Sylvie Jane Lewis: A Day in the Life of Dublin Town

Bloomsday in Dublin and the Cinematic Unreal

This piece was made possible by the Tom Parkinson travel writing grant, awarded by Jesus College, University of Cambridge.

On June 16th, 1904, James Joyce’s hero Leopold Bloom sets out on a voyage of the glorious mundane. Ulysses (1922) traces Bloom’s steps across a single day in Dublin, now known as Bloomsday. The text elevates the everyday with allusion, the most prominent being the novel’s Homeric structure. Among other things, Bloom eats breakfast, buys soap, shits, goes to a funeral, gets drunk, and goes to bed. Nothing spectacular happens, but the text is itself spectacular, alive with siren song and fireworks.

Joyce is a significant figure to my thinking on spectacle because of his dual interests in the otherworldly and everyday. Ulysses is concerned with fairy tales and of course mythology, but also with contemporary popular literature, music, and film — Joyce himself owned a cinema briefly, a subject I will return to in the context of my own archival research. Writing on modernism and fairy tales, Ann Martin identifies anxieties experienced by writers such as T. S. Eliot around modern technologies and entertainment forms such as cinema, which contrasts a nostalgia for the fairy tale garden (4-5). But Joyce, I find, is refreshing in his interest in mediums then deemed low culture, and in his refusal that these two realms should be mutually exclusive. Both cinema and the magic of childhood can be a part of our imaginative and emotional lives. In fact, early cinema often is concerned with the unreal — the féerie films of Georges Méliès, for instance. Joyce, in blurring the temporal divide between fable and film screen, suggests that the magical or spectacular is stitched into the daily life of the modern cinemagoer.

This depiction of the ordinary as spectacle is perhaps part of why the celebration of Bloomsday today is distinctly theatrical. I was one of the many people in Dublin on June 16th, 2023, who wore Edwardian-style dress, like the characters in Ulysses. The James Joyce Centre, home to museum exhibitions related to Joyce, sets the stage on Bloomsday for performances of sections of the text. “Proteus”, a section often noted for its seeming impersonality, was brought to life subtly and thoughtfully by Sean McDermott as Stephen Dedalus. Elaine Reddy’s performance of Molly Bloom’s monologue in “Penelope” was also a highlight, her rhythmic delivery alternating between wit and longing. Other activities popular with Joyceans include buying soap from Sweny’s Pharmacy (as Bloom does), and walking along Sandymount Beach, as Stephen does in “Proteus”, the reliving of these events also a kind of performance.

I am drawn to the possibility of reviving history in active, tactile ways, whether through the physical experience of an exhibition, or interacting with preserved material objects. The student-led tour of Trinity College is filled with historical stories — from an eighteenth-century murder plot to the life of Philosophical Society alumnus Oscar Wilde — brought to life inside various college buildings. This tour ends with the Book of Kells exhibition and the beautiful Old Library Long Reading Room (the Book of Kells being a ninth-century illuminated Gospel book in Latin, inhabited by illustrated animal and mythical creatures). Bookshops including Ulysses Rare Books and Temple Bar Bookshop are also home to magical beings, in their collections of fairy tales and Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature, affirming Ireland’s rich folklore.

Cinema, in Joyce’s day, was the modern incarnation of a magic show. For a short period between 1909 and 1910, Joyce owned a cinema in Dublin, called The Volta (the site now part of a Penneys). On Monday 19th, I went to the National Library of Ireland Manuscripts Room, to look at archived material connected to The Volta, once belonging to late Irish film historian Liam O’Leary. The collection features letters, articles, and photographs surrounding The Volta. One of the most interesting parts of this collection, to me, were the programs of titles shown at the cinema. Many of these films will now be lost, as is sadly the case with much early cinema. But even the recorded titles in these programs, featuring ghosts, princesses, sea storms, and bewitched castles, are evocative of the desire to step out of day-to-day life’s manic ambience, and into the fleeting spectacle of magic and melodrama.

The other element of the collection I was most struck by is the documentation of the life of Lennie Collinge. Collinge worked as a projectionist at The Volta, and did not know that the man who owned the cinema was an author until later in his life. The collection contains newspaper articles on Collinge, letters between Collinge and O’Leary, and a transcript of O’Leary interviewing Collinge. Archival collections illuminate not only traces of lost media, but also the lived experiences of working people whose quiet presences in creative history might otherwise be dismissed as minor. Archives are often ways of holding onto people as much as texts. In the interview, Collinge states that he doesn’t find Ulysses or Finnegans Wake particularly difficult reads (5). For someone who lives in Dublin, he says, many of Joyce’s seemingly obscure references become quickly recognizable through a ‘twist’ of phrasing. I cannot help but think of the cinema’s name, Volta: a poetic turn. Through Joyce’s stylistic twists and turns, the unusual becomes familiar.

The physicality of the cinema situates the ordinary (the viewer) within the unusual (the film), blurring a multitude of boundaries between reality and unreality. As Ulysses transforms its protagonists into spectacular heroes, cinema enacts a transformative spell (or trick, as with the genre of early trick films) between viewer and screen, the magician hidden in the projection box. A rhythm entwines these elements, flickering like a reel, as Joyce entwines his ‘Everyman’ (U 17:2010) with spectacles conjured by imagination: a vision of a ‘fairy boy’ (15:4957); ‘a witch on her toadstool’ (1:401); ‘the clear sea and the voices of sirens, sweet murderers of men’ (16:1813). The theatrical visuality of Bloomsday today is the result of a lasting wish to transform, to step into another era, another way of envisioning daily life — into the ‘perfect day’ Bloom imagines but cannot quite realise (17:2071).

When people in Dublin dress up in straw hats and suits or high-collared blouses, literary tourism becomes a performance. But dress-up, though an act of fun, is not therefore trivial. It can be testament to the transformative possibilities of imagination, through which we fashion ourselves for a perfect day, and step outside.

— by Sylvie Jane Lewis

Works Cited

Joyce, James. Ulysses: The Corrected Text. Penguin Modern Classics, 1986.
Liam O’Leary Archive, MS 50,000/232/8 [Volta programs].
MS 50,000/232/27 [Collinge interview].
Martin, Ann. Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Bed: Modernism’s Fairy Tales. University of
Toronto Press, 2006.

Copyright ©2023, by Sylvie Jane Lewis. All Rights Reserved.

Sylvie Jane Lewis is a fiction writer and poet from Chichester, soon to graduate with a master’s degree in English from the University of Cambridge. Her work has placed in literary competitions (winner of the 2023 Cambridge University Poetry Prize, runner-up of the 2023 Sykes Prize) and appeared in various publications. She worked as an editor for literary journals Riptide and Enigma during her undergraduate studies at the University of Exeter. Currently she is working on a first poetry collection and a first novel, both of which have film and fairy tales as key sources of inspiration.

 

Sylvie Jane Lewis: A Day in the Life of Dublin Town
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