KKevin Whelan is standing on a street corner of Merrion Square, just across the park from Notre Dame’s Dublin Global Gateway where he is the director, spinning a story about how James Joyce haunts every part of Dublin, if you know where to look.
Joyce stood on this spot for about four hours on June 16, 1904, waiting for his first date with Nora Barnacle, his future wife and the primary model for Molly Bloom, the female protagonist of “Ulysses.” Joyce set this date as the novel’s single day, which is now celebrated as Bloomsday every year in Dublin. Whelan said the Galway-born Barnacle represented for Joyce the earthy values of the authentic Irish countryside in contrast to his British-derivative city of her.
“Ulysses” is often voted by literary critics as the most important book of the 20th century, yet it can be so forbidding in its complexity and experimental writing styles that many recreational readers feel too intimidated to try.
But Barnacle was cleaning a nearby hotel and couldn’t get out of extra work that day, so they postponed until the next day. The waiting must have stuck with Joyce.
“The kick-start of the novel is that date, but I find it highly Irish that he set the novel on the 16th of June, not the 17th, because nothing happened on the 16th except the rain,” Whelan says. “He was probably under this tree, thinking about this raven-haired Irish beauty.”
The significance of the spot doesn’t end there. There is a statue of Oscar Wilde 20 yards away because the witty writer grew up directly across the street. The father of Samuel Beckett, the absurdist playwright, had an office a few doors down. And the poet William Butler Yeats lived on the other side of Merrion Square.
“You couldn’t teach English poetry without covering Yeats, you couldn’t do drama without Beckett, and if you’re talking about novels, Joyce,” Whelan says. “Arguably the finest poet, dramatist and novelist, all Irish, masters of their trade, right here. It’s amazing. Certainly this small island has punched above its weight class when it comes to literature.”
“Ulysses” is often voted by literary critics as the most important book of the 20th century, yet it can be so forbidding in its complexity and experimental writing styles that many recreational readers feel too intimidated to try. Declan Kiberd, the Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies at Notre Dame, has spent much of his career challenging this conception and evangelizing Joyce to the world.
“Ulysses is a book of everyday life about ordinary people.” –Declan Kiberd
Kiberd and Enrico Terrinoni, a former student and a prize-winning Italian translator of the novel, came up with a novel way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of “Ulysses” in 2022. This year, they and the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies are launching a celebration called “Global Ulysses.”
In addition to scholars who study Joyce and Ulysses, the series of conferences and talks in Paris, Rome and Dublin aims to bring in non-literary specialists to discuss Joyce’s thoughts on topics like music, theology, theater and history. The collaboration, begun before the pandemic delayed the conference last year, has already produced a book of these “outsider” essays that will be published in June.
“It’s not an academic book,” Kiberd says. “There’s an academic elite who have laid their hands on this text and want to claim it for themselves rather than share it with the world.”
Kiberd argues that “Ulysses” is not just for the learned because it has much to teach us about everything from how to cope with grief to how to tell a joke. And these profound thoughts come from ordinary people, not just a noble prince like Hamlet.
“Ulysses is a book of everyday life about ordinary people,” said Kiberd, whose 2009 book “Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece” addresses this topic. “We want to get away from specialists and discuss the wisdom and everyday experience of Joyce.”
The conferences will kick off on March 10 in Rome, where Joyce began writing the novel. Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri will headline the events at Notre Dame’s Global Gateway with a talk about writers in exile and “finding a new language”. In Paris, where “Ulysses” was first published in its entirety in 1922, current Irish playwright Marina Carr will discuss themes of the Penelope episode, among other events on June 1-3. The conferences will conclude on June 16, Bloomsday, in Dublin. From February through May, Notre Dame will host an art exhibition about modern Irish identity, as well as a series of other events about Irish modernity over the last century.
“Before Joyce, nobody had so fully represented the process of thought, that stream of consciousness which everyone experiences every day,” Kiberd writes. “Joyce shows the inner soliloquy as a normal prelude to nothing more portentous than drinking a cup of tea.”