Yes I said, yes I will
Falling for the Celtic Knights of the Sea’s annual Bloomsday fest
I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read Ulysses, or even attempted it. As an avid reader of classics with at least some Irish blood, I somehow skipped that prerequisite along the way. I always figured I’d get to it some day but have thus far been too intimidated to tackle James Joyce’s notoriously thick magnum opus.
I found new inspiration to finally read the book, considered by many to be one of the greatest works of English literature, in this year’s Bloomsday celebration at the Blue Room. Every June 16 Joyce devotees worldwide celebrate the novel with readings, music and dramatic reenactments. June 16 represents both the day in 1904 when the novel takes place as well as Joyce’s first date with his wife to be, Nora Barnacle.
With a limited knowledge of the novel gleaned from Trivial Pursuit questions and omnipresent cultural references, I was even a little intimidated attending Bloomsday, fearing I’d be lost among all the knowing references and exposed as an imposter, the equivalent of being made to wear lipstick at The Rocky Horror Show.
My fears, of course, were ungrounded. Bloomsday is more than just a celebration of one man and one work, but in a larger sense a celebration of Irish culture. It’s like St. Patrick’s Day for people who read—sans leprechauns, green Budweiser and mounted police.
Glasses of Guinness flowed freely among a crowd that spanned generations, and I didn’t witness a single incident of intellectual snobbery leading up to the nearly sold-out show. The local Bloomsday celebration is organized by a committee of local Joyce junkies and the Celtic Knights of the Sea, a local non-profit dedicated to Celtic culture.
Frank Ficarra, a retired Chico State English instructor who has been involved with the local Bloomsday since its inception, began the evening with a brief address about his own experience with the novel and its importance.
Then the first of many musical numbers began, as the 10-member Celtic Knights of the Sea Men’s Choir, many still swinging glasses of the black stuff, sang “The Rising of the Moon,” a ballad about an 18th-century battle between Irish rebels and English occupiers.
As the program notes mention, Joyce was a musician himself, and constantly referenced music in his writings. Entire books have been written about the musical allusions in Ulysses, which amount to hundreds of songs and whole passages written to emulate musical forms. Musical pieces running the course of the night ranged from more traditional Irish tunes from the Knights choir to an operatic piece (Scarlatti’s Il Pompeo aria, “O cessate di piagarmi”) by Andrew Hahn and David Dura (piano, vocals). Adding a feminine touch to the mostly masculine voices was Lisa Valentine performing “Young May Moon.”
Audience members were guided through a loose retelling of Ulysses via live dramatic reenactments book-ended by a pre-recorded short film called “A Bar in Chico.” The narrative of this version of Ulysses, which is based on Homer’s Odyssey, had two Chico State lit students, played by Keilana Decker and Kenny Kelly, magically transported into the novel upon entering the back bar at Duffy’s Tavern. The students provide insight into the action as portrayed by Knights and Blue Room vets. Sure it was kitschy and vaguely Magic Schoolbus-esque, but well done and it served a purpose. It introduced the uninitiated while entertaining those more familiar with the book.
Another Chico State English professor, Clark Brown, read an original piece he wrote called “Rooftop Ruminations,” and Loki Miller and Steve Swim did a comedic bit called “No, That’s a Bad Thing.”
Four students from Chico’s Oliver Academy of Irish Dance—Lindsay Chamberlain, Erica Mendoza, Shannon Tennison and Abby Zuppan—provided the most exciting moments of the night. The young women performed two dances, a slip jig and a reel, that incited the audience to clap along and give them a standing ovation.
Bloomsday’s climax came in the form of Jodi Rives Meier’s impassioned performance of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. In the last 50 pages of the book Molly, the cheating wife of Leopold Bloom, the book’s protagonist, recounts a lifetime of sexual liaisons. By the time Rives Meier reached the book’s final word—“Yes!”—I’d overcome any fear of Ulysses and added it to the top of my summer reading list. By next June 16, I hope to leave the lipstick at home.