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The Launch of Ulysses and the First Bloomsday


A slightly edited version of this presentation was given by Philip Harvey on the 2nd of February 2022 via zoom for Bloomsday in Melbourne’s online commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the publication of ‘Ulysses’ in Paris. 

The Launch of Ulysses 

And now, rejoycing in the prosp’rous gales,

With beating heart Ulysses spreads his sails,

Plac’d at the helm he sate, and mark’d the skies,

Nor clos’d in sleep his ever-watchful eyes.

There viewed the Pleiads, and the northern Team,

And great Orion’s more refulgent beam,

To which, around the axle of the sky

The Bear revolving, points his golden eye;

Who shines exalted on th’etherial plain,

Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main.

Far on the left those radiant fires to keep

The Nymph directed, as he sail’d the deep.

Full sev’nteen nights he cut the foamy way;

The distant land appear’d the following day;

Then swell’d to sight Phaeacia’s dusky coast,

And woody mountains, half in vapours lost;

That lay before him, indistinct and vast,

Like a broad shield amid the watry waste.


That is Alexander Pope’s version of Homer’s description of the launch of Ulysses, after visiting Calypso. It’s in Book Five of the Odyssey.

 We are here today to remember the launch of ‘Ulysses’, a big book that charts the journey of a very different Ulysses, one who wends his way through the urban environment of Dublin and only occasionally does anything we today would categorise as heroic. 

In late 1921 subscriptions were already being placed for the forthcoming ‘Ulysses’. In Paris excerpts were being read aloud in public. The book was going to press. In this portentous climate, it was Joyce himself who resolved that the launch be timed to occur on his 40th birthday, the 2nd of February 1922. That’s also Candlemas, the day after the saint’s day of St Brigid of Kildare, one of the three patrons of Ireland. James Joyce and his family lived in Paris, a city that did not exist in the time of Homer and would have been vague information to Brigid of Kildare. 

Through December and January Joyce continued to send text corrections and updates to the printer Maurice Darantière, who worked in Dijon. The launch became the final deadline for copy. Without a launch he may well have just kept writing more, it seems. Joyce was getting resigned to the idea that the book was finally seeing the light of day, remarking at the time, “The pity is the public will demand and find a moral in my book, or worse they may take it in some serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.” (Ellmann 523-4) 

Darantière promised that he could deliver three copies via the Dijon-Paris express on the morning in question, so it was all very tight. Sylvia Beach went to the station at 7 am on the 2nd of February to find that the printer had sent two of the promised three copies. In ten minutes by taxi she was able to present Joyce with the his copy; the other she took to her shop Shakespeare & Co., where it was put on exhibit. As Ellman writes: “Everyone crowded in from nine o’clock until closing time to see it.” (Ellmann 524) 

The other part of what we would call the launch occurred that night, when close Paris friends of the Joyces dined with them at the Italian restaurant Ferrari’s. 

“Joyce sat at the head of the table, sideways, his legs crossed with the toe of one crossed again under the calf of the other. He wore a new ring, a reward he had promised himself years before. He seemed already melancholy, sighing now and then as he ordered dinner and ate nothing. He had brought with him a package containing his copy of ‘Ulysses’, and placed it under his chair. Nora remarked that he had thought about the book for sixteen years, and spent seven years writing it. Everyone asked to see it opened, but he seemed to shrink from producing it. After the dessert he at last untied the parcel and laid the book on the table. It was bound in the Greek colors – white letters on a blue field – that he considered lucky for him, and suggested the myth of Greece and of Homer, the white island rising from the sea. There was a toast to the book and its author which left Joyce deeply moved. The two Italian waiters came up to ask if he had written this ‘poem,’ and obtained his permission to exhibit it to the padrone.” (Ellmann 524-5)       

Ellman then records how Joyce later in the evening, at another café drew the attention of three of the women in the party to their inclusion in ‘Ulysses’ as figures in the marriage of the forest: Dorothy Canebrake, Mrs Helen Vinegadding, and the Misses Lilian and Viola Lilac. Joyce wished to party on into the 3rd of February 1922, but Nora “emphatically shepherded him towards a cab.” 

The First Bloomsday

 As we can see, James Joyce placed great importance on dates and anniversaries. ‘Ulysses’ itself is an anniversary book and its success over generations has assured the date of the book as a secular literary feast day. My reading leads me to conclude there are different kinds of ‘First Bloomsday’, which I will set out briefly for you now. 

Richard Ellmann, in his colossal biography, records that people in Paris were inviting each other to what they called Bloomsday parties as early as 1923, a year after publication. Whether in salons, cafés, bookshops, or private homes, we don’t know exactly, these parties were presumably opportunities to share the reading experience and celebrate the presence of the now famous author in their own city. I could confidently imagine that the 16th of June 1923 was the date of some of these Bloomsday parties.   

This view is supported by Ellmann when he writes that in June 1924 his colleague Myron Nutting sent Joyce hydrangeas in honour of Bloomsday “as the day of ‘Ulysses’ was already called.” Joyce wrote in his notebook: ‘Today 16 of June 1924 twenty years after. Will anybody remember this date.’ (Ellmann 566) 

The invitations use the actual compound word, Bloomsday. This raises an interesting question. If the word does not appear in the book, who invented it? To believe Ellman, the word ‘Bloomsday’ was already circulating in Paris and may have been something of a gag amongst the readership. 

Ellmann in fact contradicts Wikipedia, which says that ‘The first mention of such a celebration is to be found in a letter by Joyce to Miss [Harriet] Weaver of 27 June 1924, which refers to “a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day – 16 June.”’ Joyce separates the two words, thus suggesting to me that this was a novel idea to the author himself.     

My sense is that the unofficial parties going on in Paris through the twenties may have been the prompt for what can be described as the first official Bloomsday celebration. In 1929 Sylvia Beach, publisher of ‘Ulysses’, and her partner Adrienne Monnier organised a ‘Ulysses’ lunch. Although a select literary affair, it seems to be the first public celebration of Bloomsday, as distinct from the private whoopees of the previous seven years. It was also a celebration of the release of the French translation earlier in 1929. The lunch confirms what by then was an established reality: Joyce and his book were now an international sensation. Everyone who read ‘Ulysses’ had opinions about it; everyone in general could not ignore it. 

In a very real sense, let it be said, the first Bloomsday is the 16th of June, 1904. It is a creative device used by Joyce to stage all the action and thought of many people into one day, in one city. Readers had to adjust to the very concept. Today worldwide celebrations often overlook the irony of Leopold Bloom’s experience, which Joyce makes us see is one of obscurity in the larger scheme of things and a day Bloom himself would rather forget. Because Bloomsday is set on a fair summer’s day, many of us associate the word with summer. Another simple truism is that Joyce in his book commemorates the day when he first stepped out with the young Galway woman Nora Barnacle, the person who would stick with him and become his life partner.   

The Parisian history causes us to ask how many unofficial, private celebrations of the 16th of June went on in Dublin through this period. Many Irish readers had become familiar with ‘Ulysses’ and it’s not as though they all existed in private silos. The first public celebration did not occur in a vacuum. We know about this event in 1954 through word, photograph, film, and legend. The ringleaders were the poet Patrick Kavanagh, the comic genius Flann O’Brien, and the literary polymath Anthony Cronin, making this event notorious. They invented, it seems, the peripatetic perambulating peregrination mode since adopted by Bloomsdays elsewhere, walking parts of the city named in the book, reading out sections, and resting for long periods of time at watering holes also named in the book. Their Bloomsday appears to have been part-homage part-stunt, also something of a shambles (which rhymes with ambles) that could have been the makings of an incisive short story by Joyce himself; Joyce being a person for the occasion. The joke though has always been that even this likely bunch started out well at Sandy Cove Martello Tower, were seen in the area of 7 Eccles Street, but did not complete the circuit of ‘Ulysses’ as the drink gradually took hold. 

The first Bloomsdays in Australia were held in Collected Works Bookshop, managed by poet Kris Hemensley, in whichever Melbourne locale the shop found itself at the time. Although ideas for a Bloomsday were being discussed in 1980 with Walter Billeter and others, the first all-day continuous reading of the book started up at the shop’s Flinders Way Arcade incarnation in 1988.   

These readings predate Bloomsday in Melbourne itself, an ambitious enterprise initiated by Frances Devlin Glass with the assistance of the first of many script committees. Her emphasis was on theatricalization of Joyce’s works, with ‘Ulysses’ the centre of gravity. An annual fixture became the seminar, where all manner of ideas on the year’s chosen theme could be expressed in a more formal setting. The first Bloomsday in Melbourne was in 1994. Blame it on the zeitgeist, but what was happening in Melbourne started happening in major cities everywhere though the nineties, including Toronto, New York, Trieste, San Francisco, and of course, Dublin itself.          


Richard Ellmann, ‘James Joyce’, new and revised edition, with corrections. Oxford University Press, 1983

Kris Hemensley, in Facebook conversations, January 2022

Alexander Pope, in ‘Homer in English’, edited by George Steiner. Penguin Books, 1996, pages 95-97. 


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