I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Father’s Day



Dermot Hodson writes:

Of the dark past
A child is born;
With joy and grief
My heart is torn.

Written on the occasions of his grandson’s birth in February 1932 and his father’s death two months earlier, the opening lines of James Joyce’s poem ‘Ecce Puer’ are among the author’s most personal. The strained bond between fathers and sons is also a key theme of Ulysses, Joyce’s extraordinary novel about the lives of everyday heroes in Dublin on June 16th, 1904. This year, Bloomsday falls on Father’s Day, reminding us of the central importance of fatherhood in Joyce’s modernist masterpiece.

In the opening episode of Ulysses, we encounter Stephen Dedalus, a young poet and teacher recently returned from Paris, who decides to leave the Martello Tower he shares with his treacherous friend Buck Mulligan. ‘I will not sleep here tonight. Home also I cannot go,’ declares Stephen, who is estranged from his father, Simon, a grieving widower who drinks while his young daughters go hungry. So begins Stephen’s dislocated day, which takes him from the ‘squeaking pebbles’ of Sandymount Strand to the ‘barren cobblestones’ of Dublin’s red-light district.

Leopold Bloom lives with his wife, Molly, in Eccles Street. The two have a teenage daughter who is making her own way in Mullingar, but they lost their newborn son, Rudy, ten years earlier and grew apart in their grief. Fatherhood is never far from Bloom’s thoughts as he traverses Dublin, while Molly is visited by an admirer. ‘I could have helped him on in life, I could. Make him independent,’ Bloom says to himself of ‘little Rudy’, who was buried in a lamb’s wool jacket aged just eleven days.

Bloom thinks of his own ‘poor papa’ throughout the day. Born Rudolf Virag in the Hungarian city of Szombathely, Leopold’s late father moved between Budapest, Vienna, Milan, Florence and London before settling in Dublin and changing his last name to Bloom in honour of the Hungarian for flower: virág.

We learn little about Rudolf in Ulysses other than the fact that he died after consuming a lethal concoction of aconite and chloroform at the Queen’s Hotel in Ennis on June 27th, 1886. ‘I’m glad I didn’t go into the room to look at his face,’ thinks Leopold, as he walks down Brunswick Street.

‘An old man, widower, unkempt of hair, in bed, with head covered, sighing’ is how Bloom remembers his father, but a younger, more spirited Rudolf lives on in stories of his ‘migrations and settlements’ across Europe. As a final, recurring, act of filial piety, Leopold visits the Queen’s Hotel on June 27th each year.

Stephen and Simon Dedalus are almost reunited twice in the book. On the first occasion, Simon’s horse-drawn carriage passes Stephen, who is delivering a letter to the Freeman’s Journal. When informed by a fellow passenger that they just passed his ‘son and heir’, Simon worries if ‘that Mulligan cad’ is with him. On the second occasion, Simon leaves the Freeman’s offices with a drinking companion moments before his son arrives. ‘Your governor is just gone,’ announces the editor as he shakes Stephen’s hand.

A concern for fathers and sons inspires Stephen’s convoluted ideas about Shakespeare, which he conveys to literary acquaintances at the National Library of Ireland. Hamlet wasn’t a surrogate for the playwright, Dedalus insists, but for Hamnet Shakespeare, who died aged eleven in Stratford while his father found fame in London.

Since Shakespeare cast himself as the ghost in Hamlet, the play begins with a father ‘speaking his own words to his own son’s name’ so that the son ‘may live forever’, Stephen concludes. ‘It’s quite simple,’ Buck Mulligan says mockingly of his friend’s theory. ‘He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.’

Bloom sees Stephen several times during the day, but the two men finally meet that evening in the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, where Mulligan and other medical students drink to excess. An altercation between Dedalus and Mulligan follows at Westland Row station. Concerned for Stephen’s safety, Bloom follows him to a brothel in Nighttown.

A hallucinatory hellscape awaits Bloom, who is by turns exalted and humiliated by distorted versions of the book’s characters. Among this number is the ghost of Bloom’s father, Rudolf, who appears stooped and bearded, ‘yellow poison-streaks’ on his face. ‘What you making down this place?’ Rudolph asks in broken English. ‘Have you no soul?’

When Bloom finally catches up with Dedalus, the young man has fallen foul of two British soldiers from the Portobello Barracks, who threaten to bash his brains out. Ushering Stephen to safety, Bloom encounters one final figure in Nighttown: an eleven-year-old Rudy, who gazes unseeing into his father’s eyes. A lambkin peers out of Rudy’s waistcoat pocket, his funeral clothes taking corporeal form.

Ulysses concludes with Molly’s celebrated soliloquy, but the book’s emotional peak occurs in the previous episode when Bloom takes Stephen to Eccles Street for a sobering cup of cocoa and offers him a place to stay.

For Stephen, Bloom could be the reliable father that Simon so struggles to be. For Bloom, Stephen is the adopted son who might bring reconciliation with Molly. The plan quickly unravels, however, after Dedalus ‘promptly, inexplicably, with amicability, gratefully’ declines.

Before the two men take their leave, they share an intimate moment by urinating side-by-side in Bloom’s yard, their gazes drawn upwards to a passing meteor. The bells from nearby St George’s Church then chime as Leopold and Stephen shake hands.

Readying himself for bed, Bloom contemplates the ‘irreparability of the past’. Embarrassed, perhaps, by his earlier offer of asylum, he remembers a visit to Albert Hengler’s circus in which a ‘clown in quest of paternity’ climbed into the audience and declared Bloom to be ‘his papa’.

Whether Stephen makes the short walk from Eccles Street to his father’s house in Cabra goes unrecorded. ‘A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past’ is how Stephen describes Simon in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This caustic assessment is unchanged in Ulysses, which holds out little hope of reconciliation. ‘You know Simon Dedalus?’ Stephen is asked by a stranger in the cabman’s shelter at Butt Bridge; ‘I’ve heard of him,’ the poet coldly replies.

James Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce, was every bit as reckless as his literary alter ego, Simon Dedalus. Born into a wealthy family in Cork, John moved to Dublin, where he married May Murray, with whom he fathered ten surviving children. The Joyce family enjoyed a comfortable life, but John’s profligacy had led to crippling debts even before he lost his well-paid job at the office of the Collector-General of Rates. Drinking more and more, and rarely able to pay the rent, John took his family from the Victorian splendour of Bray to one threadbare property after another in Drumcondra, Fairview and Cabra.

Despite his own failings, John had the highest hopes for his eldest living son. Joyce Sr. secured James a scholarship at Belvedere College and fed his son’s voracious appetite for books when his other children had barely enough to eat. James inherited from his father a love of language, self-belief and a fine tenor voice. Unfortunately, the two also shared a ruinous relationship with alcohol and money.

James Joyce left Dublin with Nora Barnacle – his lover, muse and future wife – on October 8th, 1904. They boarded the boat at Kingstown pier separately, knowing that John Stanislaus Joyce, who came to see his son off, would have looked unkindly on a chambermaid from Galway without money to her name. By the time the couple reached the Italian port city of Trieste, John knew that he had been duped. ‘I need not tell you how your miserable mistake affected my already well crushed feelings,’ John later wrote to James.

Nora gave birth to a son, Giorgio, in July 1905. James, though he was every bit as self-absorbed as Stephen Dedalus, proved to be a patient and loving parent who enjoyed playing with, and singing to, his son. However, paying for food, clothing and lodgings came no more easily to Joyce than it did to his own father. Writing and drinking dominated daily life in Trieste. Giorgio and his sister Lucia often went hungry, and they would have endured even greater hardships without Stanislaus Joyce, James’s dutiful brother.

James Joyce visited Dublin in the summer of 1909 with four-year-old Giorgio. John was still bruised by James’s elopement with Nora, but the Corkman doted on his grandson and made an uneasy peace with his son. Aside from a return visit in 1912, James never saw his father again despite John’s entreaties, as his health failed, to see his ‘dear Jim’ one last time.

When John Stanislaus Joyce died in 1931, James wrote about how close he and his father had remained despite their physical separation: ‘He thought and talked of me up to his last breath. I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself.’ The writer’s profound sense of loss was tempered when Giorgio fathered a son. In a tribute to his grandfather’s lifework, the boy was named Stephen James.

‘Ecce Puer’, like Ulysses, is filled with fatherhood’s hopes, fears and frustrations, but its final lines remain a powerful ode to paternal love which burns brightly this Bloomsday.

A child is sleeping:
An old man gone.
O, father forsaken,
Forgive your son!


Dermot Hodson is a Dublin-born author who lives in London. His work has been published in The Irish Times, The Guardian and The Washington Post.