16 June 2024

An odyssey before
Bloomsday visiting
Joyce’s early homes
in Dublin and Bray

Terenure in Dublin stakes a claim to James Joyce and his childhood odysseys (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Bloomsday celebrating that day 120 years ago – Thursday 16 June 1904 – celebrated by James Joyce in Ulysses 102 years ago in 1922. The day is named after Leopold Bloom, the principal character in the book as he wanders through the streets of Dublin.

The Bloomsday celebrations this year include readings, performances, re-enactments, tours, exhibitions, lectures, children’s events, a film festival, and many other festivities, with many people dressing, including straw boaters and bowlers.

Bloomsday is unparallelled as an international literary and cultural festival and it is one of the largest festivals in Dublin, with about 100 events throughout the city, attracting thousands of visitors from around the world.

Shakespeare & Co on the Rue de la Bûcherie in Paris … ‘Ulysses’ was first published by Shakespeare & Co in Paris in 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Ulysses was first published by Shakespeare & Co in Paris in 1922, and I visited the successor bookshop on the Left Bank in February. A number of events today would compete for my attention if I were in Dublin today.

‘Joyce and the Jesuits: Bloomsday at St Francis Xavier Church’ is one of those events, from 12:30 to 4 pm. When Ulysses was published 102 years ago, Father George O’Neill, one of Joyce’s Jesuit teachers at Clongowes Wood, said Joyce was enjoying ‘regrettable celebrity’ in Paris. Yet, while Joyce pokes gentle fun at some individual Jesuits, his affection for the Jesuits who educated him runs through his writings.

The main response to Ulysses in Ireland was to attack it on anti-Catholic grounds. But, while Joyce may have had issues with the Irish Catholic Church at the time, his writings were steeped in Church history, philosophy and theology, and his knowledge was often far better than many of the Irish Catholic clergy who denounced him. Gradually, the importance of Joyce in Irish literature became more widely accepted.

The Baptistry in Saint Joseph’s Church, Terenure … James Joyce was baptised on 5 February 1882 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Jesuit Church of Saint Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street, features throughout his work. This afternoon, the actor, writer and broadcaster Gerry McArdle puts together a programme of readings from Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses that highlight Joyce’s Jesuit connections. He is joined by Raphael Kelly, a well-known figure in Irish musical circles, and the singer Suzanne Mangan. The event is hosted and narrated by the RTÉ newscaster Eileen Dunne.

At the same time, the Irish Jewish Museum is presenting two events for Bloomsday about the Jewish history of Dublin during Joyce’s time.

The Joyce Focus Tour is at 1:30. The Irish Jewish Museum is in the heart of what was the Jewish quarter of Portobello, known to many as ‘Little Jerusalem’, and has memories of life in the area as Leopold Bloom might have known it and as Joyce witnessed it in the early 1900s.

This is followed at 3 pm with a screening of Estella, a documentary on the life of Estella Solomons, the Irish landscape and portrait painter and contemporary of James Joyce. Born in Dublin in 1882 and her portraits record three generation of rebels, artists and literary figures who forged the new Ireland. The 52-minutes film, made in 2002, was directed by Steve Woods, who is present at this afternoon’s screening.

Rathgar Bloomsday Festival was celebrated a day before Bloomsday this weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Rathgar, the suburban Dublin village where James Joyce was born in 1882, celebrated Bloomsday a day earlier with the Rathgar Bloomsday Festival yesterday at Rathgar Village Square, sponsored by Dublin City Council and Rathgar Business Association.

The programme included readings from Ulysses, jazz from Razzmajazz, food stalls and face painting.

My friend and colleague Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth University is planning a new book on ‘Childhood and the Irish’, following on the success of his recent books on Birth (2021), Marriage (2019), Death (2016) and Christmas (2023) and the Irish. One of the suggestions I have put to him is a chapter on James Joyce’s childhood, and his childhood odyssey across Dublin, between 1882 and 1902.

James Joyce was born at 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, on 2 February 1882 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

When Charlotte and I were in Bray and Dublin about a week ago, I went in search of some of Joyce’s childhood homes in Rathgar, Rathmines and Bray that were part of that odyssey. During the course of a day, I visited the first three houses that were the childhood homes of James Joyce.

His childhood odyssey began when James Joyce was born at 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, on 2 February 1882, and baptised on 5 February 1882 in the temporary church on the site of Saint Joseph’s Church, Terenure, just a few steps away from the Eagle Tavern, where his mother May (Murray) Joyce was born.

Over the next 20 years, Joyce’s father moved the family to 14 different addresses in Dublin and neighbouring areas. The family moved in 1884 to 23 Castlewood Avenue, Rathmines, where he lived until 1887. A plaque on the house says he lived there from the age of two to five, ‘and wrote his first words here.’

James Joyce ‘wrote his first words’ at 23 Castlewood Avenue in Rathmines (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Joyce family then moved to No 1 Martello Terrace in Bray in 1887, and lived there until 1892. A modest plaque is on the façade of the house, facing the Promenade and Bray Head, and a short stroll from the Martello Hotel, where Charlotte and I were staying for two nights. Appropriately, Ulysses is the name of a former guesthouse nearby on Strand Road, that has recently been converted into apartments.

When Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan stand ‘looking towards the blunt cape of Bray Head that lay on the water like the snout of a sleeping whale,’ it actually physically impossible for them see Bray Head from the tower in Sandycove. This is surprising, because Joyce was familiar with Bray Head as a child, and Bray Head is praised as one of the glories of Ireland in ‘Cyclops’. Bray is where Stephen Dedalus grew up, and it is where Molly and Leopold Bloom once took a rowboat out on the waves.

Joyce’s childhood home in Bray is represented in A Portrait of the Artist, in the Christmas dinner scene in which Simon Dedalus squares off against Dante O’Riordain over the tragic death of Charles Stewart Parnell. One of Joyce's memories from those days also surfaces in ‘Calypso,’ when Bloom mentally recites a little love poem to his daughter.

The Joyce family moved to No 1 Martello Terrace, Bray, in 1887 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

In ‘Penelope,’ Molly Bloom recalls a nearly disastrous rowing outing off the coast in Bray: ‘Id never again in this life get into a boat with him after him at Bray telling the boatman he knew how to row if anyone asked could he ride the steeplechase for the gold cup hed say yes then it came on to get rough the old thing crookeding about and the weight all down my side telling me pull the right reins now pull the left and the tide all swamping in floods in through the bottom and his oar slipping out of the stirrup its a mercy we werent all drowned he can swim of course me no theres no danger whatsoever keep yourself calm in his flannel trousers Id like to have tattered them down off him before all the people and give him what that one calls flagellate till he was black and blue do him all the good in the world.’

Bray Rowing Club continues to keep seagoing rowing boats on the beach in Bray to this day, and the boats were on the beach as Charolotte strolled along the seafront towards Bray Head at dusk in the late evening.

Bray Rowing Club continues to keep rowing boats on the beach in Bray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

From Bray, the Joyce family moved regularly, evading and escaping debt collectors and bailiffs at addresses in Blackrock (1892), Fitzgibbon Street (1893), Hardwicke Street (1894), Millbourne Avenue (1894), North Richmond Street (1895), Windsor Avenue (1896), Convent Avenue (1899), Richmond Avenue (1899), Royal Terrace (1900), Glengariff Parade (1902), and Saint Peter’s Terrace (1902).

The family continued to move after James Joyce moved to Paris in 1902, with at least six more identifiable and known addresses.

Perhaps this childhood and teenage odyssey, criss-crossing Dublin, influenced the greatest odyssey in modern Irish literature, the wanderings of Leopold Bloom 120 years ago on Bloomsday, 16 June 1904.

Ulysses on Strand Road in Bray … recently converted into apartments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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