For four months in 2012, I was living in London with an old British friend, Matthew, whom I knew from a boarding school we had attended together in Taunton, England, in the late 1980s.
I was commuting up to Oxford twice a week to take a course in James Joyce, with the main desire to finally read the very complex Ulysses. It was a buzzing time from June to September with the Olympics set in London and every pub wildly electric with excitement.
But I was immersed in thoughts of Ireland.
I dreamed of Ireland on my twice-weekly bus and train rides to Oxford, immersed in Joyce’s intricate novel and his character of Leopold Bloom. When the class was done in August, I had another month to travel and Matt suggested a driving trip to Wales where we could take the car ferry over to Dublin.
I had dreamed of Ireland so often, yet every time I had planned a trip, something happened to thwart it. When we set out for the five-hour drive from London on a hazy morning, I felt certain that something would prevent it again. Not this time.
Boarding the ferry in Holyhead, Wales, we parked our car and found seats upstairs and drank pints as I stared at the “snotgreen sea,” Joyce’s Irish twist on The Odyssey’s “wine-dark sea.” The trip was sealed when I looked over at a behemoth white ferry beside us and it was named, aptly, Ulysses. In a few hours, we were easing through the cloudy port at Dublin. We found our car, drove off the ferry, and meandered around a city that was no longer just a dream for me.
An Oxford master’s tutorial had somehow transformed into a real place. I was finally in Joyce’s Ireland. I had few literary things I needed to do: visit the James Joyce Centre to have my photo taken with the black, bespectacled Joyce statue; see the actual address at 7 Eccles Street where Leopold Bloom lived in Ulysses; and walk around Trinity College and eat at Davy Byrnes, where Bloom had his famous gorgonzola sandwich in Chapter 8. I did them all in a happy daze.
After one night in Dublin, we drove west across Ireland to the Cliffs of Moher, a stunning sight overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in CountyClare. We hiked as far out as we could go, rewarded with the sight of sheer sea cliffs striated with lines of green amid the rocks with the ocean almost black below them. Rising mist in this panorama was a reverie.
After the idyllic hike, back into the car we went and drove down to Galway for one last Joycean moment: a visit to his wife Nora Barnacle’s childhood home. First, we unpacked at the hotel, took a bus into town and walked around Galway, coming to Nora’s house. I stared at it and thought for a moment about their volatile marriage. We hit a couple of pubs for some local beers then ate the most lusciously succulent mussels in a white wine cream sauce.
The next day we headed south to Cork but first visited Blarney Castle and its surrounding gardens. Yes, I kissed the Blarney Stone—and nearly broke my neck lying on my back leaning backward while two people kept me from falling. The sweetest surprise, though, was the beautiful gardens on the castle’s grounds. We took our time strolling around them. In the evening, we found a quiet bistro in Cork and enjoyed a last meal in Ireland.
When we drove back to Dublin the next morning and boarded the car ferry in Dún Laoghaire, I thought of the circularity of the trip and how coming back to Joyce’s city was fitting, like the beginning and ending of a certain great novel. In the distance, only eight miles away from Dún Laoghaire, was Rathgar, Joyce’s birthplace. As the ferry moved slowly away, I looked back at Dublin over the Irish Sea and smiled to myself, filled with wonder at how a book could have such a delightful life of its own.
I had seen Ireland exactly how I wanted to, with an amazing friend of nearly thirty years, and going to the exact places I had read about in Ulysses only weeks after I had finished studying the book. It was as if Ireland had existed so long in my mind only to finally manifest itself in reality when I had completed the novel. The novel had come alive and become a country of its own. I had eaten where James Joyce’s character had at Davy Byrnes, and been to Joyce’s wife’s house. Perhaps one of my feet even touched a place where Joyce had walked, thinking of words for his novel.
What is certain is that I had no idea how reading a difficult book would end up turning into the trip of my dreams.
By Mark Damon Puckett