Bloom is a Cod: A Bloomsday DiaryThis year was the centenary of James Joyce’s Bloomsday -- a day famous in literature for the fictional voyage through Dublin by Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s also the day the author got a handjob on his first date with his future wife Nora Barnacle. I went to Dublin to cover the 100 year centenary for the Canadian book channel, Book Television. My goal was to travel around the city, following the events of the book more or less in the same order to see how the Celtic Tiger would celebrate each stop. I found myself caught up in a sticky, messy spectacle of epic proportions. Read on.
8:00 AM Telemachus/Calypso
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stair head, bearing a bowl of lather, etc;” Many would-be readers are familiar with these lines, and haven’t got much further than them. This chapter takes place in nearby Sandycove on top of a Martello Tower surrounded by the snotgreen, scrotum-tightening sea. We’re introduced to prissy student Stephen Daedalus and his slacker pals. They chatter about Ireland and have some breakfast. At the same time, in Chapter 4, Calypso, at the house on 7 Eccles Street Leopold Bloom is cooking up his breakfast, kidneys faintly tanged with urine, for himself and his wife Molly. Mmmn.
We wanted to make it down to the Martello Tower to catch the re-enactments of all of these sacred breakfast-rituals, but alas, last night’s Guinness had other plans. So instead at this time we were rolling down to Sandycove on the DART railway, nursing hangovers and hoping some Joycenalia would still be waiting for us. We had missed the biggest celebration of Joyce nosh-ups, which had happened the previous Sunday. The ReJoyce group, who coordinated over five months worth of events, had set-up a sausage breakfast for 10,000 on Dublin’s main drag O’Connell Street, right underneath their commemorative Millennium Spire (which incidentally was only completed last year).
10:00 AM Nestor/ The Lotus Eaters
In the second chapter, Stephen leaves the tower and strolls down to the nearby suburb of Dalkey for his last round as a supply teacher. He gets dissed by an old headmaster, and decides that teaching ain’t for him. History, you see, is a nightmare he is trying to wake up from. Bloom, in the Lotus Eaters, has started perambulating the Dublin streets, picks up his mail, and has a weird jerk-off fantasy about taking a bath. I’m not too sure what that’s about.
We, on the other hand, have just about woken up, and are now walking down the sunny streets of Sandycove. Along the way there is a slow but steady trickling stream of septuagenarians, slipping their way down to the round stone tower by the beach. Things are really pretty here, it’s a beautiful day of endless blue skies. We pass many shops, a dry-cleaners and a butcher with Joyce-themed window displays.
A few straw-hat wearing locals are reading aloud from the book in front of shops. This is strange, as I had heard that all public readings of the book had been banned, and had to be cleared by the Joyce estate. Stephen Joyce, grand-son of James, has made a living, pulling in “Beckham-like amounts” from the onslaught of lawsuits he’s launched against copyright infringers. Amongst a few Joyce scholars and fans, Stephen is affectionately referred to as “the Antichrist." I wonder if we’ll see any more rebel readers.
It’s a fight to get in the tower, the former crash-pad of Joyce before he was kicked out by Buck Mulligan’s inspiration Oliver St. John Gogarty. Now it’s a Joyce Museum, with a recreated apartment inside just like the writer would have known, complete with era-specific Guinness bottles. The tower is swarming with mostly elderly people dressed up in their best approximation of 1904. Shawls, straw hats and funny bow-ties abound. Many of them are looking at a curious message spray-painted on the side of the tower: “Bloom is a Cod." The same phrase had also been tagged in other spots, closer to the city centre. I like the idea at least of Joyce-punks spreading literary graffiti but I’m not sure if that’s really what’s going on. One of the Old Bloomers explains that a “Cod” is an Irish phrase for a joke. None of them find this very funny.
The top of the tower is worth the fight: the view of the snotgreen, bluesilver and rust all is really quite inspiring. I can feel my scrotum tightening just looking at it. About forty people jostle, albeit politely, for room in a number of different languages. In addition to the Irish, there are Joyce-fans here from far and wide including Italy, Japan, and America. A group of five Norwegian ladies are here, dressed like exquisite doilies and hiding under white-lace dome parasols. They take turns reading from the book in their native tongue. They must be the first Bloomers from their country; Ulysses was translated there a scant ten years ago (which for some is about how long it takes to read). Everyone here seems to have come from a different connection. An Irish grandfather has brought his American grand-son to reconnect with his past. An old college-buddy from Chicago is visiting his Dubliner roommate for the first time in twenty years. There’s something to all this. But enough musing. After a few interviews, we squeeze our way down the stairs of the tower and out.
11:00 AM Proteus/ Hades
Stephen Daedalus leaves the school and takes a long walk along the beach at Sandymount strand. He gets caught up in the sounds of the sea on the rocks, something about the ineluctable modality of the visible, than he takes a piss. This is the chapter where most people give up on the book, unable to get through the wank-fest of Stephen’s poetically and academically-flexed mindscape. It really does get a lot better after this. Later, well at the same time really, in the Hades chapter, is when Bloom and Stephen cross paths for the first time. Bloom’s in a coach on his way to an old friend’s funeral (along with Stephen’s dad) and points out the spazzy student crunching along the beach.
We’ve been warned off Sandymount strand by the locals. Apparently it’s a really long detour, way off from public transit, just to visit a stony-beach. Sounds like a pain in ass, and the real action at this hour is in the pub anyway.
So we’re in a pub called Fitzgerald’s, along with all the old-folk we had just talked to on our way to the tower and what feels like half the town. The bar is illuminated by Ulysses-themed stain-glass windows, one for each of the book’s 18 chapters. Here everyone is taking a break, having their first or second pint, and singing rousing choruses, accompanied by accordion, of songs from Joyce’s time. You know, old classics like, “That’s Amore” and “It’s Now or Never." I always suspected Joyce was a fan of The King. We start to piece together why it’s mostly the elderly celebrating this event right now. Bloomsday is not yet an actual public holiday in Ireland, although many suspect that it will be soon, so everyone is still at work. Hopefully that’s when the wild Joyce fever will kick-in.
In this chapter both Bloom and Stephen blow into the offices of the Freeman’s Journal, a big Irish daily newspaper. Bloom’s there to sell some ad-copy, Stephen to learn why news-writing is not for him, all told in the wacky style of newspaper headlines. It’s hilarious, I swear. The Freeman’s Journal’s office is near the Dublin General Post Office on O’Connell Street, a site famous in Irish revolutionary history for the 1916 Easter Risings.
We didn’t make it out there either, we were too busy still drinking at the pub, having now moved outside to a large open-air tent. However, once outside we found Tim Pat Coogan, an Irish historian who was famous for his books about the IRA, as well as one of the definitive biographies of Michael Collins (from which Neil Jordan based his film). He was a cagey old devil and had a lot of good things to say about Joyce and nothing good at all about the writer’s estate. He also makes a crack about Molly Bloom, a banana and the nearby district of Glasthul (or as it is pronounced locally, “Glass Tool”) which makes us decide to leave.
We’re told that Sandycove is probably the best spot in Dublin to enjoy Bloomsday, at least during the day while most people are at work. It seems to be true -- it’s an entire separate Joyce-themed village, set up like one long street party. People are not only dressed up here, but they’ve dragged anything vaguely archaic including a fleet of turn of the century automobiles. Bloomers young old are drinking champagne on the street. A group of children goes by like a tiny parade -- apparently they were given the instruction that today they must dress up -- and their parents have done the best they could. One unfortunate lad’s burnt cork moustache makes him look like a junior Hitler.
1:00 PM Lestrygonians
Bloom walks around, feels his stomach grumbling, and after being disgusted by Dublin’s rank and file pub-grubbers, slips into Davy Byrne’s “Moral Pub” for a bite to eat. He snacks on a Gorgonzola Cheese sandwich matched with a glass of burgundy wine, thinking about consumption. Yep. People eat alright.
We’re hungry now too. We’ve started heading back but not before we pass through more of Sandycove’s tents, where people are stuffing their faces with cake and more champagne. Many have paid to enjoy a Joyce lunch of oysters, which Bloom in this chapter calls “unsightly like a clot of phlegm." Tempting. Also on the table are bottles of James Joyce label wine and flyers for a James Joyce credit card. Ah yes, can you hear that whirring? It’s Joyce’s coffin, and if we hook some gears up to it quick we could probably power Dublin for weeks.
We didn’t manage to make it out to Davy Byrne’s pub today, which still stands on Grafton street, but later in the week we found it still runs a good trade on upscale pub nosh. The place looks nice, and several tourists dig in to the “Bloomsday Special." And hey, the sandwich is pungent, tasty and the burgundy washes down well.
2:00 PM Scylla and Charybdis
Stephen heads to the National Library and wows a bunch of scholars with his theories about Hamlet.
We don’t make it to the National Library today either -- we’re still on the Dart heading back into town.
The National Library, when we do get there, proves to be, well, the most amazing library or museum exhibit I’ve ever seen. The exhibit is a display and history of the book, the centrepiece of which is the actual Joyce manuscripts bought by the Irish government for something like a gazillion Euros. They’re surrounded by incredible, touch screen interactive displays developed by the British Library that allow you to virtually flip pages, zoom in, and even translate Joyce’s chicken-scratch into readable text.
Of course, Stephen Joyce’s prohibitions have had a serious impact on the library as well. At the door when you go in, the curator reminds you that you are not allowed to record anything. Patrons are not even allowed to make their own handwritten notes. Note to self: Stephen Joyce still sucks.
3:00 Wandering Rocks
A collection of encounters with and a connecting trip through the minds of the people of Dublin, as Joyce’s narration jumps from person to person. We bop around a fragmented labyrinth of city streets, which shows us there’s a whole lot more going on here beyond Bloom’s story.
Of course, this is kind of what the next hour is like for us. We’re back in town trying to find our way through its maze, eventually making our way along the Liffey, fighting our way though the masses which make up New Dublin. The city’s traffic problems are legendary -- worse than London, New York and even Tokyo. The Celtic Tiger, the new economic growth, the EU, the blah, blah, blah... from what I can see it all just moves very slowly. Many of these young tigers are well-dressed and oblivious, yapping away into their mobile phones. And there’s seems to be very little evidence of Bloom.
4:00 PM Sirens
Bloom visits the Ormond Hotel bar and is charmed by the bronze by gold barmaids. Joyce plays with the idea of musical sounds, with peals of girlish giggles, snatches of songs, ringing of bells and tapping of canes creating a symphony of noise. The episode ends with Bloom sneaking a beer-bumped toot from his own ass-trumpet behind the clatter of a passing trolley tram.
We had our own music of course, the clamour and chorus of the constant traffic. The Ormond Hotel bar, which has been renamed the Sirens Bar, is on what looks like the busiest one-way thoroughfare in Dublin, with double-decker buses hurtling perilously close to its entrance. Inside, many Bloomers had been snared by its call, their costumes all the more incongruous in the heart of the city. This host of straw-hatted elderly were now joined by scruffy academics, each clutching their own dog-eared copy of the novel. But no one was really doing anything. A few mustered half-hearted readings, but for the rest the mid-day sun and the pouring of pints had melted their last desires. They were smashed and on the rocks. The Sirens claim victims still.
5:00 PM Cyclops
In the Cyclops chapter, we enter the cave of the Citizen, an eye-patch wearing blarney-spouting lout who reigns in Barney Kieran’s “More-Irish Than Thou” pub. There’s a scuffle over Irish full-blooded nationalism, which ends with Bloom making a pitch for peace and tolerance before taking off.
Somewhere near Barney Kieran’s, on the streets of the north-side, we find our own version of the Citizen: local naysayer and media bad-boy Brendan O’Connor. He’s waving a lit cigarette in Dublin’s face, saying Bloom is a cod. In a piece he wrote for The Dubliner he calls Bloomsday the pagan party that his heathen culture has been missing: the lost festival of Midsummer’s eve. O’Connor criticizes the celebration, as if it was St. Patrick’s Day 2: The Revenge -- one more chance to get fall-down drunk and carouse in the streets. To me these charges are beside the point, this kind of partying seems to be what Joyce was all about anyway.
8:00 PM Nausikaa
Bloom takes his own stroll down Sandymount strand and spies a lovely young lass perched on the beach. This is Gerty McDowell, the young princess in question, and she begins a coy flirtation with the tall dark stranger. She’s quite the exhibitionist, showing off a bare ankle. But this is just enough to make Bloom spurt, bringing himself off in his pocket, while fireworks pop in the distance. For many people this is the climax of the novel itself; at least, it might be the filthiest once you read between the metaphors.
We were en route for a climax of our own, the climax of the entire ReJoyce festival: a pageant set at the corner of O’Connell and Parnell streets. The show is called “The Parable of the Plums," after a story Stephen Daedalus spins for a rapt audience of newsmen in the Aeolus episode. In his parable, two old women climb the mount of Nelson’s Pillar and start spitting plum stones on the Dubliners around them. Nelson’s Pillar however was blown up by the IRA in 1966 and later replaced by the Millennium Spire.
It’s here that thousands have gathered to watch the convergence of three different parades, each leading a wildly different group. African drummers, Chinese dragons, cart-wheeling Bloomers and whores danced their way to the centre stage. Two of these groups were lead by giant grotesque puppets of the old women, each the size of Volkswagen Beetle. Once they reached the stage, a giant scissor lift raised a man dressed as the living statue of Admiral Nelson, in a symbolic recreation of the monument.
Now the real party starts. An instrumental group is blasting everything from disco to African jazz to atmospheric funk. Men in suits, with giant foam puppet heads, recreate the action of the Aeolus chapter in interpretive dance. Above it all, the Admiral is getting his groove on, like a rust-green go-go dancer. And the crowd is being whipped into a frenzy of joy and confusion. And then Joyce arrives.
The music falls to a hush. The costumed dancers, revellers and puppet heads skitter to the back in fear. The musicians begin a slow creepy dirge, as the man in the dark-suit, moustache, and dark-glasses strides across the stage, appraising us all. A cape of what looks like torn newspaper flutters behind him. He looks down on Dublin like he’s ten-feet tall and we’re all silent waiting for his judgement. And that’s when he starts to fly.
Slowly, attached to a crane lift harness, James Joyce levitates a hundred feet in the air, higher even the new Nelson’s Pillar. He spins in mid-air, surveying all he can see, Dublin, his Dublin, and are we worthy? He raises his arms, spreading his cape of newsprint… And the music erupts again! There’s a cheer from the crowd! Nelson is shaking it! The trams and dancers and puppets storm back on the stage. And now, the two giant women, who have grown themselves, their skirts billowing under them forty odd feet, have begun to erupt as well! Their mouths are spewing not plum stones but blasts of what looks like pink confetti! Dublin is absolutely overwhelmed by Joyce and his name is Boogie! Get Down!
Ahem. The dust has settled and the show’s over. Joyce has ejaculated all over Dublin, and they were both spent. People are now scooping up the confetti. It’s actually monopoly-money sized notes, each with a quote from the great Author from above. People scrabble to collect “Gentlemen of the Press,"“Dear Dirty Dublin,"“Let us Hope," or simply, “Yes." By now, night has fallen, and we all disperse to the pubs.
10:00 PM Oxen of the Sun
12:00 Midnight Circe
1:00 AM Eumaeus
2:00 AM Ithaca
Uh, in these next five chapters some more stuff happens. Stephen and Bloom drink at a maternity hospital, go visit some whores in the bad part of town, and stumble home drunk. Bloom sends Stephen on his way, climbs into bed and kisses his wife Molly’s ass just before falling asleep. Then Molly says “yes” a lot as she considers just how much she loves Leopold Bloom. That’s pretty much it.
We on the other hand had just about as much Bloom as we could take. The Parable of the Plums pageant was brilliantly bizarre, a madcap spectacle, that yes did have more than a touch of the pagan to it. I’m not sure if anyone really understood what it was about, and it didn’t seem to matter -- they loved it. And they knew, for whatever reason, that this amazing show sprung form a book, a book intimately connected to their city. But after today, we were full up on Joyce. Now Guinness on the other hand, that was something we could use a little more of.