He may be dead, but he’s omnipresent.
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Seen from the air, Dublin seeps across the topography like an ink stain. Seen closer up its rows of backstreets lie like lines across a page. Along those streets on June 16, 1904, (now known as Bloomsday), roved Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s “heroes” in his landmark novel, Ulysses.
Bloomsday nowadays lasts a week, and is an excuse for Paddywhackery, dressing up and treading merrily in the footsteps of Joyce’s duo as they roamed the city’s byways. There are readings, one-man shows, a festive rally on old-style messenger bikes, a bus tour of key locations, songs of Joyce at Bewley’s Theatre and far more walks than you’d care to shake a broken leg at.
I did it years ago, dressing up in bowler hat and Edwardian duds, with ladies in pavement-swishing skirts and cake-box hats, tootling merrily in a car from one Joyce shrine to the next. And there’s no letting up.
This time I’m weeks early, joining the dots of my own bespoke tour. I know the terrain like the leather-gloved back of Dedalus’s hand, heading for Sandycove and the Forty Foot, the Martello tower of the Joyce Museum looming large at the edge of the tide.
The tower is an almost sacred starting point for any Ulysses walk. On Bloomsday devotees kick off at the nearby Bistro Martello on the seafront to partake of the traditional Joycean breakfast: a platter of offal, with giblet soup, which some believe a moral requirement (as is a dip in the freezing waves).
The tower is the setting for the opening scenes of Ulysses, unveiling “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” casually shaving at the stair head overlooking Dublin bay, and being joined by Joyce’s autobiographical, sleepy Stephen as they gaze at the rocks of the Forty Foot and the turbulent “snotgreen … scrotum tightening sea”.
Joyce spent six nights in the tower in September 1904, a sojourn with Oliver St John Gogarty, a budding Irish writer. Today the space is filled with death masks, Joyce’s letters, his guitar, portraits and photographs, rare editions of his books, a fading waistcoat made by his grandmother, his cigar case and, of course, the original Ulysses, published by Shakespeare & Co in 1922.
In this lovely emporium of the past the whiff of Dublin in 1904 is ever present. I leave with reluctance, heading for Eccles Street, just north of the city centre, departing Stephen’s beginning for Bloom’s.
The heart of the city is not what it used to be. In Bloom’s time the streets were cobbled. A single motor car appears in the course of the book. People walked or took the tram. I ride on the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transport) strolling from Amiens Street to Eccles Street.
Number 7 has been bulldozed to oblivion. The Bloom residence stood where now the Mater Hospital has its entrance. A bronze plaque has Joyce’s head gazing off towards Sandycove and beneath it an inscription from Ulysses describing Bloom reaching into his trousers for his latchkey.
On the corner with nearby Dorset Steet, on the site of Larry O’Rourke’s much-frequented pub (where every Bloomsday at 8am the Balloonatics, a theatre group, launch their Bloomswalk free of charge), I consider whether or not to head for the bar of soap or the gorgonzola. I opt for the soap – which is to say I make for Gardiner Street, passing the stolid, columned church of St Francis Xavier (featured by Joyce in the story Grace collected in Dubliners), making my long descent towards the towers of modern wealth and sub-prime debt that flank the tea-brown river Liffey.
Along Railway Street, to the left, off Lower Gardiner Street, stood Bella Cohen’s brothel where Stephen yielded to a “young whore in a sapphire slip”, and met the comfort-craving Bloom.
I cross Butt Bridge, the stagnant Liffey breathless beneath me, tracing Bloom’s route to Westland Row and St Andrew’s Church where he fetched up late for Holy Communion. Just a step away is Sweny’s, the tiny chemist shop overlooking Lincoln Place. It was here Bloom purchased a special cake of lemon soap. Bloomsday pilgrims can still engage with Sweny the druggist behind his counter, and witness the dressed-up Bantam Lyons (another trickster from the book).
I purchase a cake of Bronnley’s best soap in its presentation wooden box, a souvenir to scent future nostalgia, and skip from the shop, passing a baby wear store called Blooming(!) en route to Duke Street, the turf Joyce liked to call his own.
Davy Byrne’s pub—where they invented the verb to hooch—is a Duke Street legend. There Bloom, on his trek around the city, paused for a blether with Nosey Flynn. He ordered burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich. I follow suit. My plan is to spend the afternoon on a boozy trail from the Ormond Hotel beside the river, chasing through Capel Street—which Joyce called “the best street in Dublin”—towards Little Britain Street where stood Barney Kiernan’s pub in which Bloom refreshed himself before setting off in a jaunting car around teatime towards Sandymount Strand.
“You hunting Joyce, sir?” enquires the barman as he proffers the gorgonzola. I open the box of lemon soap. I sip the wine. He sniffs the waft of scented lemon. “Ah, Ulysses sir,” he says. “I never read it.” Well, now you’ve sniffed it, I tell him. He smiles. “And so I have,” says he. “I’ve read it through my nose.” Try beating that.
Need to know:
Getting There: Ryanair flies to Dublin from Glasgow (Prestwick) from £18 return, (including charges), from Edinburgh from £23.99 return, and from Aberdeen from £69.17 return. Go to www.ryanair.com
Accommodation: The 4 star Ariel House, Lansdowne Road, (one minute from the DART), has a special offer of a room with breakfast from £65 for 2 guests sharing a superior double or twin room (must be booked online). Go to www.ariel-house.net or phone 00353-1-668-5845.