When Bloomsday feels like doomsday

It’s 16 June: BloomsdayThe nearly global celebration marks the day in 1904 when the character Leopold Bloom treks through Dublin in James Joyce’s ”Ulysses.” Think literary St. Patrick’s Day with nicer weather.

Now, however, the date has a darker meaning in Ireland. It’s the anniversary of the 2015 collapse of a fifth-floor apartment balcony in Berkeley, Calif. Five Dublin students and an Irish-American woman were killed, another seven were injured. Most were in the U.S. on J-1 Summer Work and Travel visas.

U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Kevin F. O’Malley issued a statement to media (not yet posted on the embassy website). It says, in part:

On the first anniversary of the unimaginable tragedy that unfolded in Berkeley, California on June 16 last year and affected all of Irish society, the people of the United States extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families, friends, and loved ones of the students who lost their lives or were injured. In a remembrance ceremony today in Ballsbridge with U.S. Embassy personnel, we planted an apple tree in the Embassy’s front courtyard and unveiled a memorial plaque to serve as a living tribute to those affected by the tragedy.

As serious readers of “Ulysses” know, the novel references the horrific fire and sinking of the steamboat “General Slocum,” which occurred a day earlier in New York City. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 passengers were killed, mostly German-American women and school children, though some historians suggest the death toll was higher. It was the worst disaster in New York history until 9/11.

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The “General Slocum,” before the 1904 tragedy.

In The Freeman’s Journal, a national paper in Ireland until 1924, the story was reported on page 5 of the 16 June 1904 edition. Contemporaries of Leopold Bloom read these multi-deck headlines:

Appalling American Disaster

Excursion Steamer on Fire

500 Lives Lost

Wild Scene of Panic

Children Thrown Overboard

Women Trampled to Death

Here’s the passage from “Ulysses,” which was serialized between 1918 and 1920, before being published in full in 1922:

Terrible affair that “General Slocum” explosion. Terrible, terrible. A thousand casualties. And heartrending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing. What do they say was the cause? Spontaneous combustion. Most scandalous revelation. Not a single lifeboat would float and the fire hose all burst. What I can’t understand is how the inspectors ever allowed a boat like that . . .

Or how 111 years later Berkeley inspectors ever allowed a balcony like that …