James Joyce circa 1918.

KIRWAN: A To Do List For Bloomsday

Who is this guy, James Joyce, and why does everyone go nuts about him around the middle of June every year?

Well, this most enigmatic of Irishmen had a first date with his future wife on June 16, 1904, which event helped inspire "Ulysses," a book that most people have never finished.

This same wife couldn’t make head nor tail of his “auld writing” and would have much preferred if he’d “stuck to the singing." After all, he had a fine voice and came third to John McCormack in a Feis Ceoil for tenors in 1903.

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But there was no talking to the man. He persevered with the auld writing through debt, despair, drunkenness, and near blindness. Perhaps that’s why Nora Barnacle didn’t marry Joyce until she had lived in sin with him for 37 years.

Nora was born and bred in Galway. James’s alcoholic father, John Stanislaus Joyce, was reputed to have noted that “with a name like Barnacle Jim will never get rid of her.”

Speaking of the drink, no less an authority than Ernest Hemingway declared that James Joyce was a rummy. His poison of choice was wine but he wouldn’t touch a drop of red with a forty-foot pole, for it reminded him of blood. That’s the kind of fellah we’re dealing with!

Nora deserves retroactive sainthood, for the Joyces are reputed to have moved house more than 30 times, often one step ahead of a stiffed landlord.

We shouldn’t think too badly of James though, since he learned this trick from his Cork-born father, God help him.

James himself is reputed to have cadged the modern equivalent of a million and a half bucks from Harriet Shaw Weaver in the course of his lifetime. In fact, he appears to have borrowed from just about anyone he came in contact with.

When asked about his inscrutable expression in one of his more famous portraits, he explained, “I was wondering if the photographer might lend me a few shillings.”

All that being said, James Joyce was one hell of a writer. "Ulysses" is considered by many to be the greatest novel written, although some feel it may be an inside joke foisted upon us by a seriously deluded man.

Still, if you make it towards the end, you will be exposed to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, arguably the most riveting and heartfelt piece of literature. Not to mention, it is essential reading for any gentleman who wishes to get to the bottom (figuratively speaking) of a lady.

And now, some advice before you set off to explore the wonders of "Ulysses," for Bloomsday, is at hand.

I would suggest beginning with "Dubliners," Joyce’s short story collection; it’s accessible and contains "The Dead" - perhaps the finest novella in the English language. If pinched for time, you can always substitute John Huston’s lovely film of the same name, starring his daughter, Anjelica, and the immortal Donal McCann.     

If you’re still in a Joycean frame of mind, get thee to "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," Joyce’s first novel. Again, this is a relatively plain-spoken book and features a Christmas dinner scene worth all the tomes devoted to the tragedy of Charles Stewart Parnell, “Ireland’s uncrowned king.”

You now owe yourself a stiff congratulatory drink. You have successfully negotiated two Joycean hurdles and "Ulysses" looms ahead.

Instead of opening this Dublin odyssey at page one and lurching logically forward, I suggest you close your eyes and dive in at any other page – your choice!

Take a read, if it appeals to you continue from there, or close your eyes again and like a bee surveying the petals of a flower let your instinct direct you. If nothing should catch your fancy, then flip forward post-haste to Molly’s final cri du coeur. The very stones in the street have been moved by her soliloquy.

The idea is to get a feel for this wonderful book. Once you’re hooked you can always begin at the beginning and plough on relentlessly to the end.

For "Ulysses" is a true celebration of life and it contains a legion of riches. All you have to do is find a line, a sentence, or a chapter that will gain you entry. From then on, your heart too will glow in the middle of June every year.

Bloomsday Celebrations Sunday June 16th: Ulysses, 58 Stone Street, NYC – Colum McCann curates the 21st Anniversary Bloomsday Celebration on the street, featuring Aedín Moloney as Molly, Larry Kirwan as Gerty, and a cast of thousands. 2 p.m. and Free!

Blooms Tavern, 208 E. 58th St. NYC – Origin Theatre’s annual Bloomsday Celebration. Featuring Terry Donnelly, Allen Gogarty and friends. Period attire optional. 6 p.m. Tickets, origintheatre.org

American Irish Historical Society, 991 Fifth Avenue, NYC - Molly Bloom by James Joyce performed by Eilin O’Dea. 3 p.m. Tickets, aihsny.org

Saturday, June 15th, 3 p.m. Irish American Writers & Artists, Shout in the Street, at Dive 106, 938 Amsterdam Avenue, NYC,  Free, rip-roaring and a day ahead. For information iamwa.org