The First Bloomsday: See Dublin’s Literati Celebrate James Joyce’s Ulysses in Drunken Fashion (1954)

Here’s a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse of the very first Blooms­day cel­e­bra­tion, filmed in Dublin in 1954.

The footage shows the great Irish comedic writer Bri­an O’Nolan, bet­ter known by his pen name Flann O’Brien, appear­ing very drunk as he sets off with two oth­er renowned post-war Irish writ­ers, Patrick Kavanagh and Antho­ny Cronin, and a cousin of James Joyce, a den­tist named Tom Joyce, on a pil­grim­age to vis­it the sites in James Joyce’s epic nov­el Ulysses.

The footage was tak­en by John Ryan, an artist, pub­lish­er and pub own­er who orga­nized the event. The idea was to retrace the steps of Leopold Bloom and oth­er char­ac­ters from the nov­el, but as Peter Costel­lo and Peter van de Kamp explain in this humor­ous pas­sage from their book, Flann O’Brien: An Illus­trat­ed Biog­ra­phy, things began to go awry right from the start:

The date was 16 June, 1954, and though it was only mid-morn­ing, Bri­an O’Nolan was already drunk.

This day was the fifti­eth anniver­sary of Mr. Leopold Bloom’s wan­der­ings through Dublin, which James Joyce had immor­talised in Ulysses.

To mark this occa­sion a small group of Dublin literati had gath­ered at the Sandy­cove home of Michael Scott, a well-known archi­tect, just below the Martel­lo tow­er in which the open­ing scene of Joyce’s nov­el is set. They planned to trav­el round the city through the day, vis­it­ing in turn the scenes of the nov­el, end­ing at night in what had once been the broth­el quar­ter of the city, the area which Joyce had called Night­town.

Sad­ly, no-one expect­ed O’Nolan to be sober. By rep­u­ta­tion, if not by sight, every­one in Dublin knew Bri­an O’Nolan, oth­er­wise Myles na Gopaleen, the writer of the Cruiskeen Lawn col­umn in the Irish Times. A few knew that under the name of Flann O’Brien, he had writ­ten in his youth a now near­ly for­got­ten nov­el, At Swim-Two-Birds. See­ing him about the city, many must have won­dered how a man with such extreme drink­ing habits, even for the city of Dublin, could have sus­tained a career as a writer.

As was his cus­tom, he had been drink­ing that morn­ing in the pubs around the Cat­tle Mar­ket, where cus­tomers, sup­pos­ed­ly about their law­ful busi­ness, would be served from 7:30 in the morn­ing. Now retired from the Civ­il Ser­vice, on grounds of “ill-health”, he was earn­ing his liv­ing as a free-lance jour­nal­ist, writ­ing not only for the Irish Times, but for oth­er papers and mag­a­zines under sev­er­al pen-names. He need­ed to write for mon­ey as his pen­sion was a tiny one. But this left lit­tle time for more cre­ative work. In fact, O’Nolan no longer felt the urge to write oth­er nov­els.

The rest of the par­ty, that first Blooms­day, was made up of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, the young crit­ic Antho­ny Cronin, a den­tist named Tom Joyce, who as Joyce’s cousin rep­re­sent­ed the fam­i­ly inter­est, and John Ryan, the painter and busi­ness­man who owned and edit­ed the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Envoy. The idea of the Blooms­day cel­e­bra­tion had been Ryan’s, grow­ing nat­u­ral­ly out of a spe­cial Joyce issue of his mag­a­zine, for which O’Nolan had been guest edi­tor.

Ryan had engaged two horse drawn cabs, of the old fash­ioned kind, which in Ulysses Mr. Bloom and his friends dri­ve to poor Pad­dy Dig­nam’s funer­al. The par­ty were assigned roles from the nov­el. Cronin stood in for Stephen Dedalus, O’Nolan for his father, Simon Dedalus, John Ryan for the jour­nal­ist Mar­tin Cun­ning­ham, and A.J. Lev­en­thal, the Reg­is­trar of Trin­i­ty Col­lege, being Jew­ish, was recruit­ed to fill (unkown to him­self accord­ing to John Ryan) the role of Leopold Bloom.

Kavanagh and O’Nolan began the day by decid­ing they must climb up to the Martel­lo tow­er itself, which stood on a gran­ite shoul­der behind the house. As Cronin recalls, Kavanagh hoist­ed him­self up the steep slope above O’Nolan, who snarled in anger and laid hold of his ankle. Kavanagh roared, and lashed out with his foot. Fear­ful that O’Nolan would be kicked in the face by the poet­’s enor­mous farmer’s boot, the oth­ers has­tened to res­cue and restrain the rivals.

With some dif­fi­cul­ty O’Nolan was stuffed into one of the cabs by Cronin and the oth­ers. Then they were off, along the seafront of Dublin Bay, and into the city.

In pubs along the way an enor­mous amount of alco­hol was con­sumed, so much so that on Sandy­mount Strand they had to relieve them­selves as Stephen Dedalus does in Ulysses. Tom Joyce and Cronin sang the sen­ti­men­tal songs of Tom Moore which Joyce had loved, such as Silent, O Moyle. They stopped in Irish­town to lis­ten to the run­ning of the Ascot Gold Cup on a radio in a bet­ting shop, but even­tu­al­ly they arrived in Duke Street in the city cen­tre, and the Bai­ley, which John Ryan then ran as a lit­er­ary pub.

They went no fur­ther. Once there, anoth­er drink seemed more attrac­tive than a long tour of Joycean slums, and the siren call of the long van­ished plea­sures of Night­town.

 The First Bloomsday 1954

Cel­e­brants of the first Blooms­day pause for a pho­to in Sandy­mount, Dublin on the morn­ing of June 16, 1954. From left are John Ryan, Antho­ny Cronin, Bri­an O’Nolan (a.k.a. Flann O’Brien), Patrick Kavanagh and Tom Joyce, cousin of James Joyce.

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in 2013–likely before many of you start­ed to fre­quent our site. So it’s time to bring it back.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Vladimir Nabokov Cre­ates a Hand-Drawn Map of James Joyce’s Ulysses

On Blooms­day, Hear James Joyce Read From his Epic Ulysses, 1924

Stephen Fry Explains His Love for James Joyce’s Ulysses

Hen­ri Matisse Illus­trates 1935 Edi­tion of James Joyce’s Ulysses

James Joyce, With His Eye­sight Fail­ing, Draws a Sketch of Leopold Bloom (1926)

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