Story by Nancy Wigston
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
TORONTO, ONTARIO — June 16th offers the most fun available to anyone who’s struggled through Ulysses, the masterpiece by Irish writer James Joyce. Not the June 16th, in the book, mind you—that’s the near-endless day in 1904 when Joyce’s main character and middle-aged mensch, Leopold Bloom, wanders around the shores and byways of his native Dublin—no, this is the June 16th when Joyce fans all over the world gather to celebrate “Bloomsday” in tribute to what many consider the greatest novel of the 20th century.
Toronto’s ReJoyce! Festival, produced by Anna Livia productions, is now in its 30th year. It has been hailed as one of the top Bloomsday celebrations in the world, a list that includes Ireland (naturally), Hungary, Italy, the Czech Republic, the UK, Australia and 10 cities in the United States. Toronto’s achievement can be credited to the dedicated actors that perform dramatized readings while dressed in full Edwardian regalia, and accompanied by strolling musicians (“listen for the fiddle music”) against the backdrop of our city’s spectacular beach scenery.
Whereas reading Joyce’s novel on your own can present a challenge (despite the racy bits that got early editions banned) this annual celebration is just the opposite: a joyful tribute to the genius of Dublin’s own “Jim Joyce” whose first romantic rendezvous with his life-long love, Nora Barnacle, took place in Dublin on June 16, 1904.
Bloomsday celebrants all over the world aim to recreate the magic of that vanished, romantic if somewhat boozy era — sometimes in places where Joyce actually lived (Trieste) or where the fictional Bloom had roots (Hungary) or, more commonly, places that Joyce fans just happened to wash up.
Long-time Toronto resident and Dublin native Mary Durkan has been honouring Bloomsday since the late 1980s — a day she calls a celebration “a man who never lived on a day that never existed.” Durkan, an actor/producer, admits she found Joyce’s big novel just about “impenetrable” when she was a student at University College Dublin.
It was not until an acting stint drew her to New York that Durkan found the music in the prose. Joining fellow actors as they read from Ulysses one June 16 changed everything. “Once I heard it on stage, I could read it. The meaning,” she realized, “lies in the music of the language.”
Suddenly, Durkan recognized street chants from her own Dublin childhood, along with various ballads, vaudeville bits, parlour music and opera. Joyce himself was possessed of a fine Irish tenor and had considered a career on stage, after placing second in a contest to renowned tenor John McCormack. In the lean early days of their relationship, Nora wondered why her husband bothered with his “silly stories” when he could have been a singing star.
Luckily Nora’s opinion didn’t prevail. More than a century after Jim met Nora, Mary Durkan continues to be “stunned” by Ulysses, a work that she now finds filled “with tremendous humour, sadness, and pain.”
During her early years in Toronto — where a reading from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake once took place in the “back of a bicycle shop on Spadina” — the group settled at last on The Beach neighbourhood, discovering that the boardwalk eerily resembled the strand at Dublin’s Sandycove, where a Martello Tower is immortalized in Leopold Bloom’s wanderings.
Widely considered “Ireland’s Shakespeare,” Joyce continues to seduce admirers with the world he created. His own memorable cast of characters live on: Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly (and her famous monologue “Yes, I said yes” about the joys of sensuality) as well as the moody Joyce-like artist, Stephen Dedalus.
Toronto’s Bloomsday (8:30 am-noon), free to all, offers the rich talents of an all-Irish cast, accompanied by strolling musicians — even a Joyce quiz after everyone adjourns to Whitlock’s Restaurant for excellent food, more readings, music, singalongs, “merriment” — and brunch. (Everything except brunch is free.)
Rejoyce! invites the literary and non-literary alike to partake of a rare treat: Skilled actors become living characters from an Irish masterpiece that, in Mary Durkan’s words, “contains all of human experience.”
MORE ABOUT TORONTO BLOOMSDAY
11 am-Noon: Readings & music at Beaches Library, 2161 Queen E. @ Lee Ave. (416-393-7703)
Noon-2:30 pm: BLOOMSDAY BRUNCH
Whitlock’s Restaurant, 1961 Queen Street East at Kenilworth Avenue (416-691-8784)
BLOOMSDAY CAST: Joe Allen; Mary Durkan; Desmond Ellis; Daniel Giverin; Richard Harte; Kevin Kennedy; Deirdre Kirby; Sean Mulcahy; Isolde O’Neill; Barbara Taylor Musicians/ Singers: Daev Clysdale; Daniel Giverin; Eithne Heffernan; Catherine Hughes; Jacob McCauley; Maestro Kevin Kennedy.