‘Bloomsday’: meanings and origin

With reference to Leopold Bloom, the name of one of the central characters in Ulysses, by the Irish author James Joyce (1882-1941), in which all the action takes place on one day, the 16th of June 1904, the noun Bloomsday, also Bloom’s day, denotes the 16th of June 1904; also the 16th of June of any year, on which celebrations take place, especially in Ireland, to mark the anniversary of the events in Ulysses.

(Ulysses was first published in Paris in 1922 by Shakespeare and Company.)

Joyce set Ulysses on this particular date to commemorate a significant day in his life: it was on the 16th of June 1904, in the Ringsend district of Dublin, that he first went walking with his future wife, Nora Barnacle (1884-1951).

The first known occurrence of the noun, is, as Bloom’s day, from a letter dated 27th June 1924 that James Joyce wrote from Paris to his patron, the British political activist and magazine editor Harriet Shaw Weaver (1876-1961):

There is a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day—16 June. They sent me hortensias, white and blue 1, dyed. I have to convince myself that I wrote that book. I used to be able to talk intelligently about it. If ever I try to explain to people now what I am supposed to be writing I see stupefaction freezing them into silence.

1 White and blue are the colours chosen by Joyce for the cover of Ulysses when it was first published—photograph The British Library:

 

The noun Bloomsday then occurs in James Joyce: A Definitive Biography (London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1941), by the U.S. author and literary critic Herbert Gorman (1893-1954):

There is no evidence that anything unusual happened to Joyce six days after his first meeting with Nora Barnacle 2 and yet he has so implanted the date of June 16, 1904 (“Bloomsday”), in the mind of the reading public that one may well pause and consider it for a moment.

2 James Joyce first met Nora Barnacle on 10th June 1904.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of Bloomsday, Bloom’s day, that I have found:

1-: From the review of James Joyce. His Way Of Interpreting The Modern World (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), by W. Y. Tindall—review by William Risen, published in The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio, USA) of 25th February 1950:

“Ulysses,” which once seemed hardly more than a meaningless montage or an insult to the readers’ intelligence, though it was not much more of an innovation than “Tristram Shandy” 3 had been in its day, has become intelligible through creative criticism and the growing familiarity of the reader with the language and uses of psychology, the stream-of-consciousness method and the application of the Homeric parallel. Tindall’s contribution here is the statement of the manner in which “Ulysses” resolves the tensions placed upon Stephen Daedalus’s faith in art by his traumatic decision which closed “A Portrait.” The epiphanies of life and the communion with reality which Stephen experiences on Mr. Bloom’s Day rescue him from the painfully sharp dilemma upon which his meticulous conscience and his radical temper had hung him. Tindall reasons effectively on this point, which others have hastened over, and one is inclined to appreciate it especially since the figure of Leopold Bloom was beginning to overshadow his creator. Bloom is still the greatest character Joyce made, but this redresses the balance somewhat on behalf of Stephen. A degree of sympathy is thus established between the reader and the spiritual exile, a humane relation which will stand both in god stead when they come to “Finnegan.” At any rate, “Ulysses” can now be read freely without constant reference to the critics once the necessary background has been provided.
“Finnegans Wake,” the delphic dream of Dublin’s night which follows Bloomsday, is not readily available to the common, or even the uncommon, reader. After several baffling bouts with the book, I would say it never will be made available by even the most determined and devoted critics were it not for their great success with “Ulysses” and evidence of certain undeniable gains they have made in their preliminary surveys.

3 This refers to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), by the Irish novelist Laurence Sterne (1713-1768).

2-: From the review of James Joyce’s Ulysses (London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1952), by Stuart Gilbert—review by George Malcolm Thomson, published in the Evening Standard (London, England) of 25th February 1952:

Ulysses describes episodes that happen during 24 hours (June 16, 1904) in the life of Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertisement canvasser living in Dublin, married to and betrayed by Molly, a professional singer of ample charms and commensurate appetites.
Interwoven with Bloom’s day are the adventures of Stephen Dedalous [sic] (self-portrait of Joyce), a young man of shabby-genteel birth and good (Jesuit) education.

3-: From the review of James Joyce’s Ulysses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), by Stuart Gilbert—review by William Risen, published in The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio, USA) of 4th May 1952:

For those who have not seen Mr. Gilbert’s book, a word about its plan: the Introduction is devoted to presenting background material. The narrative and rhythm of “Ulysses” are sketched in outline and certain of the major motifs and correspondences are designated and correlated. Part II is comprised of a detailed exegesis of each of the 18 interlocked episodes of Bloomsday.

4-: From The Knoxville Journal (Knoxville, Tennessee, USA) of 19th April 1953:

The Slocum-Cahoon “Bibliography of James Joyce” (Oxford) has been postponed to June 16 or “Bloomsday.” As you probably know, Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” was compressed into the twenty-four hours of June 16, 1904. Bloom was the principal character.

5-: From the Manchester Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of 16th June 1954:

Bloom’s Day

This is the fiftieth anniversary of the day which began with stately, plump Buck Mulligan at the stairhead and ended eighteen hours or so later with Marion Bloom in bed running over her love-life in her mind without shame or punctuation. James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” a massive piece of fiction, has been over-studied, misunderstood and misinterpreted by scholars, attacked as obscene by confused moralists, but it has been read and read again. Untranslatable, much of it, into standard literary English, it has been translated into a dozen other languages and has made the city of Dublin familiar to people who had hardly heard of it. When it was first published it looked as if Joyce were taking too seriously Wilde’s “Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out,” for on first reading it seemed that among his passages of orthodox prose and brilliant parody Joyce had scattered messages in a mysterious code. Much of the mystery was created by those who sought to clarify the crystal clear, for what Joyce did was to create a form of literary pointillism with which he could paint dazzling and disturbing pictures. The accuracy of his ear, his allusiveness, his feeling for Dublin humour (which is unique in Ireland) were qualities which his countrymen could understand even if they disliked the result. But these were the qualities which confused the commentators. They worried themselves about who or what was Tay Pay or why the “Skibbereen Eagle” was called “Our watchful friend” or the significance of the misprint on page 354. There were more important things in the book, better ways of enjoying it than mere analysis and they are becoming more appreciated and even a little understood. “Ulysses” itself is not yet fifty years old. Perhaps by the time it is the analysts will have lost interest and the book take a normal place among novels, its eccentricities no more remarked than those of “Tristram Shandy.” In the meantime Joyce will continue to win readers with “Dubliners” and “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and repel them with “Finnegans Wake.”

6-: From the Boston Evening Globe (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of 22nd June 1954:

Last Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of what is known to the literati as “Bloomsday.”
James Joyce’s famous novel, “Ulysses,” described a day in the life of a Dublin salesman named Bloom and that day was June 16, 1904. It was commemorated by a two-hour program on the British Broadcasting Corporation, by a 15-minute “Bloom of the Day” on radio Eireann and by a horse-cab cavalcade from Sandycove to Dublin, following in the footsteps of Bloom.
The cavalcade set out from Martello Tower, the residence which is now occupied by architect Michael Scott, who addressed the Eire Society here in Boston last Winter. The procession stopped at Monkstown, where curious questioners were told it was on the way to “Finnegan’s Wake,” at Williamstown, Sandymount, Blackrock and all the spots in Dublin mentioned by Joyce, except the two now gone, Barney Kiernan’s pub and the offices of the Freeman.
Along with such literary lights as Patrick Kavanagh 4 and Brian O. Nuallain 5, the group included a distant cousin of Joyce, William Joyce, retired headmaster of Dublin’s Central Model School, George Brooke, an English businessman, and Miceal Costello of the West Indies. Costello expressed surprise that no pilgrims from the United States or France were present.

4 Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) was an Irish poet and novelist.
5 Brian Ó Nualláin (1911-1966), better known by his pen name Flann O’Brien, was an Irish novelist, playwright and satirist.

7-: From the radio review published in the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) of 30th June 1954:

The Third Programme 6 has fittingly celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Bloomsday.

6 Launched on 29th September 1946 as part of the post-war reorganisation of the BBC, the Third Programme offered classical music, serious drama, literature and discussion.