One Thinks of Homer: Oliver St John Gogarty and James Joyce

Tom Moran

Just about all that the average literate person knows about Ulysses (1922) is that it is a novel by James Joyce (1882–1941), set during a single day in Dublin in 1904 and that it is based on Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. Certainly Joyce, during the peripatetic and grueling years of its composition (he once claimed to have spent “nearly 20,000 hours” working on it) made a point of telling whoever asked that he was writing a book based on the Odyssey. But why the Odyssey? After all, as Joyce confessed to his patroness Harriet Shaw Weaver, “I don’t even know Greek though I am spoken of as erudite.” Joyce’s “lack of Greek he was to bemoan all his life”, according to biographer Richard Ellmann, and while Joyce claimed “to speak four or five languages fluently enough” and spoke Italian at home with his family, he made a point of basing Ulysses on a work written in a language he had never studied and did not understand. Why?[1]

Oliver St John Gogarty (1878–1957) is known today, insofar as he is known at all, exclusively as the inspiration for the character of Malachi (“Buck”) Mulligan in Ulysses, but in his own day he cut quite an imposing, if somewhat corpulent, figure in Irish literary circles. Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the memoir Angela’s Ashes (1996), who wrote his master’s thesis on Gogarty, lists his accomplishments as: “… doctor, poet, playwright, novelist, wit, athlete, champion drinker at Oxford, memoirist, senator.” In 1936 more than a dozen of Gogarty’s poems were considered good enough to be included in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse by no less astute a judge of poetry than Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats, who wrote Gogarty that “I think you are perhaps the greatest master of the pure lyric now writing in English.” Richard Ellmann’s elegant putdown of Gogarty (that he was “famous as a surgeon to his readers and as a poet to his patients”) has to be set against the opinion of Yeats and various other anthologists; and even Ellmann admits that, at the time of his first meeting with Joyce, Gogarty was considered to be “the wittiest man in Ireland”. He was far from being the “blasphemous vulgarian” that Vladimir Nabokov calls Buck Mulligan.

Gogarty in 1897, Joyce in 1904.

Two ambitious Irishmen

When they first met, both men were minor Dublin celebrities: Gogarty as athlete, scholar and wit, Joyce as a young writer who had published a review of Henrik Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken (1899) in the prestigious Fortnightly Review while he was still in his teens. But Joyce was as notorious for his hauteur as his talent; the future critic Mary Colum first laid eyes on Joyce in Dublin’s Kildare Street when the person she was walking with pointed him out, saying, “There is James Joyce, the great genius of University College in his own estimation.”

Gogarty and Joyce were both poets who aspired to study medicine. Gogarty achieved his ambition and became a prominent surgeon; Joyce’s medical ambitions, like those of his father before him, came to nothing, ending when he was summoned home from Paris as his mother was dying. Stanislaus Joyce attests that his older brother “was attracted by Gogarty’s talent and freedom of spirit, and amused by his inexhaustible vitality and witty obscenity.” They were both young, talented, ambitious and for a time inseparable; Padraic Colum states that “Joyce and Gogarty were rarely seen then one without the other”, and even claims that “It was solely as a ‘character’, and that partly a Gogartian creation, that Joyce was known to Dubliners of that time.”

To be known, even partly, as “a Gogartian creation” must have been galling to a man as arrogant and querulous as Joyce, who could claim, like Hamlet, to be proud, revengeful and ambitious, with a decided emphasis on the penultimate adjective. Further, Gogarty was prosperous and solidly middle-class, destined for a successful career as a physician and an avocation as a respected lyric poet, whereas Joyce’s family, through his father’s fecklessness, had plunged headlong from middle-class respectability into poverty and squalor. A friendship between two such strong personalities could not, and did not, last; as with many relationships, all it took was a brief period of cohabitation to make things go wrong.

The programme for the Irish premiere of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, performed by The Players Club at Dublin’s Molesworth Hall on 14 December 1897.

Gogarty had rented the Martello Tower at Sandycove and was more or less supporting Joyce financially. “He must have a year to finish his novel,” Gogarty wrote to a friend at the time. Stanislaus Joyce, in his contemporaneous diary (which as a whole is hostile to Gogarty), confirms this:

At present [Joyce] is staying on sufferance with Gogarty in the Tower at Sandycove. Gogarty wants to put Jim out, but he is afraid that if Jim made a name someday it would be remembered against him (Gogarty) that though he pretended to be a bohemian friend of Jim’s, he put him out. Besides, Gogarty does not wish to forfeit the chance of shining with a reflected light. Jim is scarcely any expense to Gogarty. He costs him, perhaps, a few shillings the week and a roof, and Gogarty has money.

In Joyce’s fictional account of their ménage in Ulysses, however, it is the well-heeled Oxonian Buck Mulligan who arrogantly cadges money from a gainfully employed Stephen Dedalus, rather than the other way around. There was a third member of this short-lived household, a friend of Gogarty’s from Oxford named Samuel Chevenix Trench (1881–1909) who was, according to Gogarty, “an enthusiastic Gaelic speaker and, in his spare time, an amateur teacher of Gaelic, in Oxford of all places.” Upon arriving in the Emerald Isle, Trench swiftly went native. Gogarty relates that the young Englishman

applied to the courts for permission to change his name by deed poll. He became Diarmuid instead of Samuel. He grew so zealous for things made in Ireland that he went about with his shoe leather all green for want of blacking made in Ireland.

The James Joyce Tower, a Martello tower at Sandycove, Dublin, where Joyce lodged in 1904.

Gunshots in the night

On 14 September 1904, things came to a noisy and dangerous head. Since it has been Joyce’s fictional account of these events that has more or less been taken for fact, perhaps it is best to let Gogarty himself relate what followed:

One summer night, when it was too hot to sleep although the door was open, shortly after midnight Trench, who had been dozing, awoke suddenly and screamed, “The black panther!” He produced a revolver and fired two or three shots in the direction of the grate. Then, exhausted, he subsided into sleep. I gently removed the gun. Joyce sat up on his elbow, overcome by consternation. Soon again, as I had guessed he would, Trench awoke and saw the black panther again. “Leave him to me,” I said and shot down all the tin cans on top of Joyce. This was too much for that sensitive soul who rose, pulled on his frayed trousers and shirt, took his ash plant with the handle at right angles to the shaft, and in silence left the tower forever… Apparently he bore me no resentment. He may have thought that Trench had done the shooting, for he makes some comments on my visitor from Oxford. To this day I am sorry for that thoughtless horseplay on such a hypersensitive and difficult friend.

If Gogarty actually believed that Joyce bore him no resentment for the way in which he was forced to flee the tower in the middle of the night, gunshots ringing in his ears, then, to paraphrase Bernard Shaw’s famous letter to Sylvia Beach, he little knew his countryman. When Joyce was living in self-imposed exile and trying to write stories for Dubliners (1914) with, as one of his biographers puts it, “sweat streaming down his face,” he had plenty of time to indulge in exactly the kind of “moody brooding” that Buck Mulligan warns Stephen Dedalus against. Joyce in his penurious exile must have been infuriated that the likes of Gogarty were fat and prosperous in Dublin while he had to scratch out a pitiful subsistence teaching English in the sweltering heat of Trieste. Joyce, at this low point in his fortunes, though he had long since abandoned the Catholic Church, offered up, in a letter to his brother Stanislaus, a prayer of sorts:

For the love of the Lord Christ change my curse-o’-God state of affairs. Give me for Christ’s sake a pen and an ink-bottle and some peace of mind and then, by the crucified Jaysus, if I don’t sharpen that little pen and dip it into fermented ink and write little sentences about the people who betrayed me send me to hell.

Portrait of Oliver St John Gogarty, William Orpen, 1911 (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin).

In writing Ulysses, Joyce would do exactly that. His peculiar brand of creativity fed off the notion of betrayal, real or imagined. He seemed to require it, the way Proust needed jealousy and sexual obsession, in order to write. Even back in the days when he was still living in Dublin and writing his early (and unpublished in his lifetime) novel Stephen Hero (1944), Joyce was, according to Richard Ellmann, relishing the opportunity to rewrite his personal history so that he could stand in judgment on his friends:

Joyce did not keep his book to himself; he showed the manuscript to chosen friends, and, without saying so directly, threatened some of them with the punishments he would mete out for slights suffered at their hands. They became, as Gogarty said, “accessories before the fact.” His art became a weapon which had an immediate effect upon his circle of acquaintances, and so altered the life it depicted.

Only through coming to terms with this somewhat unsavory aspect of Joyce’s personality is it possible to understand Ulysses – not to mention the “contrary man”, in Gogarty’s words, who wrote it. It is a pleasant illusion to think of Joyce exclusively as the impersonal artist painstakingly fashioning timeless masterpieces out of his own experience. While there is a certain amount of truth in the notion of Joyce as fabulous artificer, there is an equal amount of validity, as even his biographer admits, in the portrait of Joyce as an artist deliberately using his art as a weapon in order to exact revenge for perceived slights by such former friends as Oliver St John Gogarty. Joyce did not admire Dante for nothing.

A first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, 1000 copies of which were printed by Shakespeare & Company of Paris in February 1922.

Greek tragedy and Irish comedy

“Telemachus”, the first episode of Ulysses, begins, as Hugh Kenner has pointed out, with a sentence the first nine words of which “mimick a Homeric hexameter”: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” Mulligan then proceeds to perform what Haines, the fictional version of Gogarty’s Oxford friend Samuel Chevenix Trench, will refer to as a “somewhat blasphemous” parody of the Latin Mass, with Joyce implying that Mulligan is something less than a devout Catholic.

He is definitely implying that he is an exhibitionist because his dressing gown is “ungirdled”, and “sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air”, which I take to mean that, in the second sentence of the novel, Joyce is depicting Mulligan as exposing himself to Stephen Dedalus. “Telemachus” dramatizes the power dynamic between these two young, ambitious Irishmen, and Mulligan’s casual nudity seems to be almost an attempt to demonstrate, in a crude way, his supposed power over Stephen. There is also, contrary to anything we know about Gogarty, a vaguely homoerotic element to their relationship, as if Mulligan is hoping to entice Dedalus sexually (Joyce will allude to this later on in the novel, in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode). So in less than two pages we are treated to a fictional depiction of Joyce’s former friend (who was, we should remind ourselves, still, unlike Joyce, living in fiercely Catholic Ireland) as: 1) a blasphemer, 2) an exhibitionist and 3) a latent homosexual.

Besides his enviable prosperity, the main thing that Mulligan holds over Stephen Dedalus is the fact that he had spent some time as a scholar at Oxford. Mulligan’s Classical learning gives him the perfect opportunity to flaunt his Hellenic erudition so as to patronize his gifted but Greekless friend:

– God, he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks! I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta!

The statue of James Joyce in Trieste, at the north-eastern extremity of Italy, where he toiled for sixteen years (1904–20).

Mulligan segues from this ostentatious parading of his Classical knowledge to chide him about his presumably callous conduct at his mother’s deathbed:

– You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you, Buck Mulligan said. I’m hyperborean as much as you. But to think of your mother begging you with her last breath to kneel down and pray for her. And you refused. There is something sinister in you…

This is the kind of criticism that only a very close (or extremely presumptuous) friend can make, and, intriguingly, Joyce has fictionalized the actual event to make Stephen Dedalus look as callous and Buck Mulligan seem as reasonable as possible, since, according to Joyce’s brother Stanislaus who was in the room at the time, this deathbed scene did not at all happen in life the way it is depicted in the novel. The brothers had an uncle who, having once lost his faith and subsequently regained it, was once again an obnoxiously pious Catholic:

When my mother lapsed into unconsciousness and it became apparent that her last moments had come, Uncle John knelt down with all the others and began to pray in a loud voice. Then seeing that neither my brother nor I was praying, he made an angry, peremptory gesture to us to kneel down. Neither of us paid any attention to him; yet even so the scene seems to have burnt itself into my brother’s soul.

Why would Joyce seemingly go out of his way to demonize his own fictional alter ego? The answer, it seems to me, lies in an unexplored parallel between “Telemachus” and a totally different work of Greek literature; one that has not, insofar as I know, been discussed or even noticed previously in relation to Ulysses.

Orestes slaying Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, frontal relief of a Roman sarcophagus, mid-2nd cent. AD (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia).

Ulysses begins with a man on top of a tower and depicts a man who is accused of killing his mother. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, the first play of the Oresteia (458 BC), also begins with a man on top of a tower – or “the palace of King Agamemnon”, as Richmond Lattimore describes it in his translation. When Buck Mulligan “swept the mirror a half circle in the air to flash the tidings abroad in sunlight now radiant on the sea”, he could be said to be replicating “the flare burning from the blackness in good augury” the Watchman sees that signifies the end of the Trojan War. And when Mulligan refers to Dedalus, and Dedalus refers to himself, as a “dogsbody”, it could be said to echo the fact that the Watchman at the beginning of the Agamemnon sits or lies “elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise” or, in the original, κυνὸς δίκην (kunos dikēn). And while Telemachus did not kill his mother and Hamlet (with whom Stephen Dedalus is often compared) is not directly responsible for his mother’s death, Orestes in the Oresteia did in fact kill his mother, as Buck Mulligan accuses Stephen Dedalus of doing (“He kills his mother but he can’t wear grey trousers”).

Some critics consider Mulligan to be a simple sadist who is continually patronizing and needling Stephen Dedalus. The truth is somewhat more complicated than that, and complicated still further by the fact that, virtually alone among the major characters in Ulysses, Buck Mulligan is afforded no interior life: “Throughout Ulysses,” as Hugh Kenner observes, “[Mulligan] has no unspoken thoughts whatever: as it were, no inside.” This is a significant element in how Joyce stacks the deck, so to speak, against Mulligan in Ulysses in general and in “Telemachus” in particular. The “Telemachus” episode consists primarily of the interactions of three people, but we are only privy to the thoughts of one of them. In addition, Malachi Mulligan is depicted by Joyce as being just about the only person in Dublin who appreciates Stephen Dedalus for the budding genius that he is. Certainly the Dublin literati do not. But it is paradoxically true of Mulligan that, for every insult he gives to Dedalus, he hands him a compliment as well.

Here is a random sampling from just two pages of “Telemachus”:

  • You know, Dedalus, you have the real Oxford manner.
  • I have a lovely pair with a hair stripe, grey. You’ll look spiffing in them. I’m not joking, Kinch. You look damn well when you’re dressed.
  • It’s not fair to tease you like that, Kinch, is it? He said kindly. God knows you have more spirit than any of them.
  • And to think of you having to beg from these swine. I’m the only one that knows what you are.

Mulligan is being sincere when he tells Dedalus that “if you and I could only work together we might do something for the island. Hellenise it.” The question is, what does “Hellenising” Ireland mean? We need to keep in mind that, while Joyce knew no Greek, Gogarty was, in the words of one Joyce biographer, “a brilliant Classicist who could reel off long streams of Greek poetry.” Was it possible that Mulligan (or Gogarty for that matter) thought that the two of them could free Ireland from its dependence on a repressive Catholicism (not to mention the British Empire) and bring to it the sunlit clarity of thought and the purity of diction of, say, Pindar or Sophocles? Even if he did, the project was doomed by Gogarty’s thoughtlessness and Joyce’s pride. These two men, so gifted in their different ways, were never to be friendly again after the events of 1904.

Portrait of James Joyce, Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1934 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin).

A Joycentric universe

What Joyce accomplished in writing Ulysses was the literary equivalent of a coup d’état, a Copernican shift in which the Dublin literary universe, where Joyce in reality had been on the outermost fringe, was now completely shaken up. Whereas writers such as William Butler Yeats and John Millicent Synge (both writers whom Joyce respected and, quite possibly because of that respect, chose not to depict directly in Ulysses) had been considered the shining stars of Dublin’s literary firmament, after 2 February 1922 it would be a Joycentric universe, with James Joyce never to be dislodged from its center. All the Dublin literary figures that had ignored or slighted him would now revolve around him. They would shine, but only with a reflected light. James Joyce was a genius in his own estimation, and he would force the world to share that estimation – whether they liked it or not.

In later years Gogarty would be scathing on the subject of Ulysses, and especially what he called “its preposterous and factitious parallel to Homer’s fairy tales”, and one cannot help but wonder whether Joyce’s desire to, in a sense, co-opt Homer for his own uses was a deliberate way of getting his own back at Gogarty for his flaunting of his Classical learning. Did Joyce “Hellenise” Ireland by making it the setting of a modern-day Odyssey, with a metempsychotic Ulysses in the form of Leopold Bloom making his way around the city that Joyce had abandoned but never ceased yearning for? Or is the Homeric parallel merely the “disposable scaffolding” that, according to Hugh Kenner, Ezra Pound believed it to be?

When Joyce made the decision to buttress the structure of his seemingly structureless novel by using the Odyssey as a prototype, was he doing so to get back at Oliver St John Gogarty for the flaunting of his Classical knowledge in so patronizing a fashion by, in a sense, colonizing one of the greatest masterpieces of Classical literature? If that was in fact his intention, it was brilliantly successful: after all, a century after the original publication of Joyce’s novel in Paris, Ulysses is now, in the minds of many readers, as inseparable from the Odyssey as conjoined twins. One can’t think of the one without thinking of the other. Could that have been Joyce’s ultimate act of artistic revenge on his one-time friend? It is surely not a coincidence that one of the best capsule descriptions of Ulysses can be found in the text of the novel itself, and put into the mouth of Buck Mulligan, the character based on Oliver St John Gogarty: “The most beautiful book that has come out of our country in my time. One thinks of Homer.”

Telemachus in search of his father, John Flaxman, 1805 (Tate Gallery, London).

At various times during their later years, Gogarty hoped for a reconciliation with Joyce, but it never happened. Joyce’s pride, which bordered on the satanic, would never allow him to let his onetime muse off the hook for the way he had been treated in the Summer of 1904. But 35 years after what came to be known as Bloomsyear, when Joyce published Finnegans Wake (1939), one of the people who reviewed the book (for the Observer) was his former friend, erstwhile patron and eventual nemesis:

When I think of the indomitable spirit that plodded on, writing Ulysses in poverty in Trieste, without a hope of seeing it published, I am amazed at the magnitude of this work, every word of which in its 628 pages had to be weighed, twisted, and deranged in order to bring up associated ideas in the mind.

Joyce, as Richard Ellmann writes in his biography, was pleased by his former friend’s review: “Joyce said to [Frank] Budgen that Gogarty, being an athlete, knew the value of a ‘stayer’.” Less than four months later, on 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and, for the second time in a generation, Europe was at war. With much difficulty Joyce and his family were able to escape wartime France and return to Zurich, where he had lived during the previous war and where he had written much of Ulysses. And that was where he died, of a perforated ulcer caused by peritonitis. On his desk when he died were two books. One was I Follow St Patrick (1938), by Oliver St John Gogarty. The other was a Greek Lexicon.

Tom Moran has worked on the editorial staffs of Newsweek and Time magazines, reviewed books for Time, the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal, and is currently ABD at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. His dissertation-in-progress is entitled “Truman Capote, Metatextuality and the Transfiguration of Genre.” He previously wrote for Antigone about Shakespeare’s knowledge of Latin and Greek.

The drawing of Leopold (“Poldy”) Bloom at the top of this piece was sketched by Joyce in 1926, and includes both a sketch of Bloom and the first line of Homer’s Odyssey. More information about it is given here by the McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University in Everston, Illinois, where the original is held.


1 If any further corroboration were needed of Joyce’s ignorance of Greek, the sketch he made of Leopold Bloom containing the first line of the Odyssey circa 1923 (which is reproduced in Ellmann’s biography) would decisively settle the matter. In a line of eight words, he misspells half of them, and fails to capitalize two. There is evidence, however, that Joyce, as R.J. Schork puts it, “briefly tried to work with the Homeric text. His Trieste library included a school edition of Book 1 of the epic, complete with copious notes of every sort and a line-by-line translation into grotesquely literal Italian. On several pages of this book Joyce wrote occasional notes, almost all of them involving a mechanical transfer of a vocabulary word from the commentary into the text.”