Phil Holden’s Bloomsday Memories from the Omphalos

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One hundred years of analysis has led scholars and enthusiasts to dizzying depths of meaning in Ulysses. Theories and conjectures abound from broad themes to minutiae of detail. But it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Joyce Studies to see that in Ulysses, there exists a special resonance for the country, the history, the philosophy, and the ideal of Greece. 

The link to Greece is there even before the book is opened. Joyce’s insistence on the blue wrappers of the February 1922 first printing of Ulysses was to reflect the blue of the Aegean and soon became iconic. The single word of the book’s title, being the Latinised name for Odysseus, hinted at more Greek links, even if not every reader saw in Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin on a Thursday in 1904 a parallel to Homer’s Odyssey. And everyone who has read Ulysses, even those that only managed the first few pages, will have read overt references to Greece. Buck Mulligan entreated Stephen to visit Athens with him; read the classics in their original Ancient Greek; to ‘Chrysostomos’; and the possibility of doing Ireland some good by ‘Hellenizing it’, all occur in the first few pages. And so, writing to you from Athens, I have a sense of pride in celebrating Bloomsday and Ulysses, as if here in Greece, we have a duty to mark the day. After all, isn’t there a delicious irony in Greeks celebrating the odyssey of such an ordinary man on an ordinary day in Dublin? 

The first proper celebration of Bloomsday in Athens happened in 2019, with the support of the Irish Embassy in Greece. I am British but have lived in Greece, with my Greek wife Argyri, for 26 years. I was brought up in London, but my father’s side are all Irish, and my boyhood summers were spent on the family dairy farm in County Wexford. Fast forward to 2018, and the horrors of Brexit finally pushed me to activate my right to Irish nationality. The wonderful staff at the Embassy of Ireland in Greece guided me through the process, and soon I was presented with my Irish passport. I raised with the diplomatic team the prospect of a Bloomsday event. The feeling was to start small and simple by establishing the event, then build the celebrations with each passing year. Thus it was that in June 2019 around 60 “Ulysses-curious” individuals found themselves at The Athens Centre in the central Athens neighbourhood of Pagrati, and passed a very enjoyable, informative evening of entertainment. Short lectures, excerpt readings, and music formed a very pleasing ‘meze’. Celebratory bookmarks were specially printed and distributed to mark the evening. 

Programme for the First Bloomsday Celebration in Athens

The attached programme for the evening gives full details of what no one was certain would work, but, in the end, proved to be a very pleasant occasion. It was clear that a tradition had been started, and it was exciting to think that we had been at the founding Bloomsday celebration. In the days that followed, there was much talk of how the event would grow for the following year, but the arrival of Covid put an end to that. Nothing could be arranged for Bloomsday in 2020 and 2021.

Thankfully Bloomsday in Athens returns for the centenary year, and the 2022 event promises to build substantially on the 2019 debut. Planning for Bloomsday 2022 is well-advanced, and once the final elements are in place, full details will be released and publicized by the Embassy of Ireland in Greece. As one component of the evening, I will be displaying some rare Joyce material, including a copy of Ulysses inscribed in Paris by Joyce to his teacher of Russian in 1928; a first edition from February 1922, a letter written by Joyce in 1920 shortly after moving to Paris; as well as first editions of Dubliners, Portrait, and Finnegans Wake, and much more. In episode one of Ulysses, Buck Mulligan urges Stephen to come with him to Athens if he can get his aunt to fork out twenty quid. On Ryanair, it doesn’t cost much more than that even today. If you can get to Athens in mid-June 2022, funded by your aunt or otherwise, come and celebrate Joyce’s greatest work with us. ~ Phil Holden

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