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!


In the Footsteps of Leopold Bloom

Yesterday, on Day 2 of Dublin, Mr. Shifflett and I took two walking tours with the James Joyce Centre. The first was the Joyce Circular, which covered some highlights of Joyce’s life and a few locations from several of his works; the second was In the Footsteps of Leopold Bloom, which covered Bloom’s journey through the city in a single chapter of Ulysses.

Before I tell you about the walking tours, though, I should tell you that we did all of this with full bellies: we dined on the majesty of the Full Irish before leaving for our day’s journey. If you’ve never heard of or enjoyed a Full Irish, here’s what it is: it’s a Full Irish Breakfast. Eggs (fried or scrambled), bacon, sausage patties, a sausage link the size of a hot dog, baked beans, and a baked tomato. And several slices of toast. The idea is that when you eat a Full Irish, you feel full – for the rest of the day. Baked beans may sound weird for breakfast, but they are delicious. Beans on toast, beans on egg, beans on sausage, beans on everything. All of this should be enjoyed with several cups of tea. (Yes, for those of you who know what a coffee fiend I am, I have been drinking tea, and plenty of it.)

With the Full Irish under our belts, we took walking tour #1, which took us around some lovely Georgian streets (if you look at Dublin Mapped, we started at N Great George’s Street, walked north-ish to see Joyce’s school Belvedere College, around back to pass St. George’s Church (which figures in the first Bloom chapter of Ulysses), over to Eccles Street where Leopold Bloom lived, past playwright Sean O’Casey’s birthplace, down to the building where “The Boarding House” took place in Dubliners, and down O’Connell Street (which is like the grand boulevard of Dublin) to the statue of Joyce. I have a few pictures for you:

First, the types of buildings we were seeing everywhere on our walk: lovely restored/maintained Georgian buildings.

Georgian Dublin Buildings

Next, the James Joyce statue:

James Joyce Statue, Dublin

Finally, St. George’s Church:

St. George’s Church, Dublin

Now, we noticed something funny about the church. It has four clocks on the tower, and they’re all stopped at different times, seemingly randomly. One is at 2:43, or something like that. But the clock on the front is stopped at 8 o’clock… and when Leopold Bloom hears the bells of this church in his first chapter in Ulysses, guess what hour they’re tolling? If you guessed 8 o’clock, you’re right, and hopefully you’re as mystified/excited as we were. THE SPIRIT OF JAMES JOYCE LIVES IN DUBLIN AND WANTED TO JOIN US ON OUR TOUR!

Our second tour was Leopold Bloom’s journey through the Laestrygonians chapter of Ulysses, and it was really cool. Seriously. If you remember your Homer, you know the Laestrygonians were giant cannibals who devoured many of Odysseus’s men. This chapter in Ulysses is about Bloom’s hunger and how he stops for lunch, but it’s also about the bodily hunger of Dubliners who were destitute/starving, and the intellectual and spiritual hunger of a city looking for meaning. Beyond that, the physical path Leopold Bloom walks – straight down O’Connell over the Liffey River, around the curves of D’Olier and College Streets past Trinity College, down Grafton Street, and turning on Nassau and then on Kildare to end at the National Library – actually reflects digestion! Look at the map and check out the straight stretches (O’Connell is the esophagus), the curves (D’Olier and College are peristalsis), the end stretches (Grafton, Nassau, and Kildare become the intestines and the end stop).

Okay, that sounds weird, but it’s really cool. James Joyce knew his city so well, even writing from a foreign country – that’s right, he wrote Ulysses while living in Europe – he could remember the streets, their shops, and the monuments, and could map out a perfect route that reflected the symbolic content of his chapter. He’s one smart dude.


The city has installed these plaques in the sidewalk to mark Bloom’s journey in this chapter:

Bloom’s Footsteps Plaques

A view of the city from the south bank of the Liffey, looking over the river to O’Connell Street:

View from the Liffey

The tours were amazing – I felt like I learned a lot, which is saying… well, something. My knowledge of Joyce and Irish history is okay, but it’s not my specialty, so all of the things we’re doing have something to teach me, which is awesome.

Next up: a play review of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and then I need to get out of here and have some adventures today.

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.

Mrs. Shifflett’s Really In Ireland!

I arrived yesterday morning at 7:45 a.m. Irish time (that’s 2:45 our time), and to try to ward off jet lag, threw myself into a day full of getting to know Dublin.

If you’ve never travelled internationally, jet lag is the phenomenon where you travel to a different time zone, but your body’s still on home time. So when I arrived at 7:45 a.m. Irish time, my body still though I had a few more hours to sleep before I should have to get up and march around a new city. The thing is, though, if you arrive in a new time zone and don’t try to move with that time immediately, you’re likely to end up doing weird things like sleeping all day and staying up all night. So when we arrived at our hotel, we took a short nap, and then got up to walk around the city.

Grafton Street

Grafton Street

We ended up exploring Grafton Street, which is a posh pedestrian shopping avenue; taking a City Sightseeing bus tour around Dublin (one of the big, red, open-top buses; they aren’t just in London!); and doing a brief literary walking tour of the Grafton area. (If you’d like to see a map of the city, click here.)

Here’s what I loved most about day 1: the literature. Dublin has a campaign called One City, One Book, where the whole city reads the same book together. This year’s choice? James Joyce’s Dubliners, of course. (What better to read when you’re in Dublin?) But even more than that, the city is full of literary life. Every pub has pictures and quotes from famous authors who visited or wrote there; every tour guide is full of anecdotes of writers’ lives. Our evening literary tour guide had a great story about Oscar Wilde being a boxing champ in his youth… who knew? Even our taxi driver had read some Joyce! We talked about Ulysses, of all things, as he took us to our hotel in the morning. You’ve got to love a city where the taxi drivers and publicans are fluent in Joyce.

Today, Mr. Shifflett and I are off on two more walking tours, this time specific to James Joyce. The first is a Joyce Circular, to get a feel for important locations in the life of James Joyce. The second is called In the Footsteps of Leopold Bloom, which will make us more familiar with where the events of Ulysses take place. Both of these tours are with the James Joyce Centre, which is organizing all of the really nerdy awesome stuff we’ll be doing for Bloomsday. Tonight, theater buffs, we’ll be seeing David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross at the Gate Theatre.

Next post: all about Ulysses, which I finally finished. Tonight (or your afternoon): updates on the walking tours and a play review.

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.