ARIEH O’SULLIVAN visits Dublin for Bloomsday and discovers how literature, history, Guinness and Judaism converge in the mystical Emerald Isle
From The Jerusalem Report, issue dated June 4, 2012
The church has יהוה, the holy name of God in Hebrew, painted on the ceiling. But that isn’t what I find incredulous. The fact that the crypt, the final resting-place of generations of priests and notables, has been turned into a dance floor – well now, that was sacrilege to the extreme. This is the moment when I truly fall in love with Dublin. Again.
We are on a Guinness diet, my son and I, and we have already lost four days. I have dragged him along to the ancestral homeland in search of Leprechauns and Jewish lore and perhaps the most famous Jewish character in English literature.
But arriving to partake in the annual Bloomsday I am reluctant to check my mythical images of the Emerald Isle at the door. And I’m glad I didn’t.
Ireland, once the Celtic tiger, is a shadow of its recent self. There is still swank Grafton Street with shops rivaling Paris and London and the country has greatly shed its pious Catholicism. But Ireland today is $135 billion in debt, bailed out mostly by the Germans.
“We’re all guilty,” says Peter Graves at the Sinn Fein shop, pushing IRA bumper stickers and t-shirts. “Everyone took advantage of the bubble. Now ‘de whole country’s broke. Berlin’s our new capital.”
But that doesn’t put a dent in the annual celebration of Bloomsday, the annual celebration in memory of Leopold Bloom, the Jewish protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which describes his wanderings through the city, thinking like mad. Joyce’s audacious version of the Homeric legend takes place over a single day, on June 16, 1904, making summertime Dublin a Mecca for English literature fans. Every year thousands of Joyce diehards flock to the city to reenact Bloom’s journey. Bloom never existed, except in Joyce’s extraordinary imagination, but in a marketing masterpiece, the Irish have turned Bloomsday, a totally fictional event where Jew and Ireland meet, into something approaching a national holiday.
Ulysses is considered one of the most significant literary works of the 20th Century – though few have attempted to grapple with its dense and cerebral text, and fewer still have made it through to the end. That hasn’t stopped the Irish. They have highlighted the passages about food and booze and sex and set them up as a template for a perfect mid-summer holiday. It’s a hedonists’ paradise where live music seems to burst out of every doorway and liquor consumption keeps the mammoth Guinness brewery struggling to produce two million pints of its trademark black stout a day.
Ulysses is an outrageously funny and bawdy book. Peppered with Latin and Hebrew, it pioneered stream-of-consciousness narrative. Joyce crammed everything about life – sex, bodily functions, longing and mourning – into that single June day. Joyce’s masterpiece has been consistently voted as one of English literature’s most influential book of all time. Not bad for a piece of fiction that very few have actually read.
On Bloomsday itself, I drag my boy Yarden, just out of high school, onto the streets and join an international crowd armed with tattered, dog-eared copies of Ulysses and maps of Dublin in 1904, as we begin our Odyssey just as Bloom did from his home at 7, Eccles Street.
Everyone has entered into the holiday spirit. Straw hats and jaunty bowlers for men, and lacy, bosom-revealing frocks for women are de rigueur. I wear a white linen suit with Panama hat. There are also no small number of cross-gender dressers, which helps transform the atmosphere as we retrace Bloom’s mythical steps from literary Via Dolorosa to licentious, Guinness-fueled Mardi Gras.
Most of the landmarks Joyce described in Ulysses are still there and the increasingly inebriated procession flows like a human wave across the city. At stops along the way, enthusiasts who can still read and not yet splayed out across the nearest bar, recite passages from the book.
Outside Davy Byrne’s pub at 21, Duke Street, Gorgonzola cheese sandwiches and a glass of Burgundy just like Mr. Bloom tasted are going fast for 10 euros. Across the River Liffey at the Ormond Hotel, there is little oxygen left in the lounge: everyone has sucked it out singing ballads and reciting poetry. In any other country it would seem pretentious.
A pack of children dressed in Edwardian-era costumes stroll by in celebration. For a novel banned from American shelves as obscene until 1933, the scene raises the interesting question of just how much of the book can be read to the children.
In his depiction of sex, as in much else, Joyce was ahead of his time. In the final chapter, Leopold’s unfaithful wife Molly Bloom brings herself to an unfiltered, unforgettable orgasm (“Yes, I said, Yes I will, Yes”) nearly a century before Meg Ryan’s signature restaurant scene in When Harry met Sally.
“Oh forget the fugghan text. Ulysses is best exposed by listening to it,” says Irishman James Scully in a pinstripe suit. “Dis is me 25th year!”
The diehards continue toward Barney Kiernan’s pub. My prodigal son drops out, but I soldier on, recalling my Irish grandfather who used to say, “I only drink when I’m alone or with somebody.”
The pub itself no longer exists, so the pack darkens the doors of The Green Street Pub to re-enact the famous “Cyclops” scene where a “broadshouldered, deepchested, stronglimbed, frankeyed, redhaired, freely freckled, shaggy bearded, widemouthed, largenosed, longheaded, deepvoiced, barekneed, brawnyhanded, hairlylegged, ruddyfaced, sinewyarmed” bigot confronts our Jewish hero.
“What is your nation?” he asks Bloom, threatening later to “brain that bloody jewman.”
“I belong to a race too,” says Bloom, “that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment.”
Earlier in the novel a Mr. Deasy says Ireland has the honor of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews – “Because she never let them in.”
“One of the central reasons for giving Bloom a Jewish identity was because it allowed Bloom to be both within and without Irish society,” says Mark Traynor, manager of the James Joyce Center. “Joyce was extremely attracted to the idea of Bloom the Jew and to Jewishness in general, the idea of a wandering race and of course, he as an Irishman in exile, could identify with that.”
According to Traynor, Bloomsday 2012 is expected to be an even bigger event since the copyright of the book is due to expire, allowing for a new wave of artistic interpretations of the 800-page novel.
Senator David Norris, the on-off Irish presidential candidate and Ireland’s most flamboyant politician, is a leading Joyce scholar and a fair-weather friend of Israel.
“This was Joyce striking out for diversity and supporting the underdog,” says Norris. “Both the Irish and the Jews have tragic history. The Jews had the awful unparalleled tragedy of the Holocaust and we also lost half our population during the famine. There’s the Jewish mother and the Irish mammy, the sense of humor and the curiosity about everything that happens in the world and just as the Jewish people have their Diaspora, the Irish people have a diaspora and even President Barack Obama is delighted to trace his Irish roots.”
“And you know,” adds Norris with a wink, “the Irish people were the lost tribe of Israel.”
That may explain the plethora of Cohan and Levi families in Ireland. But what about Murphy, the most common family name here? The story goes that many of the ship surgeons from the wrecked Armada that washed up on Irish shores after the defeat by Sir Francis Drake were Jews. They likely went by the name Mar’peh (“healer” in Hebrew), that later became Murphy. Could the common Irish name Hennessey be derived from the Hebrew Hanasi (“president”). Was McCabe originally Maccabi? Was Brennan originally Ben-Nun? Perhaps I should change my own name back to the original O’Solomon.
Dublin’s Jewish community today is minuscule, numbering only about 1,000 people. The bulk trace their roots to ancestors arriving at the turn of the 19th century from Eastern Europe, most of them from Lithuania. Some were disembarked by shady ship captains who told them they had already reached New York. Joyce was generally correct that the Irish did not persecute their Jews, notwithstanding bubbles of general folk, Catholic Church type of anti-Semitism that permeated European society. An infamous “pogrom” in Limerick in 1904 was considered a blip in the otherwise cordial relationship with the Jews.
The Jewish population peaked shortly after World War II at about 5,500 and has been on the decline ever since, a process hastened by a combination of emigration, intermarriage and a low birthrate. In contrast, Islam is Dublin’s fastest-growing community. Ireland looks like it might be the first Western European country to lose its Jewish community altogether. This year, for the first time, Judaism wasn’t listed in the religion category on the annual census, says Traynor.
“I’m proud of the fact that I am an Irish Jew,” says Joe Briscoe, whose father and brother both served as lord mayor of Dublin.
“Now that the Jewish population is shrinking, the Irish people suddenly realize that they had a wonderful exotic people among them whom they have totally ignored,” says Briscoe. “I find it ironic that Ireland is the only country in the world which celebrates the wanderings of a Jew who never existed.
TRAVELING IN IRELAND
The Irish love to drink and sing and seem perpetually happy and want nothing more than for us to be happy too. Ireland loves tourists.
Four times the size of Israel with roughly half the population (4.5 million), Ireland is expecting a strong rebound in tourism in 2012 to help it out of a deep recession that has seen its economy shrink by 25 percent in the past four years. Tourism peaked at 8 million in 2007, then slumped to 6 million in 2011. All this means cheaper holidays with luxury hotel rooms at B&B rates.
By far the best way to see Ireland is to avoid the awful coach trips and get off the beaten path. Adventure tourism companies are cropping up to answer the growing interest.
“Ireland is like a donut, all the sweet bits are around the edge and nothing in the middle,” says Mark Doherty, guide, minstrel and jeep driver for Vagabound Tours Ireland, one of the premier adventure tour groups operating modified Land Rover 4x4 vehicles.
Joining the tour for four days, we headed straight for the west coast and kayaked with the seals in Bantry Bay, befriended the local fishermen in far off villages, kissed the Blarney Stone, visited the O’Sullivan castle (of course), spotted whales, climbed mountains, explored abandoned villages and mines and felt privileged to see the real Ireland.
WHERE TO STAY
Isaac’s Hostel 2 Frenchman’s Lane (353-1-855-6215) A good budget option. Free WiFi, lockers, clean co-ed rooms with bunk beds, (one homeless guy sneaked in to the room across the hall and was found warming someone’s bed) excellent rates, friendly world travelers of all ages. www.isaacs.ie/isaacs_hostel/
Luxurious Fitzwilliam Hotel St. Stephens Green (353-1-478-7000) Definitely lives up to its “hottest hotel in the world” reputation. Located right off swank Grafton Street and main green, a 5 star contemporary hotel with best location in town. The concierge has an endless supply of umbrellas for guests. http://www.fitzwilliamhotel.
Vagabound Tours Ireland award-winning company running expeditions of a dozen or less international travelers in jeeps, staying in boutique hotels and pups and visiting the real Ireland. www.vagabondtoursofireland.ie/
The James Joyce Center 35 Great North Georges Street, Dublin (353-1-878-8547) Where all things Joyce are concentrated and Bloomsday is celebrated every day. http://www.jamesjoyce.ie
Dublin Writers Museum 18 Parnell Sq. N, (353-1872- 2077) Offers a great overview of Ireland’s literary history. www.writersmuseum.com
The Old Jameson Distillery Bow Street (353-1807-2235) Great tour culminating with whiskey tasting
Dublin Tourism (353-1-605-7700) www.visitdublin.com