The Alchemy of Bill O’Connor’s Bloomsday Effect

This website has two purposes: to enable a global community of readers; and to encourage first-time readers, especially young readers, of Joyce’s canon of work. Bill O’Connor’s Bloomsday memoir enjoins both goals. It shows how a first-time reader was empowered through community [Who would believe Bloomsday and a Ulysses reading could be found even in Amish country?]. Then his odyssey sails off, tacking into enlistment in an international reading. ~ don ward

The sole reason that I have read, re-read and studied Ulysses and Finnegans Wake– those two wonder-filled dreamscapes, “waking scapes”, mythologies, psychologies, histories, spiritualities, samadhi states…of James Joyce– is due to my first Bloomsday experience.

During the late 1970s while in my twenties, I read or, at least I thought I had read, A Portrait and Dubliners. The language was beautiful. The situations were comprehensible and natural, with actions depicted sequentially in time and space and with some comprehensible purpose.

I then nonchalantly and naively purchased Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In Ulysses, I was able to slowly wend my way to the Proteus episode, Chapter Three, before being repeatedly rebuffed and repelled by the difficulties created by my “ordinary” reading style.

I had never experienced anything like it.

Finnegans Wake took much less time to stonewall my reading attempts. Its first page stopped me cold, although I found that reading it aloud was hysterically funny. I put the novels on the shelf, permanently I thought, and went on to easier reading.

A quarter of a century later, my wife Margie suggested that we attend a 2004, “100 Year Celebration of Bloomsday” reading of Ulysses at a bookstore in a small, central Ohio town in the middle of Amish country– a two-hour drive for us. Margie had lived in New York City, participated in many Irish Arts Center

activities, and loved the Bloomsday readings she had attended. I dusted off my Ulysses thinking that I would simply and silently follow along with the reading.

Off we went.
Then, the magic of Bloomsday happened.

Other than the owners, we were the only two people in attendance who had heard of Joyce. We were immediately press-ganged into duty, and I uncomfortably and self-consciously squirmed my way through, reading aloud several passages. But my interest had been piqued.

In 2008 the year I retired, I attended my next Bloomsday event at Nightstown, a Cleveland Heights Ohio, USA tavern & restaurant owned by an Irish immigrant.

There, I met a group of people with whom I continue to read Joyce to this day– first Ulysses, then Finnegans Wake — over, and over again. I discovered the exquisitely tender but often painful-to-the-ego experience of reading James Joyce aloud with a group of aficionados and the even more exquisite digging for deeper meaning in what we have read, whether that meaning is given by, or hidden by, Mr. Joyce. Sometimes the knowledge I have found has meaning only to myself. Reading in those Joycean depths has taught me to closely read every author, to glean freely from what I have read, and most importantly, given me the permission to be wrong in my conclusions. And then to read again.

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During the pandemic, that original reading group introduced me to the Dublin-based, Zoom reading groups led by readers at Sweny’s Pharmacy, a landmark from the text of Ulysses. Hearing the language of Dante read by Italians in Italian and the language of Joyce read by Irish is thrilling. It becomes humbling when my turn to read and to be heard comes around.

Like any other radioactive event, the Bloomsday Effect can be estimated by its half-life– that is, the period of time that measures “half of the transpired time” before the event’s energy fully dissipates.

Measured that way, the half-life of my first Bloomday reading will be at least the length of my life. It might be longer if my kids, grandkids, siblings, nieces, nephews, friends, or other loved ones catch the Joyce fever from me.

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