Ulysses, considered by many to be one of the greatest books ever written, describes a single day in the life Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly, and Stephen Dedalus, a young would-be-writer — a character based on Joyce himself. The novel follows the progress of Leopold Bloom on this day, June 16, 1904, as he wanders through the city of Dublin. Joyce said that “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”
The Bloomsday tradition began in 1954 when a group of Dublin writers set out to visit all the landmarks mentioned in the book, reconstruct its events, and down a few pints.
Every year since at least 1954, fans of author James Joyce have celebrated Bloomsday on June 16. Festivities include public readings from the novel, scene reenactments (particularly the famous last chapter consisting of eight long sentences spoken by Molly Bloom), listening to traditional Irish music, and/or visiting Irish pubs.
In many cities, attempts are made to read the entire book out loud. In Dublin, tourists dress up and retrace the routes of Joyce’s characters. Philadelphia, home to Joyce’s handwritten manuscript, has a festival, as does Buffalo, home to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake notebooks. New York considers itself the capital of American Bloomsdays, since the city is mentioned in Ulysses. Moreover, it was a New York lawyer that defended the book from obscenity charges.
For Joyce, June 16, 1904 had a special significance as his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid he had met less than a week earlier. Joyce’s father remarked, on learning Nora’s surname, “She’ll stick with him.” And she did through thick and thin, apparently, since the 1904 date began a long relationship that did not lead to marriage until 1931, but then continued until Joyce’s death.
It was not all edenic in the Joyce household. In 1905, Nora Barnacle gave birth to a son, Giorgio, and later to a daughter, Lucia, in 1907. But a miscarriage in 1908 coincided with the beginning of a strain in Nora’s relationship with Joyce. Although she remained by his side, she complained to her sister both about his personal qualities and his literary activity.
In these letters to her sister, she depicts her husband as weak and neurotic. She says he drinks too much and wastes too much money. She accuses Joyce of ruining her life and that of their children. As for his writing, she laments the fact that his work is obscure and lacking in sense.
The difficulty of reading Ulysses is as legendary as the book itself — many of the passages are written in Joyce’s signature stream-of-consciousness style, and there are countless allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare, mythology, music, literature, obscure languages, and miscellaneous scholarship. In some versions of the book, notes explaining the meaning of certain passages go on for more than 250 pages.
Nevertheless, although the reading of the novel may not be a carefree experience, “Bloomsday” generally is. If you do a Google search of Bloomsday and the name of your city, you will undoubtedly find a list of cultural (and not so cultural) activities scheduled for the day. (Dublin’s activities go all week long.)
If you want to celebrate Bloomsday in the privacy of your own home, which might in fact be recommended if you are reading or listening to Molly Bloom’s big soliloquy (a.k.a. orgasm), you could read the chapter here, and/or at the same website watch a very racy video of Angeline Ball doing it in performance (and yes that’s a double entendre). She won the Irish Film and Television Award for Best Actress for this role.