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An American Misses Bloomsday

I made my first trip from Los Angeles to Dublin four years ago. I’ve returned every June since. Bloomsday is to blame. This spiraling, citywide celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses has left me helplessly hooked.

June 16, 2016, I climbed the tight circular stairs to the top of Martello Tower in Sandycove, Co. Dublin for the first time. This small fort has the distinction of being a one-time residence of Joyce, the current home of the James Joyce Tower and Museum, and the setting of the opening chapter of the novel where Stephen Daedalus lives with two rather rotten roommates.

A few folks whispered in the open air, others flipped through their books like hymnals. This was hallowed ground. I quietly found a seat on the granite step below the parapet of what Vladimir Nabokov described as a “chess rook.” The Irish Times published a photo with me sitting front and center reading the masterpiece on an iPhone. “The mockery of it,” indeed.

Magically, at 8 AM, a woman began reading without prompt or preamble. Another melodious voice picked up where she left off, then another, and another. It was as if a troop of non-professional actors took the stage of the Globe Theatre in London and spontaneously performed Hamlet, playing whatever part came their way. And, as we say in the states, they crushed it.

The “Cervantes in Sandycove” contingent read in Spanish. They cleverly stopped at the exact point that left the next reader with the line, “Do you understand what he says?”

Somebody else delighted the crowd by reading in a language I couldn’t identify. It was Greek to me.

My heart beat with stage fright, but I decided not to defile the scene with my unmusical American accent. Maybe next year, I thought.

In 2017, I donned swim trunks to commemorate Malachi “Buck” Mulligan’s morning bath in the Irish Sea. The rules posted at the Forty Foot still say, “Gentlemens Bathing Place.” I got behind a long line of teenagers and inched forward on the slippery stones. One by one, the miniature Mulligans leaped into the “snotgreen” sea then screamed profanities that would make Molly Bloom blush.

The irreverent kids were exchange students from the University of Notre Dame in America, the land of freedom of speech, where Ulysses was banned until 1934. Irony is alive and well.

I made the baptismal plunge. My young countrymen’s cries were justified. Joyce’s description, “scrotumtightening” is an understatement. The frigid temperature was downright gender-reassigning.

It drizzled a bit in 2018, but at least the water was warmer. The crowd atop the tower was larger and more colorful. Heads were covered with black bowlers, straw boaters, wide-brimmed hats adorned with flowers and ribbons, and a mysterious macintosh. One woeful lunatic wearing a yellow bathrobe, not exactly stately, but certainly plump, pantomimed Buck Mulligan’s blasphemous movements throughout the readings.

In 2019, I maintained my general paralysis of the light-traveller and read along on my Kindle. Sinful to some, but it freed me to covet the various volumes nearby. The fleet included a sturdy brown hardback marked with two long, slender “J”s, battered paperbacks crisscrossed with creases and pages turned so often their corners were round, and a crisp new “Aegean” blue replication of the original Shakespeare and Company edition published in Paris by Sylvia Beach in 1922.

Many had tufts of bookmarks and sticky notes, and sideburns of multicolored page markers. I peeked inside copies and found rainbows of neon highlights, underlined phrases, and circled words. White and yellow pages were decorated with stars, hearts, and question marks of varying thickness and sizes. I tried to decipher doodles. I spotted an emphatic “Naughty!” penciled in one margin. The new-fangled highlight and note features of my Kindle flooded me with an inadequacy rivaling the freezing water.

Sadly, I won’t make the pilgrimage to Martello Tower or take my annual bath in the Irish Sea in 2020. In the meantime, I’ve already officially taken the day off from work. My alarm will be set eight hours ahead in conjunction with Dublin time. I’ll pull copies, guidebooks, and programs I’ve collected from the James Joyce Centre off their shelves. I’ll scroll through pictures I’ve snapped and scour the Internet for whatever broadcasts and live streams I can find.

I’ll see you next year, Sandycove. “Yes I will. Yes.”

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