If you’re familiar with the “sacred day” that is Bloomsday, you’re probably already celebrating the writings of James Joyce and Irish culture, and have been all day. If you haven’t, you’re missing out: every June 16th, lit-fans and proud Irishmen and women dress up in Edwardian fashion and walk the same path in Dublin the characters in Ulysses do on this day in 1904. All along the route, throughout Ireland and across the world there are commemorations in the form of full Irish breakfasts, marathon readings and dramatizations of the book (and yes, pub crawls).
June 16th, 1904, the date in which Ulysses takes place, has many meanings to Joyce. Most significantly, it is the anniversary of his first date with Nora Barnacle, his muse and lover with whom he would later elope and spend the rest of his life – most of which outside of his native Ireland.
The sentimentality of this specific date aside, Bloomsday holds a larger meaning for many Irish people. Joyce’s work is rife with ruminations over what it truly means to be Irish, and Ulysses is an eminent work about complicated feelings of identity.
At the time when the book is set, British-Irish relations where in a tenuous place. The Irish were underrepresented in the U.K.’s parliament, which had taken several acts to dismiss and diminish the political voice of the Irish people. Secondarily, there was a large influence of central European culture that had been inoculating itself into Ireland, a fact that was not always welcomed. The main character of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, is of Hungarian ancestry and of the Jewish faith, both of which he is consistently indicted over. This unease at the vulgar idea of “a pure enough Irishman” left Joyce and many other Irish cosmopolitans wishing for both pride in their country and acceptance of European tradition.
In a moment where the Irish were being treated as if they were only halfway British and not-quite European, the country turned to cultural expressions to fill in the other half of their identities. Thus lead to the rise of literature greats such as Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats, and Joyce. In this renaissance, Ulysses rose.
Bloomsday, and the book in which it resides, is a genuine, modernist way to celebrate and consider what it means to be an Irish person, unlike some holidays I could name. Raise a glass to that.