He stood on a street corner and took a deep breath.
and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
In a city full of literary history, pursuits, and festivals, Dublin excels itself with Bloomsday. Held every 16th June since 1954, Dubliners celebrate arguably the greatest work from arguably one of their most talented authors by retracing many of the steps and the scenes from the book.
Ulysses, the book it’s all about, takes place in Dublin within the course of a single day: 16th June 1904.
We follow two men in particular, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, as they stumble through the trials and tribulations of a fairly standard day before Bloom creeps home to his unfaithful wife, Molly.
They take in, among other things, a funeral, a strip parlour and an open air beach, not to mention roaming through father-son relationships, grief, infidelity, racism, nationalism and quiet, understated, marital love, all set against the unmistakable salty air of Dublin.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The day, both in bookland and in real life, begins with breakfast, in particular this nutritional nugget from the start of chapter four.
Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
And so I found myself with a plate of inner organs in the James Joyce Centre, searching for inner and outer relish while a costumed Bloom and Molly romped through the pages with both passion and panache.
It followed the walking tour of Dublin that included the memorable speech about the perfumed breasts, from Marty Gilroy of the James Joyce Centre itself.
Marty spends Bloomsday guiding tours, heaving breasts and all, and I wonder whether or not he feels it’s worth it.
“Because that’s what it’s really about, away from the chapter by chapter references to Greek mythology, it’s this great tome that’s about everything – and yet nothing at all.”
This, apparently, was one of Joyce’s main aims, to bring honesty into literature through ruthless attention to details. There’s nose-picking, urination and even a masturbation scene amid the more high level debates.
Joyce left in 1904 and spent most of his adult life abroad, in Zurich, Paris and Trieste, although his work focused solely on Dublin.
“Ireland exports all its talent,” mutters Dubliner Mena Byrne who’s joined us on our route. “I love Ireland,” she tells me “but it was only when I left the country that I realised the stranglehold the church had on us all. I sat in Hyde Park listening to two girls talk about boys and women’s issues and I couldn’t believe it. But that was back in the day, things are changing now.”
Indeed they are. Only days later, Ireland voted to allow same sex marriage.
And Ulysses itself tackles nationalism and the power of the Catholic Church, when taken in a small minded way, through a man who mirrors the one-eyed Cyclops of the original odyssey in Greece. Apparently, Joyce viewed the Gaelic Revival movement as culturally myopic.
“It’s a complex text with many layers,” concedes Marty, who secretly recommends readers skip the first three chapters if they’re finding that the going gets tough.
“I struggled with it the first time,” confides our fabulous local guide Ali. “But then everyone has a moment when they just go ‘boom.’”
Apart from anything else, this opens up a new challenge for the day. How many (of the many) people out celebrating in Dublin have actually read the book cover to cover?
A quick street poll of costumed Blooms and Mollys tends to yield the following result.
By the end of the day, we’ve taken in the Guinness-lit stone of central Dublin, the waves around the Martello Tower where Joyce himself once lived and the heather-tinged cliffs in Howth, the seaside town where Molly said yes (though, to be truthful, we snuck there the day before as well as the sprawling Glasnevin Cemetery that also features in the book.)
But it’s the plan for the evening that for me held the biggest draw.
In the hallowed halls of Belvedere College, Joyce’s former stomping ground, intellectual heavyweights David Norris and Stephen Fry assemble to discuss the importance of the whole thing (there’s another confession at this point too. Readers may know Fry from all sorts of things but I will forever hold a place in my heart for his role as Melchett in the unforgettable Blackadder.)
No-one dares to ask whether Fry has read the book and the rapid fire discussion mirrors the day, ranging from heavyweight literature to the nature of religion and finding the time to fit in a reference to grindr.
And at the end of it all I find myself wondering why it is exactly that people should visit Dublin for Bloomsday.
Perhaps it’s the nudge to take another nibble at a must-read literary book.
Perhaps it’s the change to throw on a straw hat and tuck into grilled kidneys.
Or perhaps it’s just the chance to join in with a city when it’s in a good mood.
As the velvet Molly and Blooms strolled past the Martello Tower while youngsters stripped and splashed into the waves, a foreign voice asked a hip-hop local to explain what it was all about.
Uber cool and dangerously relaxed, he shrugged, looking even cooler.
His answer was simple.
“It’s Bloomsday, man.”
Disclosure – I visited Bloomsday in Dublin as part of the wonderfully colourful #MustLoveFestivals project, this time with support from Expedia and Tourism Ireland. As ever, as always, I write what I like here. I just wish my writing would win me a place on Dublin’s literary stage.
For more info, here’s the official What you NEED to know about Bloomsday in Dublin extravaganza.