Found in the Books I Haven’t Read category of my life list, Ulysses by James Joyce has such a reputation for being difficult that I had never seriously considered trying to read it.
That changed when I had the chance to go to Dublin, and especially when I got to see a play at the famous Abbey Theatre there.
The play is officially called Ulysses, but to differentiate it from other productions, I’ll add that I heard a review on radio calling it Ulysses, the Musical, and that intrigued me.
This was the perfect production for someone like me. It was meant to help us painlessly find our way into Joyce’s book.
Whatever new level of comprehension the play started for me, Dublin finished.
This was my first time in Ireland, and I had the fresh eyes advantage, I suppose. I saw a city where one might still expect to bump into friends and acquaintances in town, just like Leopold Bloom did in Ulysses. I saw prominent memorials to the fights for Irish independence, and statues of heroes whose names had meant nothing to me before I got there.
Bloom wondered if you could cross Dublin without passing a pub. I don’t think so. And besides, why would you want to?
I walked a lot, in a group and on my own. I saw what used to be the vast Guinness family empire, now corporate owned but still carrying the family torch. I saw the River Liffey and its many bridges.
I went up and down O’Connell Street, named for a man whose name rang a distant bell. Did I have the right person in mind? I’ve seen letters at The National Archives in London in which the nineteenth century British Prime Minister and his colleagues keep asking each other, “What shall we do about O’Connell”? In those papers he’s a problem. Here in Dublin, he’s a legend.
I saw a giant modern sculpture nicknamed The Spike. It stands where Nelson’s Pillar used to be. Nelson’s statue was unveiled in 1809, four years after his glorious fatal victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. After attempts both physical and political had failed, Nelson’s Pillar was blown up in 1966, and not by the Public Works Department.
The great British naval hero had been a misfit in Dublin for decades. He must have been an unwelcome overseer in 1916, when 485 people died in the Easter Rising.
The Easter Rising was short and bloody, but not spontaneous. The Irish had been trying for a long time to get out from under British rule. Some of the heroes of the ongoing struggle, separated by years, are buried near each other in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Fairly early in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom and friends go to their friend Paddy Dignam’s funeral at Glasnevin. They went by carriage; I walked. It felt like a long way (the way I went, anyway), but it was well worth it.
Among the many famous people buried at Glasnevin is Charles Stewart Parnell. When I got to the page in the book where Bloom muses about Parnell, I already had an idea of the high esteem in which this man was held. The prominently placed simple rock with only the word “Parnell” on it speaks for itself. My Irish friends said that in his day, Parnell was called “the uncrowned King of Ireland”.
Joyce had a few other things to say about Parnell: “A woman too brought Parnell low.” The Protestant politician was frozen out by the Catholic Church in Ireland when his longstanding affair with a married woman became public. Without the Church’s support, Parnell’s political influence dwindled. He died in 1891.
Irish independence as we know it came about in 1922. Without Parnell’s indiscretion, do people think it would it have taken so long?
All of these events and stories were abstract to me until I saw Dublin.
A walk around the trees, lawns, and lake of tranquil St. Stephen’s Green leads past some helpful signage identifying key points in the 1916 Easter Rising.
Here is the Shelbourne Hotel. When the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) dug trenches and occupied St. Stephen’s Green, the British soldiers fired down on them from the Shelbourne.
Here is the Royal College of Surgeons, across the Green. The ICA, driven from the park, holed up here and returned fire for the rest of the week.
The thing is, the Shelbourne Hotel is still the Shelbourne Hotel, and the College of Surgeons is still the College of Surgeons. There’s still a bullet hole inside.
The events of 1916 happened a few years before Joyce wrote Ulysses. To Leopold Bloom and his friends, forever living in the book’s world of June 1904, they are yet to come.
James Joyce said this about Ulysses: If Dublin “one day suddenly disappeared from the Earth it could be reconstructed out of my book”.
The stories are in the streets.
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Disclosure: I went to Dublin, including the Abbey Theatre, as a guest of Failte Ireland with some other bloggers. I stayed a couple of days afterward on my own. Everything I did, you can do. Walking is free and even Ulysses can be had as a free download.