Ulysses Goes Global

Notre Dame celebrates 100 years of James Joyce’s masterpiece

Kevin 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.

“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.”

A man stands on a street corner telling a story. There's a green double decker bus and people walking in the background.
Kevin Whelan stands on the corner of Merrion Square in Dublin, Ireland, where James Joyce waited for hours for his first date with his future wife.
A statue of a man leaning on top of a large rock.
Nearby, a statue of the writer Oscar Wilde sprawls on a rock in Merrion Square.

“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.

A man standing and speaking at a podium.
Declan Kiberd, the Donald and Marilyn Keough Professor of Irish Studies.

“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.”

It’s not an overstatement to say that the ghost of Joyce pops up all across Dublin. Whether it’s a statue of Joyce enjoying a book and a drink in The Temple Bar, or the National Library where protagonists Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus discuss Hamlet — memories of the book or writer are everywhere. The characters walk and talk all day, covering a lot of ground, and 14 brass pavement plaques across the city feature quotations from the book and point visitors to significant scenes in “Ulysses.”

Whelan says his favorite Joyce landmark in the city is a statue by Rowan Gillespie in the garden of the Merrion Hotel. The bronze piece, named “Ripples of Ulysses,” shows Joyce with his customary walking stick and round spectacles.

The figure is surrounded by a circle of panels on the ground featuring short passages from “Ulysses,” and his shadow acts as a sundial by falling on words from the time of day that corresponds to the same time in the novel. Water from the base runs through cracks between the panels.

With his hands in his pocket, a man stands in a garden next to a statue of James Joyce.
Kevin Whelan next to Rowan Gillespie's statue of James Joyce in the garden of the Merrion Hotel in Dublin. The bronze piece is named “Ripples of Ulysses.”
Two female students sit at one of the many desks inside a library.
Notre Dame students Madeline Owen (left) and Lauren Kelly in the National Library, where "Ulysses" protagonists discuss Shakespeare's Hamlet.
People browse in a library full of books from the ground up.
The Long Room in the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin.

“It starts in the morning and takes you around all 24 hours,” Whelan says. “Most sculptors tend to focus on the person, but writers are interested in the words they leave behind. I think Joyce would appreciate the substantive amount of text here. And water runs all through the words, just like the River Liffey runs through the novel and the city of Dublin.”

The novel opens in an old tower along the ocean on the south side of Dublin. The British built a series of circular towers in the early 1800s to defend against a backdoor invasion by Napoleon through the stepping stone of Ireland.

Years later, a friend of Joyce’s rented the tower as a place to live and a kind of artists’ retreat, and Joyce stayed there for just six nights when he was 22 years old. Volunteers have converted the tower into a Joyce museum, and lively local guides entertain thousands of visitors each year. In the recreated living space, cramped and circular, guide James Holahan explains why Joyce’s stay was so short.

One of his roommates “awoke in the night hallucinating, imagining he saw emerging from that fireplace a ferocious black panther”, Holahan says. “As one does, he stepped up with a loaded revolver and began shooting at the panther.” Then the other roommate awoke, grabbed the gun and began shooting at pots and pans above Joyce’s bed. Joyce fled and never returned.”

Two men stand at the top of a tower, against a wall. The blue sky, clouds, and the ocean is in the background.
James Holahan (right), a guide dressed as Ulysses character Leopold Bloom, and Tom Fitzgerald, a pub owner dressed as Stephen Dedalus, stand atop a Martello tower in Dublin that they help support as the James Joyce Tower and Museum.

“This is the setting of the first scene in the finest novel in English literature,” Holahan says. Later, he would tell more Joyce stories in nearby Fitzgerald’s pub, where stained-glass windows show scenes from Homer’s “Odyssey.”

Just as remarkable are the volunteers who keep open another landmark in the book, Sweny’s chemist shop near Trinity College. The store opened in 1847 and operated largely unchanged as a pharmacy until 2009. Rather than let it close, Joyce fans started a nonprofit that maintains the shop as it was in 1904, besides offering Joyce books and mementos to raise funds for its upkeep.

“In the fifth chapter of ‘Ulysses,’ the main character, Leopold Bloom, comes into Sweny’s to buy a cake of lemon-scented soap and a prescription for face cream for his wife,” says Davey Doyle, a volunteer. “So we have a fictional character ordering a fictional bar of soap and fictional prescription in a real pharmacy.”

A man stands behind a counter surrounded by glass bottles.
Davey Doyle, a volunteer, stands behind the counter at Sweny’s Pharmacy, which was featured in a scene in “Ulysses” and now holds Joyce readings each day.

Sweny’s also sponsors several Joyce book readings each day in a variety of languages. The chemist shop and tower are popular spots during the annual Dublin celebration of Bloomsday on June 16. Thousands of people dress in Edwardian clothes, including Dedalus’ cane and Bloom’s bowler, and participate in readings, meals and other events mentioned in the novel.

“It is quite impossible to imagine any other masterpiece of modernism having quite such an effect on the life of a city,” Kiberd once wrote in a newspaper article on Bloomsday. Smaller Bloomsday gatherings are held in literary pockets around the world, including Notre Dame.

While the impact of “Ulysses” on Dublin is easy to measure, its influence on the rest of the world is the subject of Notre Dame’s Global Ulysses celebration. Joyce conceived of the novel and started it in Italy before finishing it while living in Paris.

“This is a way for Notre Dame to connect Ireland to the outside world and the outside world to Ireland, which is the model of our Irish studies program in general,” Kiberd says.

A plaque dedicated to James Joyce.
“In this house in Rome… James Joyce/ A voluntary exile evoked the story of Ulysses/ Making of his Dublin our Universe.”

Kiberd embodies this goal by teaching at the Dublin Global Gateway in the spring and on the South Bend campus each fall. His fall class was a graduate student study of “Ulysses” with Terrinoni, an English literature professor at Università Per Stranieri di Perugia in Italy who came to Notre Dame in the Fall 2019 semester as a visiting fellow in Irish studies.

Bringing Joyce to the world has never been an easy task. The author’s modernist style and subject matter have historically made “Ulysses” a controversial work. Joyce believed that the traditional style of writing, exemplified by Charles Dickens, was no longer possible in a post-war world that had become faster and more disconnected.

“Joyce invented a completely new style to capture the fluidity of the modern world,” Whelan says. “Also, Joyce was intensely democratic. What he does in the novel is represent every kind of voice.”

Inscriptiong on stone that reads The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Custave Moreau is the painting of ideas.
Panels below the Joyce statue “Ripples of Ulysses” feature short passages from the novel that takes place in a single day (June 16, 1904) in Dublin.

The style and hyper-realist subject matter gave rise to numerous critics and led to the novel being banned as obscene in the United States and Britain. A 1922 editorial in the London Sunday Express claimed, “All the secret sewers of vice are canalized in its flood of unimaginable thoughts, images and pornographic words.”

In a recent book on a century of landmark ACLU cases, author Michael Chabon traces the incredible story of the legal fight to overturn the ban on “Ulysses.” A publisher and ACLU lawyer managed to sidestep obscenity laws and have the book judged under tariff laws.

They shipped a single copy from Paris with glowing testimonials from fellow authors like Ernest Hemingway inserted inside, thus becoming evidence in the case — then purposely handed it over to customs. A 1933 court decision changed the American legal system by judging a piece of art as a whole work, rather than just considering the parts that could be labeled obscene.

Footsteps in the sand.
Ulysses' character Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's alter ego, took a stroll on Sandymount Strand and pondered "walking into eternity."
Rowers on River Liffey with the Samuel Beckett Bridge in the background in Dublin, Ireland.
The River Liffey runs through the heart of Dublin and highlights the contrast of modern and historic elements in the city.

Kiberd says the novel “has always tested the tolerance of cultural and political systems.” It was never banned in Ireland because Irish law required a citizen to file a complaint that included an interpretation of the book, Kiberd says. Nobody did.

The Irish government sent Kiberd to China in 1993 for the publication of the first edition in Mandarin. Before that, he says it “had been frowned upon as a work of bourgeois decadence since the time of Mao.” Only about 40 scholars showed up the first night, but after the state television broadcast the event, signaling official approval, more than 500 people came for the second day.

Kiberd and Whelan think Joyce would appreciate Notre Dame’s efforts to spread his work around the world, mainly because he had a notoriously high opinion of himself. But Whelan said it takes an extravagant confidence to rewrite the central myth of Europe from an Irish angle.

“Imagine this guy in his 20s, standing here on this corner waiting for a girl,” Whelan says. “He wanted to take this city on the edge of Europe — small, cold, rainy, provincial, pious, poverty-stricken. And he’s going to take that and turn it into the emblematic city of the whole world. Yet that’s what he did.”

Global Ulysses is likewise as ambitious as its name.