June 16, 1904 is arguably one of the most famous dates in Irish history, although nothing of any note actually happened on that day. It’s famous because that’s the day on which James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, originally published in 1922, takes place. Continually ranked as one of the greatest novels of the English language–if not the greatest–Ulysses certainly represents a pinnacle in Irish cultural history. It’s also a remarkable snapshot, frozen in time, of the city of Dublin as it existed at the dawn of the 20th century.
Ulysses, as many people know, takes place all in one day, and it doesn’t have much of a plot. It begins in a Martello tower–a cylindrical defensive tower commonly built throughout the British Empire in Napoleonic times–with a conversation between Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan, and then the focus shifts to Leo Bloom who spends most of that day (June 16, 1904) wandering around Dublin. He walks on a beach called Sandymount Strand, has a glass of wine at Davy Byrne’s Pub and visits Glasnevin Cemetery. The book happens almost exclusively in Leo Bloom’s head, excepting the opening scenes and the famous soliloquy by his long-suffering wife, Molly Bloom. Ulysses mimics, in structure and basic cast of events, Homer’s classic text The Odyssey.
Like most European cities on the eve of World War I, Dublin in 1904 was in the midst of profound change. It was not really a heavy industrial city, but as Ireland and Europe increasingly industrialized Dublin became a locus of unskilled unemployed workers. They lived in squalid tenements and found diversion in a part of the city known as Monto, a red light district where crime and prostitution were common. This area is depicted in Ulysses. At one time it was the largest red light district in Europe. Famous as the place where Prince Albert–King Edward VII, who was on the throne of England in 1904–supposedly lost his virginity, Monto is gone now, having vanished by the end of the 1920s after Irish independence and a series of police crackdowns and religious reforms.
Davy Byrne’s Pub is popular among fans of the book, especially on June 16 which is known as “Bloomsday” after the main character. There are countless walks and re-creations of the novel in Dublin to celebrate it and the city.
Indeed much of Ulysses’s Dublin is now gone or changed dramatically, particularly in the years not long after 1904. Twelve years after Ulysses takes place–and in fact during the writing of the novel–Dublin’s streets ran with blood during the Easter Rising of 1916, the largest-scale uprising against British rule until Irish independence came in the early 1920s. That event too changed Dublin forever, and political violence either directly or indirectly related to the end of British rule made the city a crucible of conflict. Although the seeds of social change are visible bubbling through Dublin’s streets in Ulysses, the kind of place the capital became in the 1920s is very different than the city described in Joyce’s pages. History has a way of altering the fundamental character of the places it touches.
Some of Joyce’s landmarks are still there and remain relatively unchanged. Davy Byrne’s Pub, at 21 Duke Street, is still there and open for business. It really was there in 1904 and today you can still go in and get a gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of wine, as Leo Bloom does in the novel. Glasnevin Cemetery, which opened in 1832, is still around too, and since 1904 has served as the last resting place of many of Ireland’s prominent figures, including Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins. The Martello tower at Sandycove has since been turned into the James Joyce Museum. In fact Joyce himself really did stay here in September 1904. His visit to the place was the impetus for the opening scene of Ulysses.
Ulysses is undoubtedly an important contribution to world culture. It’s possible that no other achievement in Irish letters will ever quite match it (though of course it would be awesome if something did). However, more than just a great novel or a rumination on the human experience, Ulysses can be seen also as a historical document. It froze in amber the sights, smells and moods of Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Fiction can sometimes be history too, as James Joyce shows us.