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'It's normal people before Normal People': Celebrate Bloomsday with a mammoth Ulysses broadcast

RTÉ will be broadcasting a 30-hour-long production of Ulysses to mark a socially distanced Bloomsday.

Bloomsday celebrations in Dublin will look very different this year.
Bloomsday celebrations in Dublin will look very different this year.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

NO FRIED KIDNEYS, no trips to the Martello Tower in Sandycove and certainly no gatherings in Sweny’s Chemist – this year, Dublin’s Bloomsday celebrations will look very different. 

Dozens of planned events on 16 June had to be cancelled or adapted because of the Covid-19 crisis. 

But if James Joyce fans are feeling forlorn, RTÉ has devised something of an audio balm. Next week, the day of Leopold Bloom’s celebrated journey across Dublin, the broadcaster will air a full broadcast of the epic, sprawling Ulysses on RTÉ Radio 1 Extra. 

Lasting 29 hours and 45 minutes, the production first aired in 1982 to mark the centenary of Joyce’s birth.

Starting at 8am, the production will cover the entire journey of Bloom and Stephen Dedalus through the streets of Dublin, as well as the amorous adventures of Molly Bloom.

While not officially being pitched as Zoomsday, that’s how RTÉ producer Kevin Reynolds described this year’s celebrations of all things Joyce. 

“It had never been done before, has never been done since,” he told TheJournal.ie. 

Produced by Marcus MacDonald and directed by William Styles, the book was performed by the RTÉ Players. 

As for some of the more racy aspects of Joyce’s novel – originally banned in Ireland when it was first published – Reynolds says people shouldn’t get too hung up about it. 

“I think Ireland has changed a lot since 1982. And it’s changed a lot since this was recorded,” he said. 

“It’s beautiful erotic literature.There’s nothing like it.”

“The antics of Blazes Boylan and Molly make the shenanigans of Connell and Marianne look like a kiss behind the coal shed,” he said. “It’s so beautifully ordinary. It is normal people before Normal People.”

Source: RTÉ - IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA/YouTube

Podcasts

Sound intimidating?

Reading Ulysses isn’t normally presented as easy or accessible. From a vast range of styles to a host of obscure references and in-jokes, some would call the novel something of an arduous task. 

Listening to nearly 30 hours of it might seem only slightly less arduous. For that reason, RTÉ has produced 18 individual podcasts of the recording, with most of them – with the exception of the delirious Nighttown sequence, which is five hours long – set at a manageable 40-50 minutes in length. 

And to help listeners understand the dense, noisy Dublin of the novel, RTÉ has also launched a dedicated website with 20 explainer programmes with contributions from Edna O’Brien and Joseph O’Connor, as well as a host of archive material related to Ulysses. 

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Reynolds’ advice to any nervous listeners is to not be afraid. “It is a book of humanity,” he stresses. 

“It’s about two guys, both dressed it black, both in grief,” he says. “It is funny, it’s trite. Joyce was such a parodist.”

“Ulysses takes place over the course of one day. We don’t expect people to embrace all this in one day. It’ll be a lifetime,” Reynolds said. 

And for those more familiar with the Irish writer? “We hope the website will be a centre for excellence for Joyceans.”

The project is a major undertaking for the broadcaster – and Reynolds hopes that the broadcast will change how people see Ulysses. 

Describing the permanent draw of the book, he says that for him it’s “of us, from one of us, by one of us, for the world”. 

The complete recording of Ulysses will be broadcast on 16 June on RTÉ Radio 1 Extra from 8am. 

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