I know I’ve mentioned it in other posts, but I’ll say it again. I am a huge fan of James Joyce. With this year’s major trip going to Ireland, there was simply no way I was going to miss out on having a Joyce / Ulysses experience. Readers of James Joyce will know that June 16, aka Bloomsday, is THE big day for fanatics. For the less initiated, Joyce’s book, Ulysses takes place over the course of this single day in the city of Dublin. I couldn’t be in Dublin in June, so I celebrated my own Bloomsday on Sunday, March 5. While doing my trip research, I was delighted to find not only a James Joyce Centre but also a Ulysses Walking Tour. I have taken several walking tours in the past and they feature in some of my fondest travel memories. After getting my private walking tour set up with David Halpin, Owner and Guide of Dublin Ulysses Tours, my day was set. I was ready to geek out.
Before the walking tour, I decided to visit the James Joyce Centre. I’m glad I experienced the Centre before the walking tour. While I want to support the Centre in its efforts to preserve and promote the works of James Joyce, it honestly left a bit to be desired. There are three floors to the Center and the unguided tour is started by climbing the stairs to the top floor to experience the museum on the way back down. The top floor has an interesting Ulysses publication “family tree,” which traces the various Ulysses editions relative to their publishing houses and publication dates. There is also a video that plays three short documentaries about Ulysses. On the second floor, there are several painted portraits from the Joyce family as well as visual schema of each of the chapters of Ulysses. The ground floor has the gift store and a viewing parlor with John Huston’s movie, The Dead playing, but the display lacked any indication as to how it tied to Joyce. So… the James Joyce Centre was good but not great. At €5 per person, I think it’s priced right for the value delivered. If you go, plan for about 1 hour max. The short documentaries on the top floor, which I haven’t found to be available on the internet, take just over a half an hour to watch in total. The rest of the museum will take no more than 30 minutes to walk through.
Having wrapped up the time at the museum, it was time for the main event. David and I had arranged via email to meet at The Palace Bar on Fleet Street in the Temple Bar neighborhood. We recognized each other fairly quickly and settled into a back corner over pints of Guiness. Note that David provides customized, personal tours and he’s constantly looking to improve, so if you go (and I highly recommend it regardless of your experience level with Joyce / Ulysses), your experience will likely differ from mine.
The Palace Bar is a time capsule with wood paneled walls, a hardwood bar and a friendly curate to match. While there is a single mounted TV, it was turned off. This is no sports bar. The Palace is an old fashioned pub meant for talking and to add to the ambiance, its walls are adorned with pictures and portraits of the writers and artists who have frequented it over the years. The seats are comfortable and we were free to arrange them as we pleased. The bar was about half full and the other patrons paid us no mind as David pulled out his hefty copy of Ulysses to call out specific quotes and points. During our chat, David and I discussed our own stories and how we came to experience this tremendous author and his seminal work. David is a polite conversationalist and he really takes his time to make a connection. We chatted for nearly an hour. Then we packed up and headed out into the early spring Dublin weather for Bloom-style walk around Dublin.
Immediately outside, David pointed out the gold colored memorials built into the sidewalk commemorating four of the Irish writers who frequented The Palace. He explained their connection to literature and to Joyce. At this point, I had been in and out of The Palace twice and hadn’t seen these gold colored plaques. As I would soon discover, I had been walking over similar commemorative sidewalk features for the previous several days.
After leaving The Palace, David took us down backstreets pointing out Dublin street art dedicated to Irish literature. We stopped by the statues outside of Oliver St. John Gogarty’s Bar and viewed the murals on Bloom’s Hotel.
From there, we walked out to College Green and headed toward Trinity College Dublin. David is full of insights about the roles the characters and buildings played in literary history. I wouldn’t do it justice, so you’ll just have to take the tour. From here, we turned right onto Grafton Street and picked up the trail of Ulysses fictional protagonist, Leopold Bloom. This was my third time to Grafton Street in as many days because it is the main shopping district; however, like those plaques outside The Palace Bar, it was my first time seeing the gold colored Bloom plaques embedded in the pavement. Pictures of three of the plaques follow.
These plaques mark the walk of the fictional Bloom as he traveled the very accurately portrayed streets of Dublin during the course of the day and night of June 16, 1904. Experienced readers will already know from the pictures above that the plaques quote passages from Ulysses at the time in the book when Bloom was at that real life juncture. Off of Grafton, we turned left onto Duke Street, which is where I learned not only that Davy Byrnes still exists in a modern state, but also that there is a Ulysses Rare Book Store. I would later visit the store and purchase one of several vintage copies of Ulysses available for sale. For vintage book lovers, this place is worth the trip just to get a glimpse of the Ulysses first edition that is stored under glass behind the counter. But there are plenty of more accessible vintage books by a wide variety of authors on the shelves that the average wallet can afford.
We then followed Bloom’s footsteps over to the National Library, where David brought Bloom and his arch rival, Blazes Boylan, to life with a quick reading of the corresponding parts of Ulysses. From here, we traveled to a neighborhood hotel for a quick stop and a view of what is perhaps the least known – and by far the best rendering I have seen – memorial to Joyce and Ulysses. David’s narrative perfectly illustrated the quoted text as we made our way around the 360 degree monument. Given that this piece isn’t yet called out on Joyce sight-seeing website lists, I’ll keep this spot concealed and again refer the reader to David’s Dublin Ulysses Tour to catch a glimpse.
From here, we made our way to Sweny’s pharmacy, which is where Bloom fictionally picked up the lemon soap for his wife Molly. Sweny’s is no longer a working pharmacy, but is rather a standing homage to Joyce and societal home to – these are my words – a loose knit group of local Joyce volunteers who are committed to keeping the sights and sounds of his work alive. Inside, David introduced me the volunteer in chief, PJ, who shook my hand and inquired about my surname. After providing him with my four nearest related family names, PJ rattled off a brief and authoritative geographical history of my 4 bloodlines. After that, he sat down and sang me a song in Irish as he strummed along on guitar. And with that act, I’m pretty sure I joined this Joyce “society” in whatever form it exists. My tour with David had concluded, but my evening was far from over.
There was almost no question as to whether I was coming along with David to “the reading” after my whirlwind initiation. PJ just looked at me and said, “We’ve had to move the reading across the street to Kennedy’s because we have a good sized group. This is good because we’ll have some pints as we read. Grab a book and let’s go.” So, I did.
“The reading” as the name would suggest, is a group of people sitting around the table each with the same book in hand and each taking his or her turn to read a page. The book was Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which I had never read.
What I did know about the book is that it took Joyce 18 years to write and that the language was almost entirely Joyce’s own amalgamation of various languages around the world. It has a reputation for being nearly unreadable. There was no time for me to be intimidated. About 4 minutes after I sat down and caught the place in the book, it was my turn to read. It is said of Joyce’s work that one of the best ways to access it is to simply read it aloud. I’m sure I got most of it wrong. Others sounded more authoritative in their readings. However, I’m sure that the pints of Guiness that were flowing helped all of us “just go with it.” With one loop round the table of 9 readers, I settled into the process and had a great time. After several loops and a few pints, PJ signaled that it was time to wrap up the reading and he gathered up the books to take back across to Sweny’s.
As the books closed, the discussions opened. I formally met most everyone around the table and we quickly leapt into topics large and small: gun laws in America; US Presidents Trump, Obama, and a sprinkling of Bill Clinton; Irish social classes and Dublin neighborhood distribution relative to the River Liffey; the movie Pulp Fiction, and on and on. Unfortunately, I had to wrap up the evening and get back to my family. As I made my rounds and said my goodbyes, it was a bittersweet moment. I had immediately connected with a Joycian tribe and after a few delightful hours, it was time to go.
Finding Joyce’s Dublin
Through his works and his correspondences, we know that Joyce was fiercely committed to the human experience. After all, what landed Ulysses on the banned book list in all English speaking countries as soon as it was published is the fact that it is an odyssey of the human body and mind. Joyce wrote about things that – at the time – just couldn’t be written about. My day up until that point had been committed to knowing more of Joyce and the Dublin of his time. I was focused on facts and figures. But as I reflected on the day during my long walk along the Liffey back to my Airbnb, I began to realize that my evening at Kennedy’s Bar, connecting with David, PJ and others who share a common interest as we discussed the politics and issues of our day, was as much taking part in Joyce’s Dublin as anything I have done. This is Dublin City. Constantly renewing while celebrating its rich history. Today’s Dublin is Joyce’s Dublin. To experience it, one needs to find a pub, grab a pint, and start a conversation.