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Pride in Joyce abloom

Dublin widens its months-long salute to the 'Ulysses' author to draw in people of the city that shaped his art.

June 13, 2004|David Gritten | Special to The Times

Dublin, Ireland — Some 10,000 people will gather today on one of this historic city's main thoroughfares -- long, wide, expansive O'Connell Street -- and sit down to a breakfast that includes a dish of kidneys to be washed down with Guinness.

It may seem a strange way to observe a centenary of the city's greatest writer, but the iconoclastic James Joyce, now universally regarded as one of the world's greatest and most innovative novelists, might well have approved.

This particular party isn't for the centenary of Joyce's birth or death; rather, it marks the day, June 16, 1904, on which all the action of "Ulysses," his most famous novel, takes place.

Published in 1922, "Ulysses" is a loosely imaginative rewrite of Homer's "The Odyssey," transposed to early 20th century Dublin; this complex, funny and often raunchy story traces the progress around the city of its everyman hero and Jewish barroom philosopher, Leopold Bloom.

Here, June 16 is known as "Bloomsday" and is marked with annual festivities. But this 100th anniversary will easily surpass them all.

"Bloomsday celebrations have tended to attract enthusiasts and academics," says Laura Weldon, national coordinator of the ReJoyce Dublin 2004 festival. "So to some extent, it's preaching to the converted. Our remit has been to broaden its appeal."

That shouldn't be difficult. Joyce exerts a huge influence on the Irish imagination. In "Ulysses" and his other works, his prose captured precisely the rhythms and cadences of the nation's speech, notably the Dublin accent. There is intense, almost patriotic pride in him here, even among people who find his work austere and inaccessible. So much so as to incite something of a backlash.

This dichotomy has emerged in some of the off-stage dramas leading to Bloomsday. Bestselling Irish author Roddy Doyle recently launched an attack on Joyce's work and influence, while Joyce's grandson, Stephen, an energetic litigator, was until last week seen as a potential threat to one of the festival's major exhibitions. Its organizers have plowed ahead regardless.

The festival was the brainchild of Ireland's arts, sport and tourism minister, John O'Donoghue. "It was his notion that the centenary should be shared by more people," Weldon says. Hence, the feeding of the 10,000 on Dublin's bustling O'Connell Street. It will be converted into a turn-of-the-century marketplace, with vendors in period costume, street musicians, barbers offering wet shaves and barber-shop quartets.

"It will be everything you'd find in Dublin in 1904, taking people back to another era," says Weldon, 38, an Ohio native and book dealer by profession, who has lived in the city just 16 months and landed her job after a consultancy stint for the National Library of Ireland.

Visitors are urged to dress up and compete as look-alikes of "Ulysses" characters: Bloom; his amorous wife, Molly; her lover, Blazes Boylan; or Stephen Dedalus, the serious-minded young poet (and Joyce surrogate). But because June 16 falls on a Wednesday, and it would be inconceivable to add to Dublin's daily traffic gridlock by closing down a major street like O'Connell, the breakfast will take place today.

It is just one event in the ReJoyce festival, which began in April and continues to the end of August. It includes "Ulysses" walking tours and bus tours, exhibitions of Joyce-inspired art and films, poetry evenings, lectures and symposiums. Visitors are making pilgrimages to Dublin landmarks like the James Joyce Centre and Davy Byrnes pub in Duke Street, a rest stop on Leopold Bloom's urban journey (he referred to it as "a moral pub") and a favorite haunt of Joyce himself.

In a remarkable installation called "Elijah Walks," a 40-foot-high likeness of Joyce, projected in light after nightfall, will be seen "strolling" along the quay of the Liffey, the river that flows through the city.

It is also now certain that Ireland's National Library will host the exhibition "James Joyce and Ulysses," displaying more than 500 pages of the author's manuscripts. On June 2, Irish lawmakers felt obliged to rush through emergency legislation preventing Stephen Joyce from suing the government and the library over possible copyright infringement. Stephen Joyce, now in his 70s and living in France, is the author's only living descendant and has previously targeted publishing houses and Internet websites over copyright issues.

Weldon concedes ReJoyce walks a fine line in aiming for a wide cross-section of people without descending into crass commercialism: "We've been extremely conscious of the literary integrity that must be maintained. So all these events have a legitimate purpose regardless of the fun and amusement factor. There's an educational underpinning, and people walk away with something valuable. There's no merchandising like tea towels or key chains. This is not about making a few extra pennies for everybody."

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