The Irish eyes were smiling Saturday evening in Northwest Washington. About 100 fans of James Joyce gathered at the home of the Irish ambassador to celebrate Bloomsday. As every student of English literature knows, June 16 is the day immortalized in Joyce’s modernist classic “Ulysses” (1922).
For some of these devotees, the Bloomsday celebration had begun many hours earlier, with a marathon reading that started at Politics and Prose Bookstore at 10 a.m. before moving on to James Hoban’s Irish Restaurant in the afternoon.
Ambassador Michael Collins, as towering and jovial as ever, said that 35 cities in at least 14 countries celebrated Bloomsday this year.
In a sign of the times that might have appealed to James’s symphonic voice, Collins said he’d been receiving tweets about this unique literary event all day long. “We very much like the fact that so many around the world — the Irish, the non-Irish and those who want to be Irish — come together to celebrate our culture.”
The highlight of the evening was a reading of passages from Joyce’s seminal novel by television and radio personality Robert Aubry Davis, George Washington professors Christopher Griffin and Margaret Soltan, and Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, who showed off his green socks.
Standing under a portrait of John Shaw by Gilbert Stuart, Davis admitted, “I’m one of those people not lucky enough to be born Irish,” but he made up for it by marrying an Irish woman. He read from the “Telemachus” episode with tremendous energy, dropping in a few rich Irish accents, too.
Though almost 100 years have passed since Joyce first published “Ulysses” in Paris, it’s still difficult to quote passages in a family newspaper. The book was banned in the United States until 1933 and even later in England.
When Soltan finished delivering Molly Bloom’s orgasmic finale in the ambassador’s formal living room — “His heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes” — Collins stepped up the microphone and said, “Yes, indeed!” He noted that “Ulysses” had never been banned in Ireland.
About a dozen of the guests in attendance were members of a bicycle group who came dressed in early 20th-century costumes as Molly and Leopold Bloom. (In “Ulysses,” James wrote, “Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle.”) They had ridden about four miles around Washington, some of them on antique bikes, before joining the festivities. Fionnuala Quinn, one of the organizers, was wearing a long, dusty purple dress. “Being out and about in the city is what this book is all about,” she said. “We couldn’t re-create Dublin, so we re-created a little bit of Bloomsday in Washington.”
From the ambassador’s house, the party roved on to an Irish dinner at the Cosmos Club, where the guests recalled that “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.”
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.