Been reading the essays in that Nuala O’Faolain book and saw that one of them is about Bloomsday, which I meant to tell you about earlier this summer and haven’t yet. So why don’t I do that now?
We do a Bloomsday celebration here in Philadelphia in the form of a day of readings from Ulysses. Dozens of prominent folks are scheduled in advance to stand up to the microphone on a gorgeous leafy street of brownstones in downtown Philly, outside the Rosenbach, a rare books museum. Brothers A.S.W. and Philip Rosenbach, who were book dealers and collectors, acquired the original Ulysses manuscript back in the day, so since the museum has the precious thing they host this day of readings and music every year on June 16th, the date on which all the events depicted in Ulysses take place. The Rosenbach’s Bloomsday might be my favorite thing that happens in Philadelphia. I go every year, and when the wonderful actress Drucie McDaniel does the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end, I always, always cry.
I spent some time in Ireland several years ago, and while I was there the subject of James Joyce (inevitably?) came up with a friendly acquaintance. I proudly told him that we do Bloomsday in my city too. “That must be a bit difficult!” he laughed, because of course in Dublin, Bloomsday entails tromping through the city on foot, retracing the steps taken by Stephen Dedalus in the novel. I felt kinda silly at the time.
In a piece O’Faolain wrote for The Irish Times in 1997, she talked about how Dublin has changed so much that it is no longer the city we see in the novel. She didn’t mean the that the buildings were gone, though some (but not all) of them are. She meant that the novel depicted Irish city life in a way that was intimately realistic and familiar to Irish people. It was the life of the wanderer, of people without much money or jobs or even any thought of a job, who spent their days roaming, stopping in on friends and drinking in pubs. The kind of living in public that people do because, as O’Faolain wrote, they had a place to sleep, maybe, but not a home. That Dublin “was alive until money killed it,” she wrote.
In these columns O’Faolain often wrote about poverty and the way it characterized and shaped Irish culture and thinking, and about what it meant when—in the 90s, abruptly—the money came in. I was there during Ireland’s boom, and I remember seeing cranes everywhere in Dublin, building new offices and stores and apartment complexes every day. I saw how shopping as a hobby, still a relatively new concept anywhere in the world, was brand new there, giddy and doomed. Thanks to that influx of money many people were able to find a way out of poverty, get educations, travel, get jobs and then better jobs. But some of the changes I saw scared me because they lagged behind the ones that happened here, so I felt like I should warn everybody that they wouldn’t all turn out so great. That icy feeling of alienation, people afraid to look each other; pissed-off women driving gleaming SUVs. Never having enough (or any) money is awful, and having enough (plus a little extra) is so sweet. But it seems like when there’s too much of it things start to get nasty.
O’Faolain described the old Dublin as having a sense of a condition shared. I’ve been thinking about what that might have felt like. Not having been a part of it, I can’t say for sure what it even looked like. I can say that Philadelphia is a place of a lot of just-getting-by, and as a big old European-style city, it’s certainly a place where a lot of our living takes place in public, as compared to suburbs and cities developed after the invention of cars, where people can avoid being around each other much of the time. In the neighborhoods folks still have some of those old ways, I’d say. I like to take long epic walks all around the city, through neighborhoods I know as well as down blocks I’ve never been on before, looking at buildings and people and trees. I do my errands that way too, out of necessity: I’ve never learned how to drive, though that itself is a choice. But there are other people here in this city who have much more time than I do to wander and roam, or who know their neighbors because they’ve lived next to them for 40 years, and both of them have parents and grandparents who lived in the neighborhood too. It was beautiful to read what O’Faolain wrote about those folks from the old Dublin. She didn’t romanticize poverty; that would be stupid. But she knows that they had something special that you can’t really borrow if you don’t come by it naturally. “We are provincials, compared to their urbanity.”