What happens when you cross a St. Patrick's Day parade with a literary walking tour? If you add a hint of Irish summertime and Edwardian costumery, you get the annual Bloomsday celebration of James Joyce's literary masterpiece, "Ulysses."
St. Paddy's Day? Bah! If you were ever thinking of going to Dublin , summer is prime time.
Each June, the keepers of the Joycean flame organize rounds of art exhibits and film festivals, literary soirees and even a traditional Irish breakfast for the masses of literati. The climax comes on June 16, the date in 1904 chronicled by Joyce in “Ulysses.”
Many critics hail “Ulysses” as the greatest novel of the 20th century — but because it weighs in at roughly 800 pages, many others joke that it's the greatest book they've never read. The annual festivities are aimed at furthering appreciation of the author and the novel, said Laura Weldon, who coordinated a centennial celebration of the “Ulysses” legacy called ReJoyce Dublin in 2004.
“We’re taking Joyce and ‘Ulysses’ out of the academic box that it’s been put in,” she said. “We’re taking it down and saying, ‘Look, not everybody has to read the book cover to cover, but wouldn’t it be nice if a lot of people could get a flavor for it and appreciate it?’”
So here's what all the fuss is about: On one level, “Ulysses” follows an Irish Jew named Leopold Bloom through his day in Dublin — a day on which he's cuckolded, has his own run-ins with pretty women and anti-Semites, and saves young writer Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's alter ego) from a heap of trouble. On deeper levels, the book mirrors Homer's Odyssey and Ireland's history, takes on the universal spiritual quest and stretches the envelope of language itself. Joyce wrote the book to reflect the way people really think, speak and act, even in the outhouse — and his descriptions celebrate the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Dublin.
After visiting Dublin for Bloomsday 2003 and reading the whole darn book, an English major like myself could probably rhapsodize for a few hundred pages about the metaphysical meaning of “Ulysses” and Bloomsday. Instead, here are some practical tips for the would-be pilgrim.
- Getting there: If the direct path to Dublin seems too pricey, consider flying to London instead, then using a low-cost flight to make the jump to the Emerald Isle. Dublin's Airlink bus takes you from the airport to the city center.
- Where to stay: True budget travelers will gravitate toward hostels such as Avalon House, on Aungier Street close to St. Stephen's Green and Dublin's shopping-rich Grafton Street. I had a great time there rubbing elbows with fellow Joyce pilgrims (and the backpackers). For wider options, check out Hostel World.
- Where to eat: No "Ulysses" pilgrimage is complete without a stop at Davy Byrnes Pub, just off Grafton Street, where Leopold Bloom had his lunch of Burgundy wine and gorgonzola cheese. The repast is offered as a Bloomsday special ... but it's best to get there before noon and beat the crowds. For cheap takeout, try the world's best fish and chips at Leo Burdock's, near Christchurch Cathedral.
Don't get too practical. The whole point of the Bloomsday experience is to jump into the stream of consciousness and splash around with fellow travelers. Some Joyceans even dress for the part: If you see a higher-than-expected incidence of men in black suits and bowler hats, or women in long-sleeved, turn-of-the-century gowns — you'll know there's a Bloomsday event somewhere nearby.
During the 2003 festivities, I had the good fortune to run into a documentary film crew and a literature professor at a "Songs of Joyce" review — and we've been friends ever since. In fact, we all have parts in the documentary, "Joyce to the World." If you see the film, watch for the clueless American trying to remember the opening words of "Ulysses."
This is an updated version of a report that first appeared March 15, 2004.
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