Kidney of Bloom, pray for us.

Bloomsday 2023 at Ulysses pub.

The pub opened its doors on June 16, 2003. I have no idea how I heard about it back then (I just looked it up: Aedin told me.) – but I did. The pub opened with a Bloomsday celebration. Frank McCourt was there. In fact, the first pint poured when the bar opened its doors was for Frank. There was a microphone put out in the little cobblestone alley behind the pub – and a bunch of tables placed out there – and people got up and read, and there was live music. Colum McCann was the emcee, and he has continued to be so over all the years since. (My latest Substack is about my history with this event, and with Bloomsday, in general.)

I went to this very same Bloomsday celebration for 10, 12 years mostly nonstop. One year I went to the famous Symphony Space one, an all-day event, culminating at around 1 in the morning, when Fionnula Flanagan took the stage and read Molly Bloom’s monologue, lolled on a chair, letting the pages flutter down beside her. It was, of course, unforgettable. But I always returned – like Ulysses himself – to the Ulysses pub one because it was rowdy and slightly disorganized. The appeal was its amateur-ishness. If you love the book, you could read. This means, of course, some people get up and read and they are boring or too quiet or they go on too long. But that’s the risk you take. You lose something when you limit the reading list to the professionals, or the scholars, or the actors. Joyce meant his book to be for everybody. And everybody can understand it. It’s not as difficult as its reputation – and as its defenders – claim. The Ulysses pub celebration has its regulars. For example, Larry Kirwan – from Black 47!!! – gets up every year to read his favorite section – when all the fireworks go off over Gertie McDowell. And he reads it like a lusting young teenage girl and he brings down the house. Everyone looks forward to it. Here’s a pretty good snapshot of a regular Ulysses pub Bloomsday event. Bring out the usual suspects. I looked forward to seeing all these people once a year.

This past Friday was the 20th anniversary, and it was dedicated to the much missed Frank McCourt, who was there at its inception. There were pictures of him everywhere. Normally the celebration is held outside, but the weather was quite INCLEMENT, so they moved it inside. I don’t think I had even been in the bar before. The owner made a speech in the beginning, after handing out 20th anniversary bookmarks to everyone, and he said something along the lines of – We don’t want to lose the flavor of the event, so pleasure make sure to say hello to the people around you, make friends. It was touching. In tribute to Frank McCourt, Colum opened the event by reading the section from Angela’s Ashes where young Frank makes his first communion and then threw up his communion wafer in his grandmother’s back yard, causing much consternation. “God is in the backyard” as the grandmother said.

Allison came with which was so fun and it was SO GOOD to connect with Therese again. We were trying to remember how it all started. We think it was when we discovered each others’ blogs. I still love her blog. She came to the event at the Irish Arts Center where I performed “74 Facts and One Lie” – I think she read about it on my blog – I know she came to the first reading of my script at Jimmy’s in 2009. And somehow we ended up coming to the Ulysses pub Bloomsday celebration together and we met up there every year after that. 7 years in a row or something like that. The pandemic interrupted the tradition. I haven’t seen Therese in about 4, 5 years. So I reached out and was like “Uhm … if you’re still around … can we please do OUR THING again?” It was SO COOL. Bloomsday was our THING so it was just awesome to see her again! Full heart!

At one point during the festivities, Colum convinced Therese to come up and sing “The Auld Triangle” and she totally crushed it! Of course everyone sang along with the chorus. Outside the rain poured down onto the cobblestones, cobblestones George Washington walked over once upon a time, to get to Fraunces Tavern right on the corner, cobblestones all of those dudes walked on, including my dead boyfriend … and inside a bunch of people holding books, some wearing straw hats, singing along in unison. Soak it up. Be in the moment. Be here. Now.

There were lots of familiar faces. We also met some new people, people we were sitting with, including two tourists from Vancouver who wandered into the pub and had no idea what the hell was going on. They just thought it was a regular happy hour and then they saw all the straw hats and all the books lying open in front of people and were like “What is happening?” Therese and I filled them in, and then we all just got to talking. They were just wrapping up a 5-day vacation where they did literally everything. They saw a Broadway show. They had cannolis in Little Italy. They went to the Met. They walked through Central Park. They ate out in Chinatown. They went to the Statue of Liberty. It was exhausting just hearing about it. You always make new friends at this event.

I read a section from the Schylla and Charybdis episode and it was funny and light and I didn’t outstay my welcome. Get on, get off. Boom!

Sarah Street, a wonderful Irish actress, read portions of the Molly Bloom section at intervals throughout the event.

I’ve heard many people do this monologue over the years, probably 10, 15 people, and someone like Fionnula Flannagan is pretty hard to beat, but I’ve seen other wonderful actresses take it on and bring their own spirit to it I saw Eilin O’Dea do it at a couple of different Bloomsday events. She sometimes showed up at the Ulysses pub celebration, and I saw her at another Symphony Space event organized by my friend Jonathan, where she did the whole monologue – memorized – and it was absolutely riveting! I’ve also heard the monologue done in a really porn-y way. Particularly those last two pages. It’s obvious what is going on in those last two pages. All you have to do is read it out loud. Even if you DIDN’T know what was happening, just reading the words clues you in, but that’s not necessarily porn-y. I can’t believe I have to say that but unfortunately it appears I do. I’ve heard that section read like it’s Sally at Katz’s deli in Harry Met Sally. And it sure goes over well with the crowd, particularly the male crowd, who’ve had a few by that point. Whoops and hollering, like it’s a burlesque, as opposed to a lonely woman lying in bed at night trying to remember her way into a time of safety and happiness and love with a husband from whom she is estranged. So yeah, you get the men clapping and cheering, but I don’t dig it and honestly I think it’s cheap, at least theatrically. It’s the most LITERAL reading of the word “yes”. Joyce said he wanted to end the book on the most positive word in the English language. Yes. Yes can mean anything. Don’t limit it. Molly is profane and practical and non-romantic and she uses all the four letter words and talks about sex in a frank way with no euphemism, she’s a trash-talker, she is Irish, after all, but – and I must underline this – this isn’t porn-y and, in fact, making it porn-y is exactly the kind of dirty-minded thinking about sex Joyce was trying to combat, how religion/repression turned things dirty that aren’t dirty. Molly Bloom’s “yes” is so much more than a scream of orgasmic pleasure (as the male crowd roars). I mean, you can do it that way, and I obviously can’t stop you, but I don’t have to dig what you’re doing.

^^ The amazing Sarah Street

All of this is preface. Sarah Street’s version was heart-stopping. It actually brought tears to my eyes. which kind of surprised me. I know much of it by heart. I know those words. They’re IN me. But she stopped me and made me listen. She didn’t DENY what was obviously going on, but Molly’s “yes” means so much more than a Katz’s Deli yes. It’s yes to everything, it’s yes to him again, it’s yes to renewing her vows (to herself, alone in the dark, as he lies there beside her – ugh, it’s so beautiful). It’s yes to redemption and hope. The couple has been BROKEN by the death of their son. How to find your way back to a Yes after the shattering No of a child’s death? It’s like Sarah somehow made me hear and feel what Molly was saying yes TO. And you just don’t get this if you’re screaming Yes in Katz’s Deli.

Therese and I looked at each other afterwards, and we were both in tears. We were blown away.

Therese and I caught up a little bit afterwards. It’s been too long!! It was 6 pm or so. She was headed to a hockey clinic at Chelsea Piers and had to go grab her hockey sticks, which she had stashed next to the bar. Now that’s a full day: singing The Auld Triangle in front of a crowd and then heading off to play some hockey.

It had stopped raining. The sunset light was stark and clear. I wandered down to Fraunces Tavern and caught a cab home.


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