Joyce in Bloom and Blum

More than a coincidence?

Paris is in bloom today, with a full deep blue sky, unlike the last edition when the elements howled. So it is a perfect time to talk about Joyce, about Paris, Dublin, France and Ireland, though mostly about Bloom. Ah, here we go again.

Irish folk have to be careful when alluding to Joyce, for we all see him as a liberator, a legend who gave every downtrodden paddy the license to play with words. You have to fight hard to keep your keyboard under control, so as not to start popping off new sounds or little tricks. For just as Picasso did for modern art, Joyce rewrote the rules of English literature, or as Trinity College expert David Norris once put it in a BBC radio interview some years ago, Joyce smashed the language into smithereens and built it back up again. The establishment, not least in Ireland, found that thought uncomfortable, as did the guardians of classical English literature.

But France intrigued Joyce, as for many Irish people then perhaps more than now, it was a breath of fresh air. According to sources here, he frequented Parisian naturalistes, not those that bathe in the Seine late on summer nights, but the painters. Ulysses was first published here, though there is certainly more to Paris and that great novel than that. Take Leopold Bloom. The hero of Ulysses was of course a Jew.

Not quite the majority in Dublin at the time. Nor was his an "establishment" community, probably dating from the 1880s, when immigrants from Lithuania fleeing Russian oppression landed in Dublin and Cork. Before that, there had sporadically been small Jewish communities from the mid-17th century on.

So where's the connection with France? A key year to note is 1904. This was not only the year of Joyce's first date with Nora, it was also the year Leopold took his stroll around Dublin, sparking that famous tale of mythology, philosophy, social realism and humanity. Curiously, 1904 was also the year of the founding of France's social left-wing paper, L'Humanité. The plot thickens.

That paper had two founding fathers. One was Jean Jaurès, the great philosopher and social activist. The other was Léon Blum, like Jaurès, a Normalien, as well as literary critic and, later, socialist government leader. Léon was also a Jew. Blum and Bloom: more than a fanciful coincidence of phonetics, as they are related genealogical names. Most of all, chaps like Blum epitomised that open dynamic social climate that marked Joyce's time, in sharp contrast to Ireland. They were no doubt an inspiration, but whether Léon directly influenced Joyce's choice of name for his fictitious hero obviously remains a question.

Today, on the Jewish front, Ireland and France could not be more different from each other. At 650,000, France has the largest Jewish community in Europe and the third largest in the world. While there are concerns of a renewed rise in antisemitism these days, mainly on account of the Middle East, Jews here say they feel proudly French. And while they have suffered terrible persecution, here as elsewhere, Jews have risen to the highest offices in the land, as Blum proved before, and as the likes of Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn demonstrate today.

As for Ireland, Israel's former President Herzog was from Dublin, but no Irish political leader was a Jew. The Jewish community is small and dwindling. Writer Paul Margolis even laments that Jewish life may be drawing to a close. Emigration, an aging population that hasn't replaced itself, intermarriage and assimilation have all taken their toll, reducing the community from nearly 6,000 in the 1940s to just over 1,000 today. Within a generation or two, only a handful of Jews are likely to remain in Ireland, says Margolis, who calls them "a fading tribe on the emerald isle".

Most Irish Jews are comfortably middle-class; many are professionals or in business. As a kid, we used to play Dublin Macabbi in football, always an impeccably kitted out team, with skills and complexions that made us feel extra awkward and pink. Many were third- or fourth-generation Irish-born. The latest wave may have come from the late 19th century, but Dublin's original Jewish cemetery has graves dating back to the early 18th century; a second cemetery, at Dolphin's barn, was opened in 1898, and a third, Woodlawn, in the early 1950s. As Margolis reflects in a near-Joycean mood, the dead in Ireland far outnumber living Jews.

Ireland is of course a changing country, no longer the closed oppressive island that forced Joyce and others to pack their bags. It is now a land of immigration, and not just from within Europe. The increase has been remarkable: in 1996 there were 18,000 non-EU foreigners living in Ireland; by 2002 there were 70,000. And in 2002 most applicants for work permits came from the Philippines.


A 2004 study of 65 countries by Foreign Policy magazine and management consultants AT Kearney elected Ireland as the most globalised country on earth. The study not only counted trade, capital flows and the like, but contact between populations and travel. How Joyce might have been delighted to see his country bloom as it has.

©RJDoyle. Also appears as "Bloom's Heroes" May 2004 edition at

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