James Joyce Ulysses women Mr Deasy Nestor

The Women of Ulysses: Mr. Deasy’s Perfidious Women

Part of an occasional series on the women of Ulysses.

For all posts on Mr. Deasy, click here.

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

In “Nestor,” the second episode of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus finds himself in a discussion with his employer, Mr. Deasy. They have reached a conversational impasse after Stephen shrugs off the manifestation of God as a mere “shout in the street.” A pregnant pause follows, and Mr. Deasy responds by condemning four traitorous women. Mr. Deasy is the first, but certainly not the last, person to point to the evils of womankind in Ulysses. As we shall see, some of these women are less culpable than the Mr. Deasies of the world would have us believe.

—I am happier than you are, he said. We have committed many errors and many sins. A woman brought sin into the world.

The woman who brought sin into the world is of course Eve, the Biblical first woman, who gave into temptation in the Garden of Eden and unleashed sin onto the world. But what of Eve? Don Gifford points out in Ulysses Annotated that the language in the book of Genesis describing Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge is less accusatory than it is often remembered: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” Romans 5:12 tells us it was man who brought sin into the world: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man…” On the other hand, there’s 1 Timothy 2:14: “and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not that hard to cherry pick Bible quotes to meet your agenda. There’s a different interpretation for everyone in the audience.

For a woman who was no better than she should be, Helen, the runaway wife of Menelaus, ten years the Greeks made war on Troy.

Remembered as “the face that launched a thousand ships,” Helen was the Queen of Sparta/ most beautiful woman in the world who ran away with her lover Paris of Troy. She is blamed for starting the Trojan War, leading to massive loss of life, a decade of war, and Odysseus getting hopelessly lost on his way home to Ithaca.

Helen of Troy, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863

But how much to blame was Helen really? Since Helen was a mythical figure, it seems she’s as culpable as any given storyteller chooses to make her. In addition to the familiar version of Helen’s story above, other versions tell that Helen was either seduced or kidnapped by Paris. Sometimes, Helen is awarded to Paris by the goddess Aphrodite when Paris named her the most beautiful goddess. In other versions, such as in the Eurypides play Helen, she was totally innocent, and the Helen that ran away with Paris was a phantom-Helen sent to Paris after Athena and Hera learned that Aphrodite cheated in the aforementioned contest.

It’s important to remember that Helen was not a real person and the version any given person (such as Mr. Deasy) favors is a Rorschach test of sorts. Mr. Deasy goes out of his way to call Helen “no better than she should be.” If she’s really so unremarkable, why fight so hard for her in the first place? Do these men have no will of their own?

A faithless wife first brought the strangers to our shore here, MacMurrough’s wife and her leman, O’Rourke, prince of Breffni.

Our next perfidious woman comes from Irish history. The “faithless wife” referred to here is Dearbhfhorghaill (anglicized as Derval or Dervorgill or several other options), who was the wife of Tiernan O’Rourke, the ruler of the kingdom of Breifne (Breffni), which was located roughly in the modern counties of Leitrim and Cavan. She was kidnapped by Diarmait Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough) in 1152. He was the king of Leinster (the southeastern province of Ireland). The High King of Ireland deposed Mac Murchada from his kingdom as punishment, and he in turn solicited the English King Henry II for help recovering his lost lands. Mac Murchada offered his daughter in exchange for aid. Her betrothed was none of than Richard de Clare, better known as Strongbow, who lead the Anglo-Norman invasion force into Ireland at Mac Murchada’s behest.

The various annals that record medieval Irish history are fairly vague about the nature of Dearbhfhorghaill’s departure from her husband. The Annals of the Four Masters noncommittally say she was “brought away” while The Annals of Clonmacnoise say that the “king of Leinster tooke the lady Dervorgill” and “kept her for a long space to satisfie his insatiable, carnall and adulterous lust.” Then there’s Gerald of Wales. Oh, Gerald. He says in Expugnatio Hibernica that the lady, “was abducted by the aforesaid Diramait [sic], who had long been burning with love for her and took advantage of her husband’s absence. No doubt she was abducted because she wanted to be and, since ‘woman is always a fickle and inconstant creature’, she herself arranged that she should become the kidnapper’s prize.”

Gerald goes on to say in a most Mr. Deasy-esque fashion, “Almost all the world’s most notable catastrophes have been caused by women…”  Were they Gerald? What’s your excuse then?

A woman too brought Parnell low.

This is the first of many mentions of Charles Stewart Parnell in Ulysses. Parnell, in short, was an Irish political golden boy in the 1880’s. He came very close to passing a bill in the British Parliament for Irish Home Rule, meaning that though Ireland would remain part of the British Empire, they would have their own parliament in Dublin. He also worked tirelessly supporting Irish tenant farmers, even spending time in Kilmainham Gaol for encouraging tenants to not pay rents when they were too high.  

A portrait of Katharine O’Shea Parnell kept with him while at Kilmainham

The woman mentioned by Mr. Deasy is Katharine “Kitty” O’Shea, wife of Galway MP Capt. William O’Shea. In 1889, Capt. O’Shea filed for divorce, claiming his wife had been unfaithful and naming Parnell as the man in question. Parnell’s end was sealed when Mrs. O’Shea admitted in court to her infidelity, making her and Parnell legally recognized adulterers. Parnell’s party disavowed him shortly after, and the Irish Catholic bishops did the same the following year when he married O’Shea. Parnell’s political career came to an abrupt end, and he died soon after in 1890.

As far as blame goes, this seems to me an “it takes two to tango” situation. Not only were Parnell’s liaisons with O’Shea consensual, it is believed that their relationship was an open secret that had gone on for years. Not only did Prime Minister William Gladstone likely know, Capt. O’Shea most likely knew for years. The divorce was quite possibly the result of political maneuvering on the part of Parnell’s political opponents who opposed Home Rule. Mr. Deasy final comment, “For Ulster will fight, And Ulster will be right” is a quote by Lord Randolph Churchill, opponent of Home Rule and father of Winston.

All this is to say, though Mrs. O’Shea played her role, it was men who first quietly condoned the affair and men who went out of their way to drag it into the light. It was men who wanted to see Parnell brought low. It seems there were many more than two tangoing in this situation.


This paragraph is sandwiched between an exchange in which Stephen downplays the nature of the manifestation of God, describing it is as common as “a shout in the street” rather than a glorious moment that is the culmination of all history. Mr. Deasy makes it clear that not only is he happier than Stephen, but that Mr. Deasy is on the right side of history, fighting the good fight. “But I will fight for the right till the end.” He also knows that Stephen will not last long as a teacher in his school, that Stephen is not loyal to his cause.

Mr. Deasy sees a womanly cunning and disloyalty analogous to these historical examples in Stephen’s flip comment and apathy towards his job. Additionally, Mr. Deasy is consistently portrayed as “an old fogey and an old tory” throughout “Nestor,” and for a contemporary reader like myself, it is easy to see his suspicion about women, especially women he sees as too promiscuous, as part of that characterization. We learn later in “Aeolus” that Mr. Deasy’s complicated relationship with women is not only hypothetical. His wife is described as a “grass widow,” meaning the couple is separated, but they are both still alive. Also, Mrs. Deasy once threw a bowl of soup in the face of a waiter, so I’m sure she is a lovely woman. It is possible that Mr. Deasy is projecting the shadow of his wife onto women more generally. In any case, Mr. Deasy certainly sees man’s downfall in woman’s sexuality, which is a viewpoint that one can still see at play in politics and society in 2018.

However, I do feel that Joyce likely saw danger in women’s sexuality as well. Boldly sexual women like Molly Bloom and Bella Cohen aren’t portrayed as particularly sympathetic characters (although I personally love them both) and use their sexuality to further their own goals and manipulate the men around them. In the short story “The Boarding House” from The Dubliners, Mr. Doran is tricked into marriage by the conniving Mrs. Mooney and her daughter. Mr. Doran pops up in Ulysses as an emotionally broken alcoholic in the aftermath of this situation. I think it’s more likely the perfidious women in Mr. Deasy’s comment are trotted out as a warning to Stephen – if he doesn’t find himself on the straight and narrow like Mr. Deasy, it will be Stephen’s downfall as well.

Further Listening & Reading:


Dwyer, F. (2014, May 29). (1156-1166) The Norman Invasion Part I. The Irish History Podcast [Audio podcast].

Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haywood, J. (2016, September 5). Was Helen really to blame for the Trojan War – or just a scapegoat? The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/was-helen-really-to-blame-for-the-trojan-war-or-just-a-scapegoat-64456

Wilson, A. N. (2004).  The Victorians. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.


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