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Special Travel Issue | Ireland

An Odyssey in 'Dear Dirty' Dublin

A Pilgrimage Based on James Joyce's 'Ulysses' Reveals the Essence of the Irish Capital

March 21, 2004|James Gilden | Freelancer James Gilden writes the Internet Traveler column for The Times' Travel section.

It is said that if Dublin were ever destroyed, it could be rebuilt from the pages of James Joyce's books. Indeed, the city's streets, landmarks and denizens populate Joyce's masterwork, "Ulysses," in such a meticulous, frank way that Dublin seems transformed into a living character.

Much has changed in the Irish capital in the century since Leopold Bloom, the cuckolded Jewish antihero of "Ulysses," took his 18-hour journey through its streets on June 16, 1904. The city's youthful, energetic demeanor as the capital of a European Union nation only faintly resembles the constrained British colonial city of the novel.

Last April, with the approaching centennial of Bloomsday, as Bloom's odyssey is called, I traveled to Dublin to see how much I could unearth of the sights of "Ulysses." Would I be able to find the essence of Joyce's hometown -- the humor and humanity of the city's residents? Martello Tower, Nelson's Pillar, Glasnevin Cemetery, Davy Byrnes pub -- these are some of the places that were frequented by characters in "Ulysses," and I sought them out in an effort to comprehend the intricacies of the book.

The 18-chapter structure of "Ulysses" parallels Homer's "Odyssey." Each is stylistically different from the next, an innovative technique when the book was published in 1922. But it was Joyce's use of stream-of-consciousness dialogues and monologues to convey the inner thoughts of his characters that was groundbreaking and influenced such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.

Joyce has even shaped popular American culture, with numerous references to "Ulysses" in TV shows and movies. Leopold Bloom is the name of the nervous accountant-hero in Mel Brooks' "The Producers." In the Tony award-winning Broadway musical, Bloom imagines the fame resulting from the scheme he hatches with his partner, and one of the characters jokes that perhaps there will be a Bloomsday in his honor.

As a writer, I wanted to understand what is considered one of the most important novels of the 20th century. Years ago I picked up a copy of "Ulysses" and tried to read it on my own. But I was intimidated by its reputation and complexities, so it sat, unread, until last winter, when my friend Millie Kidd, a professor of English at Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, invited me to a seminar on "Ulysses" and its prequel, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

In one class, Kidd shared a book of black-and-white photographs, taken in 1954, that showed "Ulysses" sites. The photos made the novel come alive, so I decided to embark on a Joycean pilgrimage -- an effort to make "Ulysses" more tangible and, perhaps, more intelligible.

Soon after I arrived, I met with Irish Sen. David Norris, a renowned Joycean scholar and chairman of the city's James Joyce Centre. He is credited -- and blamed -- with popularizing Bloomsday.

Norris looks every bit the senator and retired Trinity College don. We trundled off to the cafeteria in Leinster House, the seat of the Irish Parliament, and over coffee chatted about "Ulysses," Dublin and Joyce. Our conversation helped explain Joyce and his impact on contemporary American life.

"America loves novelty, loves the new, loves the experimental," Norris said. "The American experience -- a lot of it -- is urban, and Joyce is the great poet of city life."

Norris lives in a restored Georgian townhouse on North Great George's Street, almost directly across from the James Joyce Centre and down the road from Belvedere College, which Joyce attended in the 1890s.

"I moved into that street 25 years ago," Norris said. "It had been one of the great streets of 18th century Dublin, and then it had fallen into ruin, which meant I was able to buy a house quite cheaply."

To get a sense of Norris and Joyce's neighborhood, I walked the next morning to North Great George's Street from my hotel, the Shelbourne on St. Stephen's Green, passing along the way some of the places where Bloom had tarried. I crossed the River Liffey at the wide O'Connell Bridge and paused next to the General Post Office, or GPO, where Nelson's Pillar once stood.

"Before Nelson's Pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley," Joyce wrote in "Ulysses," "started for Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rathgar and Terenure. . . ." Gone are the trams that traversed O'Connell Street, but the crowds are still here, crossing hurriedly by car, bus or foot.

In "Ulysses," vendors sold plums at the base of the stone monument, and "two Dublin vestals . . . elderly and pious . . . begin to waddle slowly up the winding staircase, grunting, encouraging each other, afraid of the dark, panting, one asking the other have you the brawn. . . ."

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