James Joyce walked the streets of Dublin, as did Leopold Bloom, the central character of his novel Ulysses. And for a week, two New College students followed in their footsteps, experiencing the city that inspired Joyce’s masterpiece.
Thesis student Andrew Schlag and third-year Eliza Fixler were the college’s inaugural James Joyce Scholars, supported by a foundation created by Sarasota residents Tom and Maureen Steiner. The Steiners have been bringing high school students to Ireland for a decade.
This is a long-planned expansion of their program. “Our dream was always to bring this to the college level, and we’re delighted to begin it with you,” Maureen Steiner said at their first meeting.
The students, both from the St. Petersburg area, flew to Dublin on June 10, checked into dorm rooms at Trinity College and, guided by the Steiners’ partner, Dublin native Kevin O’Halloran, began a whirlwind trip through Irish literature and art.
At the National Gallery, they saw works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Monet and Picasso. The National Libraryoffered a major exhibit on the poet William Butler Yeats, marking the 150th anniversary of his birthday that week.
But Joyce’s presence was always at hand. Minutes into their first walk through the city, they visited two sites noted in the “Lotus Eaters” chapter of Ulysses, All Hallows Church (now St. Andrew’s Church, Westland Row) and Sweny’s pharmacy, where Bloom buys his wife some lemon-scented soap.
Sweny’s is now a Joycean hangout, where people gather in the evenings to read aloud from the author’s works – as Schlag did his first night, with two pages from the “Wandering Rocks” section of Ulysses. The students got well beyond Dublin, though. They traveled to Glendalough, in the Wicklow Mountains National Park – “this absurdly idyllic spot that I hadn’t ever heard of … and I wanted to stay forever,” Fixler said.
And later that day they toured Sandycove’s Martello Tower, setting of the opening scenes of Ulyssesand now home to an impressive collection of Joyce artifacts and documents. They also visited Clongowes Woods College, an elite preparatory school that Joyce attended for four years, and saw original photographs of the author and other documents related to his time there.
The Novo Collegians stayed true to their independent spirit and struck off on their own several times, attending a poetry reading by Susan Howe at Belevedere House (where Joyce attended school after Clongowes), a performance of ‘The Gigli Concert” by Irish playwright Tom Murphy, and the “Bizarre Bloomsday Brunch” street festival.
The scholars’ week was timed to coincide with Bloomsday, June 16. Ulysses recounts the life of its central characters on June 16, 1904, and since 1954, Dubliners and visitors have celebrated Joyce’s life with pilgrimages to places cited in the book, as well as recitals and re-enactments.
Dubliners and visitors don costumes from the elaborate to simple straw boater hats. Like Leopold Bloom, the students stopped at Davy Byrne’s pub for a meal of a Gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy, and stayed for readings and songs.
They hit more celebrations, along Duke Street, at Sweny’s and across from it at Kennedy’s, where a costumed actress reclined on a bench and read Molly’s soliloquy, from the last chapter of Ulysses. Later, at the National Concert Hall, they took in a world premiere concert: “Nora Barnacle,” a retelling of Joyce’s life with his wife, Nora, from her view.
But the week’s central purpose was to help the students develop a deeper relationship with Joyce’s works by being immersed in his world. At that, it succeeded. “Dublin seems to often act not just as a setting, but a character as well within many of Joyce’s writings,” Fixler wrote. “Getting a feel for its ‘personality’ via hours of walking around the streets has made me feel retrospectively more tuned in to a lot of what I’ve read and less daunted by what remains to be read.”
For Schlag, the experience gave him a new way to engage with Joyce’s writings. “The outcome of literary study is often the demystification of the text. I feel like this trip importantly remystified literature for me,” he wrote. “I came to Dublin hoping not only to nourish my intellectual bent but also to arouse an affective relationship to Joyce’s stories. The most valuable thing I take away from Dublin was experiential, sensible rather than intellectual, like the mysterious feeling of past-ness when one touches a historical object. I take away more than information; I take away the experience, which both makes Joyce concrete and remystifies him, revitalizing my dogged desire to write on his works.”
New College and the Steiners are planning on a second year for the Joyce Scholars program in 2016.