[James] Joyce’s favorite writer was Dante, another exile, who created a verbal universe that he populated with old Florentine comrades and enemies, each caricatured with exquisite precision for all time, and who placed at the center of his imaginary cosmos a woman he had fallen in love with after seeing her on the street, Beatrice Portinari.
Joyce’s Beatrice, of course, was Nora [Barnacle]. She came from Galway, and was working as a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel, in Dublin, when he saw her walking along Nassau Street in a manner suggesting that she was approachable. “Sauntering” is how Joyce later described it. He duly approached, and asked her for a date. She agreed, but stood him up. He sent her a note. “I went home quite dejected,” it said. “I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me—if you have not forgotten me!” This time, they did meet. They walked to Ringsend, on the south bank of the Liffey, where (and here we can drop the Dante analogy) she put her hand inside his trousers and masturbated him. It was June 16, 1904, the day on which Joyce set “Ulysses.” When people celebrate Bloomsday, that is what they are celebrating.