemetery are available on Bloomsday where the Hades episode is read right there where it takes place.
Many walking tours of the city are offered throughout the day. You can purchase the tickets at the James Joyce Centre. You can also go on a self-guided tour at the GPO on O’Connell Street to browse the Witness History Museum for a glimpse into life during Ulyssean times in Dublin. Another option is to go on the Bloomsday Monto Walking Tour to explore the former red-light district of Dublin.
Feel free to join the Bloomsday body painting activities as an artist or a model and join the parade that moves to the traditional Bloomsday Readings and Songs on Wolfe Tone Square.
If you want some more artistic venues, visit the Olivier Cornet Gallery for exhibits inspired by food references to food in Joyce’s works. The gallery is only a 2-minute from the James Joyce Centre.
By the time the afternoon rolls around, you might need some refreshments, so you can walk back to the James Joyce Centre for their afternoon tea or you can visit Phibsboro, where Joyce and his father lived at various addresses, for their Bloomsday Celebrations.
To round out the night, you may want to have one of Barney Kiernan’s cocktails at Bar 1661, which is located right next to where the original pub mentioned in the ‘Cyclops’ chapter used to be.
You can also spend your day in the south side of the city by having breakfast at Boxty House, and later on heading over to the Bloomsday Villages for brunch at Bewley’s Café which also puts on Joyce performances.
Like in the northside, you can also choose your option of walking tours like Walk with Mr Bloom, the Balloonatics or Dublin Ulysses Tours to walk through Joyce’s Dublin.
You can’t have a tour of Joycean Dublin without having a drink at Davy Byrne’s, just like Leopold Bloom and listen to people reading and singing from Ulysses on Duke Street.
Later on in the afternoon, you can watch the international guest performance of bloominauschwitz at the New Theatre in Temple Bar.
For art lovers, you can head to the Merrion Square Artists to browse through and possibly buy a Joycean painting. While you’re shopping, you can stop by Sweny’s Chemist to buy some lemon soap just like Leopold Bloom did in ‘Lotus Eaters’.
In the evening, the Bloomsday Blowout Cabaret is held to end the day’s festivities with a bang.
Seaside Villages in South Dublin:
For a bit of a different experience along the coast, you can spend the day in the seaside villages in South Dublin. You can actually take a dip in the Forty Foot bathing area in Sandycove, just like ‘Buck’ Mulligan did in the opening chapter of Ulysses. The James Joyce Tower and Museum are very close by so make sure to stop there as well.
Sandycove village has some of the best food you’ll taste on Bloomsday. Or, you can sample Bloomsday Breakfast in Sandymount, where the ‘Proteus’ and ‘Nausicaa’ chapters take place and join the celebrations held there as well.
For athletes or those who enjoy a good bike ride, you can join the Bloomsday Bike Ride for a cycle tour to Sandycove to join the street party there.
Also consider taking an excursion to Howth, a fishing village on the outskirts of Dublin, and visit Howth Head, a cliff-side trail overlooking the sea. This is the same location where Leo proposed to Molly Bloom as she recalls in the novel.
In the evening, it’s time for some theatrical entertainment at Blackrock with live street performances.
Wherever you may choose to go on Bloomsday, make sure you don’t miss Bloomsday night back in the City Centre. Sit down at one of Dublin’s literary pubs, or stroll along the Liffey towards the James Joyce House on Usher’s Island, the house that is featured in James Joyce’s short story “The Dead”. It will surely be a night to remember!
How to Dress Like an Edwardian?
If you’re thinking of joining the Bloomsday Festival street carnival, then you can also take the opportunity to show up in costume, all decked out like an Edwardian gent or lady since the novel is set in 1904. Don’t worry, achieving the Edwardian look is not so very difficult.
Here are some tips on how to do so using your own wardrobe in case you don’t fancy renting an outfit from a costume shop.
For the ladies, simply put on a long skirt with a belt and a long-sleeved blouse with bows or ruffles on top. If you want to add some accessories to the outfit, you can wear a big shawl or some lace gloves, and grab a small handbag or a straw hat decorated with flowers.
For the gentlemen, you can wear simple dark trousers, a white shirt and a waistcoat, or you can also add a bowtie or a cravat, a cane and a straw boater or cap.
Bloomsday’s Hidden Gems
Aside from the iconic locations from Ulysses, there are also some hidden gems to be found at the Bloomsday Festival. For example, in the novel, Leopold Bloom, references the Dunsink Observatory. You can visit the original meridian room of the observatory, for The Heaventree of Stars – a Bloomsday celebration of astronomy, maths, music and science in Ulysses. You can experience the Nestor chapter in Dalkey on a walk around the seaside town at the Dalkey Bloomsday Festival.
Why Join Bloomsday?
If you’re not a literature buff, then scroll right past this article altogether, but if you are, then you should be aware of at least some of the reasons why events like Bloomsday are important. First of all, it gives you the chance to reacquaint yourself with Ireland’s most famous and beloved author.
Bloomsday can be treated as a fun crash-course on both Joyce and Ulysses. You can find out more about Ireland’s most famous banned book and its author through the many performances held throughout the day. A lot of literature students and book lovers can learn more about the novel and delve deeper into it through the live performances with performers often dressed in character and even acting out the scenes in the real locations as mentioned in the book.
You’ll be able to step back in time by dressing up in Edwardian costumes to go back to the time where the events in the novel take place and touring some of Dublin’s oldest buildings and get acquainted with the capital city. Joyce once said that he wanted to create a very detailed picture of Dublin that could be recreated from his book even if it were ever destroyed.
So, it makes sense that on the day that celebrates his most beloved work, people are encouraged to tour the city and learn more about it.
Also, you can join any street party held around Dublin or its suburbs on that day or have a celebratory breakfast at Caviston’s as many do. Since its inception over 60 years ago, Bloomsday has been celebrated by local Dubliners, so if you’re on a trip to Ireland during that time, it could be a great way to meet some of the locals and make new friends.
There’s something there for food lovers as well. During Bloomsday Festival, many of the venues mentioned in Ulysses, like Davy Byrne’s pub, serve food and drink from the era, so it’s a chance to taste some unique cuisine that you may not find throughout the rest of the year.
Bloomsday in Pop Culture
The novel’s popularity has extended to film and television over the years. In the 1968 film ‘The Producers’, Gene Wilder’s character is called Leo Bloom, after the protagonist Leopold Bloom. The same is done with the film’s 2005 musical remake.
In 1984, punk band Minutemen released a song entitled “June 16th”, named after Bloomsday. Even cartoons alluded to the novel once or twice. A 2009 episode of The Simpsons, “In the Name of the Grandfather”, featured the family’s trip to Dublin and Lisa’s reference to Bloomsday.
As for the music industry, U2’s 2009 song “Breathe” refers to events taking place on a fictitious 16 June.
An Insight into James Joyce and What Ulysses is About and Why it Was Banned
James Joyce was born in 1882 in the south Dublin suburb of Rathgar. He attended University College Dublin and was an excellent student. In 1904, he lived around Europe, particularly in Trieste, Paris, and Zürich. Although he spent a lot of time outside of Ireland, his writings usually centred on Dublin and his characters are mostly inspired by friends and family members. Leopold Bloom in Ulysses is said to be modelled after an acquaintance of Joyce’s father.
Ulysses is set in the streets and alleyways of Dublin. Joyce himself said, “For myself, I always write about Dublin because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”
When he was 22 years old, he spent those six nights at the Martello Tower, which would later be named after him, with some of his friends, but after an incident where one of the said friends work up from a nightmare where he saw a black panther ready to shoot his with a gun, Joyce left the Tower never to return. This set the scene for the opening of Ulysses where Joyce mentions the Museum and the black panther incident.
James Joyce has authored some of the most famous and innovative works in literary history. His collection of short stories Dubliners was published in 1914 depicts Irish middle-class life in Dublin in the early 20th century.
Joyce died on January 13, 1941, following complications from an operation on his ulcer. He is buried in Zurich alongside his wife and son.
Ulysses is a modernist novel that was first serialised in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920 and then published in Paris in 1922. In the novel, we follow the protagonist Leopold Bloom around Dublin over the course of one day, 16 June 1904.
Ulysses is heavily inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, as comparisons are drawn between the experiences of Bloom and Odysseus. It also relies heavily on themes of modernism, as well as Ireland’s relationship with Britain.
Since its publication, the book has been a matter of controversy. Objections to some of its content led to a prosecution for obscenity under the Comstock Act of 1873,
The novel was even banned in the United Kingdom until 1936 and it was prosecuted in the US in 1920 for sexualised content and for a whole decade the US Post Office Department burned copies of the novel.
Finally, in 1933, it was ruled that the book was not pornographic and the US became the first English speaking country where the book was available. It was first openly available in Ireland in the 1960s due to the government applying restrictions on allowing it into the country.
Over the years, Ulysses has gained more and more fame with its many adaptations into films, TV series and theatrical performances, all over the world and Bloomsday have helped spread its fame even wider.
Final Thoughts of Bloomsday
In the end, Bloomsday is a crash course in all things, Joyce, as you delve into the world of Ulysses and its characters. Even if you’re not a literature lover, you will enjoy the multiple street parties and the opportunity to dress up in glamorous apparel from a different era.
Bloomsday has something for everyone, so you’ll have a grand time whether you love literature, theatrical performances, music or Irish cuisine. What’s more, is that it’s a fantastic opportunity to become acquainted with Dublin and its suburbs as you tour the city that inspired James Joyce’s masterpiece and perhaps you can make some new friends along the way as you’ll meet plenty of people who have the same interests celebrating around the city.
Even though Joyce himself spent much of his life outside of Ireland, his story is entirely centred on Dublin, so much so that it seems as though he was trying to imprint it into his own mind and the minds of his readers as well.
Ulysses is the story of a guy called Leopold Bloom, who strolls around Dublin on 16th June 1904. Therefore, Bloomsday celebrates and recreates his journey around the city, from Sandycove to Dublin’s northside. So, even if you’re not an avid reader or you’ve never heard of Joyce or his 700-page tome Ulysses (although that’s hard to believe), there’s still so much to see and do in Dublin as part of Bloomsday celebrations.