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Ulysses Blog: Episode 16, Eumaeus

“Preparatory to anything else Mr. Bloom brushed off the bulk of the shavings and handed Stephen the hat and ashplant and bucked him up generally in orthodox Samaritan fashion, which he very badly needed.”

Thus begins the ‘Eumaeus’ episode where readers will notice the change of style and tone from that which precedes it. Joyce told his friend, Frank Budgen, that, after the great technical difficulties ‘Circe had posed for him “and for the reader something worse”, in ‘Eumaeus’ the style is “quite plain”1 , and that is true. No serious reader ought to be intimidated by this episode, although the writing is more than a little prolix. One critic has observed that: “In place of the traditional economy of plot, where the supply of words is budgeted to the demands of action, Joyce introduces a throwaway aesthetic in which words outnumber deeds by at least 20:1.”2 The episode has an unnamed narrator (who is privy to all of Bloom’s words and thoughts), but there are those who consider that Bloom himself may actually be playing that role, as the attitudes and language evinced by the two seem quite similar.

In the Odyssey, the homecoming hero arriving back in Ithaca in disguise spends time with his swineherd, Eumaeus. In this episode, there is much that is disguised or misleading, and its narrator has regular recourse to such statements as “quite possibly there was not one vestige of truth” in it. We don’t know who the narrator is and two characters who appear here, the owner of the cabman’s shelter and soi-disant sailor may not be who they pretend to be. Bloom is trying to conjure up a father-son rapport with Stephen who, for his part, when asked about Simon Dedalus (his father’s name), pretends not to know him. It turns out that the Simon Dedalus referred to in this instance is a circus performer, but perhaps that is also a made-up yarn.

After the frenzied whirlpool that was ‘Circe’, we are now in calmer waters as we accompany an exhausted Bloom and Stephen (this episode takes place after midnight) as they leave Nighttown. A “disgustingly sober” Bloom, in paternalistic mode, offers Stephen some sage advice, about “the dangers of nighttown, women of ill fame and swell mobsmen”. He urged Stephen not to repose much trust “in that boon companion of yours, who contributes the humorous element”, Buck Mulligan.

As the two walk the late-night streets of Dublin, they come across John Corley, who is down on his luck and in dire need of money, which Stephen, despite his own impecuniosity, decides to supply. The sceptical narrator wonders “if the whole thing (Corley’s hard-luck story) wasn’t a complete fabrication from start to finish”, another example of how nothing in this episode can be taken at face value.

They end up in a cabman’s shelter at Butt Bridge, populated by a “decidedly miscellaneous collection of waifs and strays and other nondescript specimens of the genus homo” for a late-night coffee and a bun, or as Joyce’s grandiloquent narrator puts it: “a choice concoction labelled coffee and a rather antediluvian specimen of a bun”.

The shelter is reputed to be run by Skin-the-Goat Fitzharris, a member of the Invincibles, an offshoot of the Fenians, who was jailed for 20 years for being an accomplice in the assassination in May 1882 (just months after Joyce’s birth) of the Irish Chief Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish and his Deputy T.H. Burke. Those murders were probably the biggest blow to the British Administration in Ireland throughout the whole of the 19th century.

In a piece he published about Fenianism in a Trieste newspaper in 1907, Joyce expressed the view that “any concession by England to Ireland has been granted unwillingly, at bayonet point, as the saying goes.”3 This indicates that Joyce was familiar with the point of view of Ireland’s physical force tradition and its disdain for the conciliatory methods employed by 19th century Irish politicians. Elsewhere, Joyce wrote that Parnell had “set out on a march along the borders of insurrection”4 , hinting at a belief that Parnell’s political success was aided by his deft invocation of the spectre of revolution. As with much else in this episode, it is not certain that the shelter is actually run by Fitzharris. The narrator records Bloom telling Stephen about Fitzharris, but adds that “he wouldn’t vouch for the actual facts, which quite possibly there was not one vestige of truth in.”

Another significant character in these pages is one C.B. Murphy, a talkative sailor who is a customer at Skin-the-Goat’s shelter. When I organised my first ever Bloomsday at the Consulate General in Edinburgh in June 1999, one of our readers was the Edinburgh-based Irish poet, Hayden Murphy. On that occasion, Hayden read some passages which quoted or referred to ‘Skipper’ Murphy. At the time, this seemed to me an obscure choice, for most of our readers had chosen passages featuring Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom or the colourful, voluble ‘Citizen’ from the ‘Cyclops ‘ episode. Having carefully reread the ‘Eumaeus’ episode, I now realise that C.B. Murphy is actually a significant character. Whereas throughout Ulysses, Bloom is always the counterpart of Homer’s Odysseus, here Murphy, a soi-disant mariner with many tall tales to tell, also represents Homer’s hero.

Murphy has more than a touch of the fabulist about him. He claims not to have seen “his own true wife” who lives in Queenstown (now Cobh) for seven years. He has seen a crocodile “bite the fluke of an anchor” and “maneaters in Peru that eats corpses and the livers of horses”. Joyce wrote to a friend that he was “heaping all kinds of lies in to the mouth of that sailorman in Eumaeus which will make you laugh.”5

Inevitably, discussion in the shelter turns to Irish politics. Skin-the-Goat echoes some of the sentiments we heard from ‘the Citizen’ and others during the ‘Cyclops’ episode. He asserts that Ireland was “the richest country in the world bar none on the face of God’s earth, far and away superior to England.” He taps into the idea, common among turn of the century Irish nationalists, that Ireland was overtaxed – “all the riches drained out of it by England levying taxes on the poor that paid through the nose always”. There was “a day of reckoning” in store “for mighty England”. He predicted that “the Germans and the Japs were going to have their little lookin” and insisted that the Boer War was “the beginning of the end” for the British Empire and that Ireland would be England’s Achilles heel. Sailor Murphy retorts that the Irish were the pick of the British Army and that the Irish Catholic peasant was “the backbone of our empire.” In Skin-the-Goat’s view, “no Irishman worthy of his salt” would serve the British State.

This exchange prompts a discussion of Irish nationalism between Bloom and Stephen. Ever the moderate, Bloom was inclined “to poohpooh” Skin-the-Goat’s arguments as “egregious balderdash”. He considered that our English neighbours “rather concealed their strength than the opposite.” It was, he thought, highly advisable ”to try to make the most of both countries, even though poles apart.” As we know from the ‘Cyclops’ episode, Bloom resents “violence or intolerance in any shape or form” and argues that “A revolution must come on the due instalments plan”. (Not many impatient revolutionaries would share this incremental view of the dynamics of history and politics). Stephen in his self-absorbed fashion muses that “Ireland must be important because it belongs to me.” He then comes up with a memorable aphorism that ends this train of conversation: “We can’t change the country. Let’s change the subject.”

No reference to Irish politics in Joyce’s work would be complete without the spectre of Charles Stewart Parnell manifesting itself and that’s what happens in ‘Eumaeus’. One cabman recalls a Dublin Fusilier claiming to have seen Parnell in South Africa. It is alleged that Parnell’s coffin was full of stones and that “he changed his name to De Wet, the Boer general.” Bloom’s response, conveyed via the narrator is quintessentially prudent and guarded: “Highly unlikely of course that there was even a shadow of truth in these stories and, even supposing, he thought a return highly inadvisable, all things considered.”

Inevitably, mention of Parnell generates lively exchanges. Skin-the-Goat blames Mrs O’Shea for Parnell’s travails. “ She put the first nail in his coffin.” To one of the customers she was a “fine lump of a woman .. and plenty of her”. This reminds us of descriptions of Molly that are sprinkled throughout the novel where Molly has been referred to as “a good armful” etc. Bloom is, of course, sympathetic to Parnell and Katherine O’Shea. He describes their situation in terms uncannily like his own predicament, with Bloom as Captain O’Shea and Blazes Boylan as Parnell – “.. it was simply a case of the husband not being up to scratch with nothing in common between them beyond the name and then a real man arriving on the scene, strong to the verge of weakness, falling victim to her siren charms and forgetting home ties.” He asks “the eternal question of the life connubial .. can real love .. exist between married folk?”

Bloom fishes a photo of Molly from his pocket to show to Stephen. The narrator describes her as “a large sized lady, with her fleshy charms on evidence in an open fashion”. Bloom presents her to Stephen as “Mrs Bloom my wife the prima donna, Madam Tweedy.” It’s as if he’s asking Stephen to audition Molly. Bloom almost ogles the photo of his wife, which “did not do justice to her figure, which came in for a lot of notice usually”. He wanted Stephen to “drink in the beauty for himself”. Stephen considers Molly’s photo to be “handsome’.

Bloom revels in Stephen’s company for he was “educated, distingué and impulsive into the bargain.” He also recalls being close to “Erin’s uncrowned king” (Parnell) during a fracas in which Parnell had his hat knocked off of his head. Bloom dutifully retrieved the hat and returned it to its owner.

Bloom invites Stephen back to Eccles Street. On the way there, they talked about music, “ a form of art for which Bloom, as a pure amateur possessed the greatest love.” He professes a preference for operas like Mozart’s Don Giovanni and von Flotow’s Martha. Stephen displayed his “phenomenally beautiful tenor voice”. Joyce was a gifted singer who could perhaps have made a career for himself as a concert performer. Bloom fantasises about acting as Stephen’s manager.

In a short study of James Joyce published in 1971, the critic John Gross wrote that: “Reduced to its simplest terms, Ulysses is the story of a chance encounter between two men who have been wandering around Dublin all day, and its possible life-enhancing repercussions.” That strikes me as a reasonable summary of the novel, which implies that ‘Eumaeus’ is a key part of the book. This is where Bloom and Stephen spend what you might call ‘quality time’ together for the first time. Sure, they have brushed past each other in ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ and been in the same room in ‘Oxen of the Sun’ and in the chaotic, hallucinatory ‘Circe’, but it is in the shelter near Butt Bridge that they finally bond. They do not actually become bosom buddies. In truth, they are on different wavelengths. Bloom struggles to keep up with Stephen’s elliptical observations, but the time they spend together clearly pleases Bloom. Stephen’s opinion of his companion is more difficult to discern. And, significantly, Bloom’s Odyssean wanderings end in Stephen’s company as Odysseus and Telemachus, father and son, wend their weary way back to Bloom’s Ithaca on Dublin’s Eccles Street.


Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the USA.

1 Richard Ellmann (ed.), Selected Letters of James Joyce (New York 1966), p. 266.

2 Maud Ellmann, ‘Endings’ in Sean Latham (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ulysses (Cambridge 2014), p. 96. 

3 James Joyce, Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing (Oxford 2000), p. 138.

4 Ibid., p. 195.

5 Richard Ellmann (ed.), Selected Letters of James Joyce (New York 1966), p. 279.

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