On 16 June 1904 most of the action of Joyce’s Ulysses takes place.
The main action of Joyce Ulysses starts at 8am at the Martello Tower in Sandycove and continues through the day and night of 16 June 1904 and into the morning of 17 June. But still today Joyce’s reason for choosing 16 June is obscure.
Some have conjectured that it was because 16 June was not already associated with a particular saint or with any political remembrance, and that therefore it was available for Joyce to make of it whatever he wanted. But there’s no evidence for this.
The most likely reason seems to be that Joyce was commemorating the first occasion on which he and his future wife, Nora Barnacle, went out together, but there is little evidence for this either. Herbert Gorman, Joyce’s earliest biographer, tried to find out but got no answer from Joyce and concluded that nothing unusual happened between Joyce and Nora on that day.
In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellmann states that Joyce and Nora had an appointment to meet on 16 June and that they went to Ringsend, but he offers no evidence for his assertion. Brenda Maddox, Nora’s biographer, says that Nora and Joyce probably went out together for the first time on that day but that Joyce gave no details because what made the occasion special was too personal or too shocking.
Maddox claims that, if it they went to Ringsend, the occasion may be linked to the explicit contents of a letter Joyce wrote to Nora from Dublin on 3 December 1909. Joyce reminded Nora that on that occasion in Ringsend it was she who took the initiative, slipping her hand into his trousers, and that it was she who first uttered obscene words.
Whatever the occasion or non-occasion was, it’s clear that Joyce wanted the day to be celebrated. On 16 June 1924, while Joyce was recovering from an operation on his left eye, friends sent a bunch of flowers, blue and white like the cover of Ulysses, to celebrate Bloomsday. In notes written the same day, however, Joyce wondered if anyone would remember this date in the future.
The first real celebration of Bloomsday came in 1929 with the ‘Déjeuner Ulysse’ organised by Adrienne Monnier, partly to celebrate the publication of the French translation of Ulysses, which Monnier had published, and partly to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first Bloomsday. The celebration only took place on 27 June, but was held in the suitably named Hotel Leopold that Monnier had found outside Paris. And with the ‘Déjeuner Ulysse’ the public celebrations of Bloomsday began – and still continue today.
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Feshbach, Sidney: ‘June 16, 1904: Joyce’s Date with Nora?’ in James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 4, Summer 1984.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I, edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957; vol. III, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.
– -: Selected Letters of James Joyce, edited by Richard Ellmann, London:Faber & Faber, 1975.
Maddox, Brenda: Nora – A Biography of Nora Joyce, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.