“I got laid on James Joyce’s grave
I was hoping his genius would rub off on me
But all I got was a kick in the head
From the caretaker who discovered me
The Swiss lady jumped up in alarm
Put her clothes on instantly
I got laid on James Joyce’s grave
I’ve never been the same, Lord have mercy on me…”
Oh well, each of us comes to Joyce in their own peculiar way. I can’t even remember my own introduction. The Christian Brothers wouldn’t stray within an ass’s roar of him though they often quoted Yeats and other Anglo-Irish literati.
And yet, Sunny Jim is the true Irish writer. Yeats may light our way with his blinding insights; Joyce merrily heaves us into a Saragossa Sea of fetid uproarious humanity, forcing us to confront not only who we are but who we might wish to be.
And so every June 16th we celebrate Bloomsday – because on this date in 1904 James Joyce met Norah Barnacle, the woman who “made a man of him.”
Joyce was a debonair penniless student, Norah a Galway girl, sure of herself and her sexuality. Soon after they eloped to Europe to live a peripatetic life brimful of poverty, debt, illness, tragedy, love, obsession, innovation, brilliance and eventual international recognition. In so doing, they changed the very way we think of ourselves.
Make no mistake, without Norah there would have been no Molly Bloom, and without Molly’s earthy lucidity Ulysses might be just another dazzling academic exercise.
Molly Bloom is way too much woman for most men and yet, ladies, before you go wasting your life on some pompous, insensate male, let him first read you aloud her final Ulysses soliloquy. If he gets through a couple of pages without fainting you may have a keeper; more than likely, though, he’ll hightail it to the pub, where you may expect to find him in the wintry days that afflict every marriage.
Joyce himself was hardly the easiest to live with. Sensitive and brittle, there was still the cut of a Roy Keane about him. Despite every conceivable hardship he never lost faith in his own genius.
He was a fine tenor; indeed Norah often lamented that he didn’t pursue the concert stage rather than bury himself in “them auld books.” What a break that he ignored her.
Yet he studied Norah’s every move, probed her innermost thoughts and desires, and in Molly Bloom delivered a portrait of a woman, unnerving as it is insightful.
Joyce’s character was probably shaped by the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell - a great man torn apart by lesser mortals. In that cataclysmic event the sensitive and highly intelligent boy experienced first hand a perfect national storm of jealousy, xenophobia, sexual repression, and meanness as much a part of the Irish national psyche as our legendary generosity. Joyce battled these traits for the rest of his life; his triumphs and failures are easily measured in his books.
Perhaps his greatest gift was to teach us that if words sound right, then they probably are; with that he shook off the dust of Victorian intellectualism allowing the English language to breathe again and give voice to modern consciousness.
Everyone should read him for he’s at once chatty and profound, spiritual yet steeped in life’s larval minutiae. But for God’s sake, don’t try reading Ulysses cover to cover, just dive in - you’ll soon find your own level.
Publicly, I always read the Gerty McDowell’s section on Sandymount Strand.
Maybe someday I’ll aspire to Molly herself, but why bother when Aedín Moloney will bring her startlingly to life outside Ulysses on Stone Street today. She may be the best Molly I’ve ever heard.
Pete Hamill’s rendering of The Dead is another seasonal delight. Joyce wrote this meditation on marriage when he was scarcely twenty-five. With the passing of time and old friends, Pete’s interpretation deepens and grows ever more thoughtful. That’s the genius of Joyce; yearly, we discover new layers of humanity in the writing and ourselves.
And as midnight approaches and Molly’s earthy shadow slips away, I’ll hum these lines on the passing of another Bloomsday.
“Don’t go, Molly, don’t go darlin’ we can make it if we try
Don’t disappear back into him, don’t say goodbye…”