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Bloomsday Hero

James Joyce Museum

James Joyce Museum

They say that you should never meet your heroes, but I suspect sometimes they are wrong. I know this, because when I, fortunately, met one of mine, it was a brief, but beautiful, moment.

It was on Bloomsday, a few years ago, and I went to Sandycove to sample the atmosphere and get my copy of Ulysses date-stamped in  the James Joyce Museum in the old Martello Tower. The place was alive, with many people dressed in Edwardian-era attire and lively chat filled the sea air. James Joyce look-alikes were everywhere, and a few, very attractive Molly Blooms caught the eye. ‘Yes, yes,’ one said in a sultry voice, like her famous namesake, and the crowd laughed and cheered.

James Joyce

James Joyce

Inside, the curator stamped the postcards that I was going to send to friends who were Joyce fans. Then she flicked open the cover of my book, put ink on the date-stamp and pressed down hard. I was delighted, and eased my way past the colourful crowds overlooking swimmers in the nearby Forty Foot, and headed home.

I got off the train at Booterstown and headed up the road, book and postcards safely tucked under my arm. I had only recently finished reading the great book after numerous false starts, and had decided to get it stamped on Bloomsday as a reminder of my long-delayed achievement. Yes, I had finally finished it, and it seemed like a good idea to get it stamped in the place where the story begins, and also to enjoy the merriment at Sandycove.  It was a good decision, and a few photographs and a luscious ice cream helped make the day.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

As I neared the local shops and thinking about finding a proper place for the book on a shelf at home I looked up, and stopped dead in  my tracks. I had to be seeing things, I thought, and quickly headed to the newsagents where none other than Seamus Heaney was buying a copy of the Irish Times. I waited at the door, heart beating fast, and when he stepped outside I stuck out my hand. ‘Happy Bloomsday,’ I said.

‘And a very Happy Bloomsday to you, too,’ he replied, giving me a firm and friendly handshake.

He noticed my book. ‘Good day for it,’ he said, smiling.

‘Yes,’ I managed ‘and I’ve just been to Sandycove to have it date-stamped.’

‘Good idea,’ he said ‘and a nice reminder of the day.’

I nodded. ‘Yes….and I wonder if you would be so good as to sign it. That would be terrific.’

So standing in the sunshine I handed my book to the great man and the cover was flicked open again. Moments later he handed the book back and again bid me a ‘Happy Bloomsday’. Then he pushed his spectacles up his nose, fixed the newspaper under his arm and walked to his car. He gave a final, friendly wave and was gone.

I stood there for a few moments looking at my book, a smile as broad as Dublin Bay on my face. It had indeed been the briefest of encounters, but I was very happy to have met my hero.

A little treasure!

A little treasure!

 

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Bloomsday – Where It All Begins

June 16th is unique in literature in that it actually has a day named after it. Bloomsday is named after the main character Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s most famous work Ulysses. And the date was deliberately chosen by the author as it was on this day in 1904 that he and Nora Barnacle, his future lover and wife, went on their first date. By that October she would leave Dublin and accompany him to France, where they struggled until his eventual breakthrough and international recognition.

Martello Tower, Sandycove - where it all began

Martello Tower, Sandycove – where it all begins

Joyce had stayed in the Martello Tower, in Sandycove, with his friend Oliver St Gogarty (who had rented the building) for a short time before leaving hurriedly after a gun was fired late one night. However, he chose to set the opening scene of his book in the building and Gogarty is immortalised in the first line:

Stately, plumb Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

A view north from the roof

A view north, to Dublin city, from the roof

The tower was one of many erected along the coast in preparation for an invasion by Napoleon’s forces. However, after Admiral Horatio Nelson (he of Nelson’s Pillar fame) defeated the French navy at the Battle of Trafalgar on the 21st October 1805, the threat was extinguished. Many of the towers were subsequently sold off while others were left unattended and remain derelict to this day. The tower at Sandycove was maintained in good condition when Gogarty rented it in the summer of 1904. Today, it houses the James Joyce Tower & Museum which is a ‘must-see’ for all Joycean fans and those interested in literary history. There is a fabulous collection of items, including; an original copy of Ulysses, many of Joyce’s notebooks and a vinyl recording of his voice! Up the narrow stairs the space has been remodelled with table, chairs and various contemporaneous items showing the living space as Gogarty and Joyce would have known it. Outside, there is Joyce’s death mask  and a guitar that he was fond of playing. Up the last flight of steps to the roof (from the stairhead..) you have the wonderful panorama of Dublin Bay, the coast northwards to Dublin City, leading you around to the mountains to the south-west. On a clear day it is spectacular and, not surprisingly, very popular with photographers.

Main Room - 1904 style

Main Room – 1904 style

Celebrating Bloomsday has become big business and events are now held in many cities around the world bringing a new audience to Joyce’s works. However, the original Bloomsday (in 1954 – the 50th anniversary) celebrations were rather prosaic by today’s standards and involved a number of Dublin’s literati and two horse-drawn carriages. The group: John Ryan (owner of The Bailey pub and founder of Envoy art magazine), Flann O’Brien, Anthony Cronin, Patrick Kavanagh, Tom Joyce (a cousin) and AJ Leventhal (Registrar of Trinity College) had planned a ‘pilgrimage’ along the circuitous route set out in the book. However, after a number of stops for ‘refreshments’ the adventure was abandoned due to ‘inebriation and rancour’ and they retired to The Bailey (on Duke Street).

Bloomsday's first Pilgrims: JR, AC, FO'B, PK, TJ

Bloomsday’s first Pilgrims: JR, AC, FO’B, PK, TJ

You may very well see some horse-drawn carriages on the big day but as to whether they will be ferrying such an illustrious group, well, I guess that’ll be another story. Happy Bloomsday!

 

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Martello Towers – A Defensive Line

James Joyce Tower

James Joyce Tower

Although it is the most famous of them all, the Martello Tower in Sandycove that houses the James Joyce Tower & Museum, is one of about fifty built to repulse a possible invasion by Napoleon’s navy. After the passage of the National Defence Act 1804, towers were erected along the East Coast from Bray to Balbriggan, with others on the south coast and Cork harbour.

When war broke out between Britain and France in 1793 two British ships, the Fortitude and Juno, attacked  a round tower at Cape Mortella in Corsica in February 1794. After hours of heavy bombardment by the two ships the tower was finally taken with little damage to the structure. However, the Fortitude had been set on fire and lost 62 men in the fight. Impressed by the strong defensive nature of the tower, engineers used the design when building the line of towers in 1804.

Howth Tower

Howth Tower

Around Dublin 28 towers were erected: 16 stretching southwards from Sandymount to Bray, and 12 northwards from Red Rock, Sutton  to Balbriggan. Seven of those to the south have been demolished while all to the north are standing. Many are in private ownership with Howth tower, now the Ye Olde Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio, the only one open to the public on the northside. Apart from Sandycove, Seapoint tower is the only other open to the public (during the summer) on the southside. There you can see the equipment used for loading the 18-pounder gun (there is a replica on the roof), and feel what it was like to have lived there. The towers were usually 40feet tall with eight-foot thick walls and housed an officer and 10-15 soldiers. Although built in time of war they, thankfully, never saw any action as the French invasion never materialised.

Seapoint Tower

Seapoint Tower

It is somewhat ironic that towers designed in Corsica, where Napoleon was born, were the blueprint for a defence against him!

 

 

 

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James Joyce – A Native Son

41, Brighton Square

41, Brighton Square

Although his native city features in all his writing, the relationship between the two was not easy. Joyce left Dublin when he was twenty-two years old and only returned for a few short visits. He lived in Trieste, Paris and died in Switzerland in 1941, aged fifty-nine, recognised as one of the major writers of the twentieth century. His influence on Modern writing is undeniable, and his native city is at the centre of his work.

He was born on 2nd February 1882 in 41, Brighton Square, Rathgar, which at the time was a recently laid out middle-class suburb. Joyce was the eldest of ten siblings born to John Stanislaus Joyce and Mary Jane Murray from whom he inherited his musical love and good voice, as she was an accomplished   pianist. His father frittered away his inheritance on different business ventures, and over the years the family sank into poverty making many late night departures from one house to another. The nomadic life was something Joyce understood, and during the years on the Continent moving house happened often.

JJ in St Stephen's Green

JJ in St Stephen’s Green

Joyce found the conservative religious atmosphere and the changing political landscape in Ireland too oppressive for creative thinking, and left for Paris. In this most cosmopolitan city, a place of tolerance in all areas, Joyce could grow as a writer and human being and encounter ‘the reality of experience’. It was the environment he needed, and even though his financial position did not noticeably improve, the freedom to think and write was paramount.

It is interesting that Joyce, although ‘exiled’ from the city that he disliked for its shortcomings and conservative mindset, still chose to use it as the canvas on which he wrote. From his earliest work Dubliners (1914), the hugely popular collection of short stories to his most famous works, Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), the city is a ’character’ in its own right, adding to the colour, sound and feel of the stories. He said that if the city was destroyed it could be rebuilt, brick by brick, using Ulysses as a model. He may, indeed, have left Dublin but it certainly never left him.

Martello Tower, Sandycove - Ulysses begins

Martello Tower, Sandycove – Ulysses begins

 

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Sweny’s – A final Bloomsday?

Joyce - weighing things up....

Joyce – weighing things up….

It’s that time of the year again when the bespectacled figure of James Joyce appears in many shop windows as fans and  visitors celebrate Bloomsday on 16th June. Interest in the great man’s work has increased in recent years, and there is now a weeklong programme of events that caters for all interests. On an international scale, celebrations are now held in many major cities, which eventually lead to more tourist interest and the growing opportunities for local actors, writers, musicians to play a part.

And, as this year is the 100th anniversary of Joyce’s collection of short stories Dubliners there is any amount of events to attend. The big day begins at the Martello Tower in Sandycove and continues in many different venues until late. Traditional breakfasts will be served in Caviston’s and Davy Byrne’s, and readings from the book can be heard during walking tours. Many people will be dressed in Edwardian period clothes that adds to the colourful atmosphere. Around the town there is plenty to do with plays, films, sketches, street theatre and much singing to enjoy.

'Sweet lemony wax'

‘Sweet lemony wax’

But for one group of volunteers this Bloomsday may be their last. They have maintained Sweny’s Pharmacy (Lincoln Place) for a number of years, but the future looks uncertain. The shop, which dates from 1847, was made famous by James Joyce in his book Ulysses. In the story, Leopold Bloom steps inside and buys a bar of lemon soap and carries it with him for the rest of the day – a lucky talisman. Amazingly, the shop is just as it was in Joyce’s day, an instant reminder of a different time and a living connection to one of the greatest books ever written. Sadly, the shop, a literary, historical and cultural landmark may be forced to close due to the imposition of commercial rates. I wonder what Joyce would have to say! SOS – Save Old Sweny’s.

A packed Sweny's listening to a reading on Bloomsday 2013

A packed Sweny’s listening to a reading on Bloomsday 2013

The video below was taken by Brendan Hayes on Bloomsday 2013. The actor, Shane Egan, was reading The Bloomsday Boys, a longish short story that I had written about Joyce and other famous Dublin writers as they went on their annual pub crawl. I hope that we have more opportunities for such readings and fun gaterings in Swenys in the future. SOS

 

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