This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

June 2004


The 16th of June marks the 100th anniversary of “Bloomsday”: the date of the adventures of Leopold Bloom throughout the course of a single day in Dublin in the year 1904 as depicted in James Joyce’s landmark novel Ulysses.

We won’t attempt to summarize or analyze the story here, which after all is a fictional event, but rather consider some of its historic aspects.

16 June 1904 was significant to Joyce because it was on or about that day that he had his first date with his beloved Nora Barnacle, whom he would eventually marry. In writing the novel, Joyce set out to do more than plot a story: he deliberately sought to re-create, in exacting detail, the Dublin of his youth, the Dublin that he left for good a few months after that day in June 1904. In later years he would remark that if Dublin were to be completely destroyed it could be recreated as it was in 1904 from the information in Ulysses.

Years of sporadic and often ill-advised urban renewal in Dublin have come close to doing just that, but enough of the old city still survives to enable visitors to retrace much of Leopold Bloom’s perambulations.

Joyce’s remarkable memory and passion for exact detail made this possible. While writing the book in Paris, he could still recall to his mind’s eye the details of the street scenes his character was passing, and Joyce on occasion would double-check his recollections by recourse to a guidebook or query. In the midst of working on the closing chapters, he wrote to his Aunt Josephine in Dublin asking her to find out if his description of Bloom’s belated homecoming was accurate. Specifically, he wanted to know if it was possible for someone to “climb over the railings at number 7 Eccles Street [and] lower himself from the lower part of the railings until his feet are within two feet of the ground, and drop unhurt.”

It is of course unlikely that Joyce’s auntie risked flashing her bloomers in pursuit of literary verisimilitude. Instead she probably tossed a tuppence to a neighborhood lad to do the physical research. In any event she was able to report to Joyce that the route was indeed doable, and so Leopold Bloom made it home at last.

Joyce’s verisimilitude extended to the news of the day, and so links Bloomsday to the centennial of an especially tragic event. On the day before “Bloomsday,” 15 June 1904, the excursion steamboat General Slocum caught fire on the East River in New York, resulting in the deaths of 1,021 people, mostly women and children. The catastrophe appears in the pages of Ulysses when Bloom reads of it in a late edition of Dublin’s Evening Telegraph.

While today Ulysses is generally recognized as a cornerstone of modern Irish literature, the book has drawn its share of harsh criticism over the years, much of it over the book’s mostly unsympathetic depictions of Irish nationalists. The year 1904 would mark a new departure in Irish nationalism with the publication of Arthur Griffith’s The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel for Ireland and the founding of the Sinn Fein party the following year. But while the year 1904 marked for Irish nationalists the beginning of a movement away from the old constitutional “Home Rule” party, Joyce was beginning to distance himself from Irish nationalism and he increasingly looked askew at the Irish language revival.

The frank sexuality of some of the novel’s scenes also caused distress for many readers and reviewers. Ironically, one of the first actions of the new Irish Free State in 1923 would be to ban the importation of copies of Ulysses, which would be banned in England, too until 1936. The book was banned in the United States as well, leading to a landmark Supreme Court case that overturned the censorship and allowed its publication here in 1932.

Today, over 80 years since its publication, Ulysses enjoys a devoted following of readers. Every year, and especially this year, there are dozens of “Bloomsday” celebrations around the globe on or about the 16th of June.

For more information on Ireland, see the Ireland Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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