joyce ulysses buck mulligan

Who Was the Real Buck Mulligan?

—He’s in with a lowdown crowd, Mr Dedalus snarled. That Mulligan is a contaminated bloody doubledyed ruffian by all accounts. His name stinks all over Dublin.

To listen to a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here

This post is a part of an occasional series on the real people behind the characters in Ulysses.

Most of the links that come up in a Google search for “Oliver St John Gogarty” are for pubs, hostels, apartments etc. instead of the man himself. At 8 a pint, The Oliver St John Gogarty pub in Temple Bar allegedly serves the most expensive pint in Ireland, according the Irish Sun. However, I don’t think it is a fitting legacy for the man fictionalized by Joyce as Buck Mulligan.

Oliver St John Gogarty (pronounced like Sinjin Gogurt-y), was a notable figure in his own right – a surgeon, a poet and a politician. In Ulysses, he appears as Malachi “Buck” Mulligan – a joshing blasphemer and Stephen Dedalus’ main antagonist. Mulligan has a habit of showing up and making Stephen look foolish and injecting crass commentary into otherwise serious discussions, as in “Scylla and Charybdis” when Mulligan shows up at the National Library to add his two cents to Stephen’s Shakespeare theory. Joyce said of Mulligan, “He should begin to pull on the reader as the day goes on… to the extent that Buck Mulligan’s wit wears threadbare….” Personally, Mulligan doesn’t wear on my nerves, but he does come off as a bully and tormentor. The dynamic between Mulligan and Dedalus has its roots in Joyce’s complex, real-life relationship with Gogarty.

Joyce and Gogarty became friends after meeting at the National Library. Gogarty was impressed by Joyce’s poetry, though Joyce would remain certain of his own superiority over Gogarty throughout his life. Gogarty hoped to create an artistic movement to “hellenise” Ireland, that is to bring more developed culture to Dublin. To this end, he signed a lease to rent a Martello tower in Sandycove south of the city. Gogarty saw Joyce as part of his larger artistic vision, but this arrangement soon fell apart. The end of their friendship was dramatized in the first chapter of Ulysses.

Oliver St John Gogarty

Joyce and Gogarty’s friendship was fraught from the start, and they were probably best described as “frenemies,” as the kids say. (They still say that, right?) Gogarty saw Joyce’s potential as an artist and kept him close as a result. However, Gogarty, who was known in his Dublin social circles for his witty, ribald sense of humor, found Joyce too serious, too influenced by his Jesuit education. Joyce, for his part, mistrusted Gogarty and saw him as devoid of feeling, interpreting Gogarty’s joking manner as disloyalty. Joyce’s family was sure that Gogarty was leading Joyce down a dark path (see Simon Dedalus’ quote from “Hades” above), whereas Gogarty’s mother thought Joyce was the bad influence. According to Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, Gogarty was the one who encouraged Joyce to take up drinking, leading to late night carousing, drunken blackouts and general waywardness.

Ulysses is littered with references great and small to their real-life friendship and conflicts. For instance, Gogarty nicknamed Joyce “Kinch,” (an onomatopoeia of a cutting knife), a name Mulligan calls Stephen throughout the book. Other Gogarty-original nicknames included “Wandering Aengus” (referenced in “The Wandering Rocks”) and “The Dante of Dublin.”  Gogarty was known to have saved multiple people from drowning, same as his literary counterpart.

In his Trieste notebook, a collection of notes Joyce penned somewhere between 1907 and 1909, he describes Gogarty as “having a plump shaven face” (“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan…”), “hair grained and hued like pale oak” and “the sullen oval jowl [that] recalled a prelate, patron of arts in the middle ages,” both of which appear verbatim in Ulysses. The Trieste notebook also functioned as Joyce’s burn book, where he wrote down critical, nasty commentary on his friends. The artist states, “The most casual scenes appear to his mind as the theatres of so many violent sexual episodes and casual objects as gross sexual symbols.” He continues: “His coarseness is the mask of his cowardice of spirit,” and, “Heaven and earth shall pass away but his false spirit shall not pass away,” which is maybe the most dramatic thing I’ve ever read.

“Joyce waged literature like a battle… Gogarty and Joyce took part in a lifelong battle in which Gogarty was severely worsted.”

So goes what turned into a decades-long battle of egos. Someone like Gogarty could be hard to stomach for someone like Joyce. Gogarty was good-looking and popular. He came from a well-to-do Dublin family and mixed easily with the wealthy elite of Dublin. He studied at Oxford. He went on to become a successful surgeon and was part of the provisional government following the 1916 rebellion. And he saved all that man from drowning! He was altruistic on top of it! And he called Joyce’s mother “beastly dead,” as Mulligan said of Stephen’s mother in “Telemachus.”  

After returning to Dublin from Paris during his mother’s sickness in 1902, Joyce threw himself completely into his writing. He wrote about his own life as it was unfolding, which lead him to seem detached from the people around him. However, those people were his characters as well, so Joyce had a reputation for stirring pots and injecting drama into his life in order to generate new material for his books. Gogarty and others found this irritating to say the least. In retrospect, Joyce enjoys the benefit of being remembered as one of Ireland’s greatest writers, but I think to have known him would have been a trial in constant frustration.

D1f6GJQgJoyce left Ireland after his brief residency at Gogarty’s Martello tower. As Gogarty tells it, Joyce was finally driven out by an incident in which a third guest, Dermot Trench, fired a gun during a nightmare about a black panther. Gogarty says in his autobiography, Mourning Became Mrs Spendlove, that he took the gun, shouting, “Leave him to me!” and shot down a bunch of tin cans over Joyce’s head. Joyce stormed out and left Ireland shortly after. Joyce never forgave Gogarty. He did have his revenge though – a literary revenge. As Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann put it, “Joyce waged literature like a battle… Gogarty and Joyce took part in a lifelong battle in which Gogarty was severely worsted.” Indeed, Gogarty made repeated overtures to Joyce throughout their life, and Joyce resisted at every turn. This shouldn’t be mistaken for a soft heart on Gogarty’s part though – he was afraid of what Joyce would write about him. Gogarty and Joyce’s mutual friend Vincent Cosgrave (who would become Lynch in Ulysses) wrote to Stanislaus Joyce in a letter: “I wouldn’t want to be Gogarty when your brother comes to the Tower episode. Thanks be to God I never kicked his arse or anything.”

Gogarty, for his part, saved criticism of Ulysses for after Joyce’s death, though apparently he remarked when the book was published, “That bloody Joyce whom I kept in my youth has written a book you can read on all the lavatory walls of Dublin.” He’s not wrong – the more I learn about the behind-the-scenes stories of Ulysses, the more I recognize the colossal amount of trash-talking squeezed into its pages. Ulysses is too long to scrawl on the wall over a urinal, though “Heaven and earth shall pass away but his false spirit shall not pass away” could have fit, I suppose.

 Gogarty wrote an article titled “They Think They Know Joyce” in which he took Joyce (posthumously) to task. However, Gogarty seems to have dealt with Joyce’s portrayal of him with his characteristic biting wit. He said in Mrs Spendlove: “[Joyce] paid me the only kind of compliment he ever paid, that is to mention a person in his writings, he described me shaving on the top of the tower. In fact, I am the only character in all his works who washes, shaves, and swims.”

James Joyce Ulysses Buck MulliganJoyce exacted one final revenge on his erstwhile roommate, who was a poet in his own right. Gogarty wrote and published several books of serious poetry and was backed by W. B. Yeats in the Dublin poetry scene. However, the poems he is best remembered for are his bawdy, parodies, including “ “The Song of the Cheerful (But Slightly Sarcastic) Jesus,” mentioned in “Telemachus” and “The Song Medical Dick and Medical Davy,” mentioned in “Scylla and Charybdis.”  Gogarty never published these poems himself, but they are remembered because Joyce did publish them in Ulysses. In fact, “Jesus” was originally mistakenly attributed to Joyce, but Gogarty claimed it as his in the 1950’s. Humor, though, may be the one quality Gogarty did impart on Joyce (beyond drunkenness). The Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are not exactly laugh riots, but Ulysses does contain a fair amount of humor, often rude or bawdy. Perhaps Gogarty’s presence in the novel extends beyond Buck Mulligan’s appearances. If this is the case, we are richer as readers.

On the night Joyce died, there were two books on his bedside table – a Greek lexicon and a copy of Oliver St John Gogarty’s I Follow Saint Patrick.

Kinch, trying to hellenise himself to the beastly end.


Further Reading:

Ellmann, R. (1959). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gogarty, O. (1948). Mourning became Mrs. Spendlove and other portraits grave and gay. New York: Creative Age Press.

Higgins, A. (2016, December 12). Dearest Pub Bar None: Oliver St John Gogarty’s revealed as Ireland’s most expensive pub for a pint in Irish Sun investigation. The Irish Sun. Retrieved from

Lyons, J. (1984). Oliver St. John Gogarty. Dublin Historical Record, 38(1), 2-13. Retrieved from

Riley, M. (1984). Joyce, Gogarty, and the Irish Hero. The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 10(2), 45-54. doi:10.2307/25512607. Retrieved from

Turner, J., & Mamigonian, M. (2004). Solar Patriot: Oliver St. John Gogarty in “Ulysses”. James Joyce Quarterly, 41(4), 633-652. Retrieved from

Trieste Notebook:




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