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A sculpture of Molly Bloom, located in a quiet area of Alameda Gardens. The sculpture was commissioned by this newspaper in 2001 and was sculpted by the Chronicle’s former editor, Jon Searle. Photo by Brian Reyes

By Charles Durante

On the 16th June, 1904 a young Dublin intellectual met a feisty, red-haired chambermaid. They fell in love and eloped to the continent to live a life of adventure, occasional penury and high literary achievement. James Joyce, the author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, had met Nora Barnacle, the Galway girl who would inspire him to create the character of Molly Bloom. Joyce himself would appear in Ulysses under the guise of Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, and Stephen Dedalus, an aloof would-be artist. The trio would dominate Ulysses, the modernist novel set in Dublin on that fateful day of 16th June, 1904.

Joyce celebrated his encounter with Nora by setting all the action of Ulysses on that day. Ireland, though initially adverse to what was considered the novel’s obscenity and anti-Catholic criticism, learned to appreciate the unique value of what one of her most prestigious sons had achieved. Ulysses has become a byword for complexity, comprehensiveness, experimentation and literary daring.

Bloomsday now celebrates Joyce’s unrivalled mapping of the city of Dublin and its very colourful denizens, with visits to its pubs, a church, the cemetery, a maternity hospital, a brothel, the National Library, the public baths, strand, and the Martello Tower, where the day-long odyssey starts.

Dubliners are depicted with their garrulousness, their drinking habits, their legendary hospitality, their gregariousness and their conviviality. We meet Blazes Boylan, man-about-town with an eye for the girls, seducing Molly at four in the afternoon in her own home; the Citizen, boastful nationalist, always cadging a drink, antisemitic and bigoted; the librarians discussing Hamlet and being subjected to Stephen’s outrageous ideas about Shakespeare’s love life; Gerty MacDowell, lifting her skirt to excite that inveterate voyeur, Bloom. Though Joyce satirises many aspects of Dublin life, the characters are lovingly presented with their endearing foibles, their sly sense of humour, their fondness for the rhetorical flourish, their deep attachment to their city. Joyce’s main satirical thrust is reserved for the Roman Catholic Church and the British imperial presence, two masters Stephen is determined to repudiate.

Bloomsday now is one long street party with dancing, feasting, music and readings from the novel. A book, which was proscribed and vilified in 1922 as obscene and immoral, is now seen as epitomising the Irish spirit, especially the unique character of the city of Dublin and its citizens. On that day it is customary to dress up like Bloom, in a black suit, bowler hat and walking stick like a middling advertisement canvasser of the Edwardian period; women wear flouncy dresses with a deep neckline to emulate Molly’s embonpoint. Joyce himself appears with his thick dark glasses, neatly clipped moustache, boater, colourful waistcoat and patent leather shoes. Of course, he also strolls about with his ashplant.

What makes Bloomsday locally relevant and challenging is the last chapter, Penelope, which is mainly set in the Gibraltar of the mid-nineteenth century. The entire chapter is made up of Molly’s reminiscences of her youth spent in Gibraltar. Molly is the offspring of a Spanish Jewish woman, Lunita Laredo who, amazingly, is buried in the Jewish cemetery at North Front and Major Tweedy, an Irish military man stationed in Gibraltar. Penelope is peppered with local references: Bell Lane, the Roman Catholic cathedral with Fr Villaplana and the rosary he gave Molly, the Moorish Castle, the Alameda Gardens, the Bay spread out in the golden light of a sunset, Spy Glass and Aix House with its prize-winning bread.

Incredibly, Joyce never visited Gibraltar, but managed to cull enough local detail and colour from his reading to create a credible picture of this outpost of the empire when Britain was still feared, and its power was unquestioned. However, Molly prefers the social, sexual and racial mix of the fortress to its strict military role. Joyce employs Molly as an outspoken critic of British militarism and lavishes all his poetic power on her last words in the novel which ends with her repeated orgasmic ‘yes,’ uttered under the wall of the Moorish Castle. In a way, Bloomsday is also Gibraltar day, even though it has never been celebrated here.

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