Happy Bloomsday!

Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa!

Yesterday was Bloomsday, the day dedicated to celebrating and re-enacting James Joyce’s Ulysses. Because his novel takes place on a single day – June 16, 1904 – every June 16, people from all over the world gather to re-enact the novel and celebrate its publication and its author.  While we didn’t go in costume, we met people who were in full Edwardian regalia, and talked to people from all over Ireland and Great Britain as well as from America, France, Holland, Germany, Australia, and a number of other places. We even saw the Lord Mayor of Dublin and met an Irish Senator!

As Leopold Bloom catalogued his day, here’s ours:

We started with a Bloomsday breakfast at the famous Gresham Hotel, where we dined on a traditional Irish breakfast – including the kidneys Bloom ate for his breakfast, and black and white pudding (and no, that’s not Jell-O, kids). Mr. Shifflett and I were fortunate enough to sit with our friends from earlier in the week (the professor of zoology is Penny, and the surfer dude is Igor). We also met an Irish couple, who were musicians, and two young Irish women who’d moved to the city from Cork and who dressed up in costume for this every year. As we dined, suddenly, actors rushed in and began noisily and humorously reenacting key scenes from the book.

Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan get their morning milk. Re-enactment in front of the James Joyce Center.

We would see these actors again throughout the day. Our next stop was the James Joyce Center, where we knocked on the door of No. 7 Eccles Street and then skipped out through the crowds.

Knocking at No. 7 Eccles Street – the real door!

We had planned on taking yet another walking tour with the James Joyce Center, but it was really crowded, and Igor told us he’d heard that Senator David Norris, the renowned Joycean scholar of Trinity College who’d become a politician, was speaking at the National Library in a free lecture. We booked it over to the National Library and just barely got seats for what ended up being a really incredible discussion!

Senator Norris was an incredible public speaker with a thick Irish accent and a charismatic, theatrical manner. He told us about his first encounter with Joyce’s work, regaled us with funny tales of Ulysses‘s publication and how it had to be sold under the counter (because while it wasn’t strictly illegal – at least, not once it was finally allowed in the country! – it was still considered controversial), and showed us the human side of Joyce. He said that anyone who thought Joyce was unkind, or self-obsessed, or cut off from emotion, should just look at Joyce’s love for his daughter, Lucia, and how desperately he tried to find a doctor who could successfully treat her schizophrenia. He also talked about the passion readers feel for Joyce’s work: how Paul Léon, the Russian Jew who was one of Joyce’s closest friends and his business manager, returned at his own risk to Joyce’s French apartment ahead of the Nazi invasion to save his papers and manuscripts. (Léon was, in fact, later captured by Nazis and killed on the way to Auschwitz, but his son Alex considers his father’s relationship with Joyce and the saving of the papers to be a huge honor.) We ended the session by learning that the first Bloomsday was actually organized in secret, because the book was still so controversial and considered to be in “bad taste” – a fitting joke, considering it’s practically a national holiday now!

We followed Senator Norris to St. Stephen’s Green, where he gave a short speech to welcome readers and listeners alike to Joycean readings and songs in the Green.

Senator Norris welcomes Bloomsday readers and listeners, and reads from Finnegan’s Wake himself.

We heard readings from Irish men and women (and people of other nationalities as well) from such chapters as “Circe,” “Cyclops,” “Penelope,” and “Proteus.” There were also songs – members of the opera sang “I Dreamt I Dwelt” (from “Clay”), “Love’s Old Sweet Song” (from Ulysses), and “Jerusalem” (based on William Blake’s poem). It was cold and windy and a little drizzly, but we and hundreds of other people stuck it out to listen to and laugh at the wonders of James Joyce.

Mother and daughters in Bloomsday costume.

At least Mr. Shifflett and I were warmly dressed – a lot of people were still in costume!

Young couple in Bloomsday costume.

The highlight of the day, though, was meeting James Joyce.

Yep, that’s me and James Joyce.

Mr. Joyce was very kind and talkative, and surprisingly eager to chat with me about his works.

James Joyce was so chatty!

I now know all the secrets of his works, and will be torturing you, my students, with even more James Joyce in the coming year. You’ll love it.

After three hours of readings in the cold, we closed the ceremonies, and Mr. Shifflett and I bid farewell to James Joyce, Senator Norris, Penny, Igor, and our other friends, and sallied forth to find a cup of tea to warm up. We ended the night listening to traditional Irish music in O’Donoghue’s nearby – a real Irish jam session, with three guitars, a banjo, a fiddle, an Irish flute, a tin whistle, and a concertina, just a random assortment of men and women who got together to play a few tunes. It was the perfect end to the day.

Happy Bloomsday, everyone!


Book: Ulysses

Well, students, I did it. I finished Ulysses. All 783 pages of it.

James Joyce’s Ulysses

“Oh, Mrs. Shifflett,” you’ll say, “what’s so hard about that? We read long books all the time. We’re brilliant.” Well, yes, you are, but this book is different. Each chapter of Ulysses is written in a different style, from blustering, bloviating, overblown prose, to stylized Middle English, to David Lynch-esque dialogue with creepy stage directions, to 40 pages of stream-of-consciousness monologue with nary a punctuation mark to be seen. Did I also mention that the allusions are miles thick, there are multiple languages incorporated, and you frequently have no idea what’s going on?

Now you’re saying, “This book sounds awful! Why would anyone want to read that?” Well, why would anyone want to run a marathon? You prepare for months, or years, and push yourself to the limit for not much other than personal glory at the end. Reading this book is the same way. Now I get to walk around Dublin and really get the literary references to Ulysses. But even more than that, I have the satisfaction of having read and studied one of the most difficult books ever written in the English language: a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey as a single day’s adventure in the life of Leopold Bloom.

Beyond that, though, I have to say that I enjoyed it. I’ve always had a thing for banned books, and Joyce struggled for a decade to get Ulysses published; it was called inappropriate, inaccessible, illegible, or just plain bad. (It’s not. It’s brilliant.) And while reading it, not only did I get to see Stephen Dedalus from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man again; I also kept running into characters from Dubliners. It was very Wizard of Oz: “And you were there, and you, and you!” It was like seeing old friends, even the characters you didn’t like very much. And while I usually find Joyce depressing (all modernism is depressing to me, really), I have to say that I felt uplifted at the end of this novel; hopeful, even. Maybe that’s my mistake in reading it, but I felt like despite all the misadventures of Bloom and Stephen, there was something hopeful and forward-looking at the end of the book.

More on Ulysses this week as I traipse the city like Bloom.

Book: Meeting the Other Crowd

As most fans of fairy tales and folklore know, Ireland is full of mystical tales and spirits – some helpful, some harmful, and some just plain mischievous.  In Ireland, they are often known as the Sídhe (or aos sí , the people of the mounds), but are also called faeries/fairies, the gentry, or simply the other folk.

Meeting the Other Crowd, by Eddie Lenihan

Meeting the Other Crowd, by Eddie Lenihan

Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland is a collection of orally shared fairy stories passed from generation to generation in rural Ireland. Eddie Lenihan is the archivist, while Carolyn Eve Green helped arrange and edit the collection once it was written down; Lenihan is Irish, and in the preface to his book, proudly describes his staunch belief in the other crowd’s existence and power, even in modern times.

The book is easy to read and vividly presented, because the dialect of the speakers and even their Gaelic vocabulary is preserved in these  stories. You can imagine yourself sitting by a fire in a cottage somewhere, hearing a grandmother or grandfather tell about their own brush with the good folk. Sometimes the fairies are helpful, like when they lead a man to a lost cow or sheep, or when they offer gifts. Sometimes, on the other hand, they can harm, especially if you get in the way of one of their paths or, worst of all, disturb a fairy fort (also known as a fairy ring). Sometimes they’ll “sweep” a human, meaning they’ll steal someone away – a beautiful woman, a handsome young man, or an infant they’ll change out for one of their own children. You might be able to enter their land for a short time – but be careful, because if you taste their food or drink, you have to stay with them forever.

I really enjoyed this as an introduction to Irish folklore, and some of the stories were definitely spooky – while some others were downright funny. (It actually reminded me of the ghosts and legends section of The Foxfire Book and its eleven subsequent editions; those books are similarly archived oral tales of “just plain living” in southern Appalachia, and your grandparents or great-grandparents might recognize a few things in there!) I’m hoping to find another book to supplement my knowledge of Irish folklore, maybe one that focuses more on mythological cycles and famous heroes, like Cú Chulainn  or Finn MacCool.

Book: The Search for God and Guinness

I didn’t just read Irish fiction to get ready for my trip; I also read up on the history of the country, which is complicated, to say the least. Everything seems to be political – the religion(s), the music, the symbolism, the architecture, the literature… even the beer has its place in history and politics!

This is how I ended up reading Stephen Mansfield’s The Search for God and Guinness, which I mistakenly picked up thinking it was a straightforward history of the Guinness family and their beer, but which turned out to be an examination of how the Guinness’s faith  influenced their business practices.

Stephen Mansfield's The Search for God and Guinness

Stephen Mansfield’s The Search for God and Guinness

Mansfield’s book began with Arthur Guinness (1725-1803), the founder of the Guinness brewery, who created the recipe for “the black stuff” that has become so famous around the world, and so synonymous with Irish beer. Back in the day, virtually everyone brewed their own beer; it was often safer to drink than water, and was part of daily life. Pubs, or public houses, operated in every city and county across Ireland, and were popular meeting places after work, where men would come to drink the beer that was often brewed by the pub itself. In Dublin, at the famous brewery at St. James’s Gate, Arthur Guinness began brewing his dry stout and selling it to pubs, where it was not only popular because of the taste, but because of its “health benefits” – Guinness was less likely to get people harmfully or dangerously intoxicated than the cheap gin that was prevalent across the country. In fact, Guinness was marketed as a health drink, with the tagline ” Guinness is Good for You.”

The Guinness family was motivated by a strong Christian faith and by a desire to do good for their city, their country,  and their people. Arthur Guinness actually heard John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination, preach in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and was inspired by Wesley’s call to do good with his wealth – so that’s exactly what Arthur and all subsequent owners of the brewery would do. Guinness brewery workers enjoyed excellent health care, as did their families, and health inspectors and educators would visit their homes to help them learn how to keep them clean and prevent the spread of disease. Guinness arranged for educational courses on housekeeping, safety, sanitation, and personal development for women, believing that a home would rise to the level of education and success of its mother. They paid for workers and their families to have a holiday in the country, getting them out of the city and into the fresh air. Workers who left to fight in World Wars I and II returned home to find their jobs waiting and their families well cared for by the company. In fact, during World War II, Guinness provided every British soldier with a pint of Guinness for his Christmas meal, to give them a taste of home during troubled times.

This is a really interesting, short book – a quick read that will give you a glimpse into a specific (and very uplifting!) angle of Irish history and accomplishment.


Book: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats

For a change of pace, I read The Collected Poems of W. B Yeats, edited by Richard J. Finneran.

The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats

I had read a little bit of Yeats through college – mostly famous ones, like “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “The Second Coming”. But I hadn’t read widely in his work (like, say, many of us have in Shakespeare). But I should have! Yeats (1865-1939) is known as an Irish statesman, poet, and playwright, as well as the winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature, who founded the Abbey Theatre (the national theater of Ireland, located in Dublin) and served as a significant force in the Irish Literary Revival. He was, to put it simply, a pretty important dude.

Yeats’s poetry is arranged chronologically through this book, so you can see the different phases of his body of work. The first phase plays on his interest in Irish legends (there are some poems about the Other Folk, the faery folk of Ireland) as well as in the occult. His poems became more realistic after he matured some, and often describe the (not necessarily simple) pleasures of country life, recalling his childhood in County Sligo. One of the remarkable features of his poetry is their rhythm and lyricism – they often read like songs, and should definitely be read aloud on occasion. Don’t let anyone give you weird looks… just subdue them with the magic of his verse, or threaten them with being swept by the faeries if they insult such a great Irish poet.

I highly recommend any and all of Yeats’s poetry. Students of mine will read a little with me in 9th grade, and a little more in AP English.

Book: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The next book on my list was another James Joyce masterpiece: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Cover of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

You’ve probably heard of this one before. (In fact, I think there’s a Family Guy episode about Brian, titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.) It’s a famously semi-autobiographical account of James Joyce’s early life, education, adolescent misadventures, and dreams of fame as a writer. The central character, Stephen Dedalus, makes his way through life as a very challenging and unique third-person narrative matures with him. The narrative voice is astute and precocious at first in his young years, then becomes clearer and more mature as Stephen ages, until he reaches manhood and we finally read Stephen’s own words – his diary – at the end.

What’s cool about this book is that it was heavily censored while Joyce was trying to get it published, and was banned in many places afterwards. The realistic but not graphic description of a teenage boy’s life in Dublin – I’ll let you read it and find out what publishers objected to – was enough to hold up the book’s publication for years. Today, it seems positively modest when compared to what we see in even PG-13 movies, but back then, it was totally scandalous. This is a reason you should love this book (along with many, many other classics, including To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, and even Harry Potter and The Hunger Games) is because it was banned, and who doesn’t love to carry around a banned book? It’s your own act of personal expression and intellectual rebellion… much like Stephen Dedalus himself!

I also read this book because Stephen Dedalus appears in Ulysses. Intellectually and literarily, Ulysses is the zenith of my preparations, and I had/have to work up to it slowly.

Book: Dubliners

The first book I read to get ready for the trip was James Joyce’s Dubliners.

Dubliners, by James Joyce.

Now, I had definitely read this before. I read it once as a high schooler in my own AP English Literature class, and totally hated it. I believe I threw the copy across the room when I finished “The Dead.” (“It’s SO DEPRESSING!” was my explanation when my mom asked what on earth was wrong with me.) I read it again as a college undergraduate in a modern British literature class, and tolerated it. And then, for some unfathomable reason, I decided to torment my AP students with it. Probably because it’s a great work of literature, or the language is really challenging, or it’s the definitive example of the epiphany, or something like that. And in rereading it with my students – especially this year, with my stronger background knowledge of Irish history around the early 20th century – I loved it.

What’s to love about Dubliners? It’s a collection of short stories about the lives of people who live in Dublin, but it also reflects what it’s like to grow from childhood into adolescence into adulthood, and how difficult that growth can be. It’s pretty depressing, but it’s beautifully written. Joyce tried to throw you a bone in there, too – he always said that he wrote the final story, “The Dead,” as an uplifting coda to the stories. Whether or not it’s uplifting, you’ll have to decide for yourself. And you should, because even if you don’t read it in my class, or even if you don’t know a lot of Irish history, you can still get a lot from the stories. They’re written in a way that’s pretty easy to understand (especially compared to Joyce’s novels, like Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake), and the way Joyce writes really is beautiful. You’ll be a better person for attempting some Joyce. Trust me.