Still celebrating Joyce with relish

The Bloomsday festivities are a fitting tribute to this great writer

Tuesday was an impeccable Bloomsday, the morning weather as fine as we have seen in recent years for this event and it brought out the faithful, the curious and the hungry to feed at Caviston's in Glasthule -- one of the great Dublin food institutions -- as well as at other hostelries around the city.

Caviston's had to direct its June 16 focus away from fish and towards chicken liver and bacon, which it duly did. Its enthusiasm for relish among its customers is unbounded and most of the meanings of that delightful word can be applied as well to James Joyce.

'Flavour', 'taste', 'a slight dash or tinge of some quality' and 'enjoyment of food and other things'. 'Eat, read, and appreciate a jest', that is what relish means, as well as the making of something piquant; and the examples given, in my 1929 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, might well have been culled from James Joyce himself -- 'has no relish for poetry', and 'he thought he could relish a lobster'.

Having surveyed this scene of physical self-satisfaction in my local village, I went nearer to the James Joyce Tower and Sandycove Point, where the morning celebrations consisted of the indefatigable Barry McGovern, on the roof of the tower -- his performance splendidly apt for the recreation of Joyce's language in Ulysses as he read from the Eumaeus Chapter.

Down below, in bright sunlight on the forecourt of the tower, Nora Connolly, dressed perhaps more soberly than the woman she was interpreting, gave a spirited monologue extracted from various sources but essentially telling us of the mind and heart of Nora Barnacle, whose mind and heart are so richly presented in the pages of Ulysses.

Battered copies of the same book were clutched in the hands of men suitably dressed in boaters and striped blazers, cream-coloured suits and accompanied by women in elegant Edwardian costumes. What a delight it is that this tradition survives -- enthusiastic, unself- conscious, admirable.

Joyce is now sustained by spectacle and event. It is increasingly difficult to find readers of his books, but love of entertainment and chat has recreated the writer as an actor in his own drama and in the world at large.

I was particularly interested in seeing what effect the turnaround in the world's affairs might have had on what has become a Bloomsday Circus. Take heart! All is well! The poverty and distress from which James Joyce fled in his youth will never return and we celebrate that.

Joyce and his writing are entwined in my life in many different ways. Teaching -- as Stephen Dedalus did at the outset of his career -- in 1956, in Kent, I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I found it a book full of realistic enchantments. It seemed to pivot the poles of any youthful lover of life at that time, as it had done half a century earlier for Joyce himself. The doleful, sombre tolling of the spiritual bells we grew up with, set against the burgeoning eroticisms that govern youthful desire. Those two magnets -- the spirit and the flesh -- make up the major part of the book. Out of them Joyce conjures a third aspiration, which all of us remember -- the setting forth of the writer to imprint his experiences on the world at large.

I read and made decisions about myself, that this city -- which so magically embraces Joyce's youth and that of his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus -- was the right city for any aspiring writer to experience. With this in mind, I set off with my steel trunk, full of all worldly possessions, in the autumn of the following year. Dublin was all I had been led to believe it would be. It was full of writers. They fell out of places like Davy Byrne's and Parson's Bookshop, the Red Bank, the Bailey and the Dolphin.

Richly endowed, relatively speaking, by the generous Kent Education Committee -- which thought nothing of funding my exploration of Joyce's city -- I could indeed 'relish a lobster', in the back bar of Jammet's and work on a new Joycean project that devoured my student energies -- the first presentation on the Dublin stage of his play, Exiles, with Terence Brady playing the part of Richard Rowan and Juliet Tatlow acting the part of Bertha.

All that was 50 years ago. When it was over, when student days were over, reason declared in favour of departure. Emotion spoke otherwise. James Joyce remained an obsession. I made films about him. I covered conferences, angering Stephen James Joyce, Joyce's grandson, and becoming embroiled in controversy which time, in due course, resolved.

During that half-century the writer, whose literary reputation had been secured, mainly by critics who were not Irish, was rehabilitated socially and morally as well. We have to remind ourselves of a time, described by James Joyce's nephew, Ken Monaghan, when being related to the writer was something his mother told him not to mention. It would do no good.

He mentioned it with growing confidence during his more mature years but the struggle for his uncle's respectability had not been easy.

When the James Joyce Tower was opened to the public, in 1962, two of Joyce's sisters were there, as were others who had known him, among them Sylvia Beach and Maria Jolas. I remember the occasion well, more for an encounter with Louis MacNeice than for the company of Dublin writers -- who seemed to look upon the Northern poet with reserve, if not trepidation. He did not fit in with them, but he talked to me. The day was not unlike Bloomsday this year, with bright sun in the sky and a benign atmosphere that favoured celebration.

Like all writers, James Joyce would identify with the memorable remarks made by William Faulkner when he received the Nobel Prize for literature: "A life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before."