James Joyce Ulysses Mr Deasy Nestor The Odyssey Homer

Deasy of West Britain

Horn of a bull, hoof of a horse, smile of a Saxon.

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

For all posts on Mr. Deasy, click here.

The conversation between Stephen and Mr. Deasy in ‘Nestor’ rings familiar to anyone who’s ever had to sit across from, let’s say, a conservative uncle at a holiday dinner. This chapter deftly captures the experience of listening to an elder’s bloviating nonsense, but the bloviating nonsense of an elder that you can’t tell to get stuffed. Mr. Deasy is Stephen’s boss, though Stephen calculates how he could get out from under Deasy’s thumb:

The same room and hour, the same wisdom: and I the same. Three times now. Three nooses round me here. Well? I can break them in this instant if I will.

For now, he’s stuck in this office collecting his salary. Money is what brings these two together on the morning of the 16th of June. A wealthy man like Deasy hopes to enlighten the young Artist, who is more likely to rack up debt than meticulously save:

—Because you don’t save, Mr Deasy said, pointing his finger. You don’t know yet what money is. Money is power. When you have lived as long as I have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.

Which is, of course, a quote from Iago, one of Shakespeare’s most odious villains. Stephen catches the blunder, but Mr. Deasy is not to be derailed:

—He knew what money was, Mr Deasy said. He made money. A poet, yes, but an Englishman too. Do you know what is the pride of the English? Do you know what is the proudest word you will ever hear from an Englishman’s mouth?


—I will tell you, he said solemnly, what is his proudest boast. I paid my way.

Nationalist artwork by Cesca Chenevix Trench (Sadhbh Trínseach), cousin of Dermot Trench, the real-life version of Haines

Mr. Deasy can be described as a “West Brit,” meaning that he is an Irish person with a strong affinity for English culture. “West Brit” is considered a derogatory slur by some and can cause offense, but Joyce sets Mr. Deasy up as a precise caricature of a West Brit, so I think it’s an appropriate description. Mr. Deasy identifies strongly with the English, as demonstrated above, and the aspects of Irish culture he reveres are its most pro-English elements. He is eager to quote a great Englishman like Shakespeare, though his odd choice of quote shows us he’s not intimately familiar with the actual content of the Bard’s work. No matter, he’s an Englishman! Who made money! Even though he was a poet! That’s got to gall Stephen, an actual poet, more than a little. Mr. Deasy is one more Irish person who has no appreciation for the contribution of young, homegrown artists.

Joyce has already subtly communicated to readers that Mr. Deasy’s school reveres English culture over Irish. For instance, following Stephen’s lesson, the students (possessors of English surnames like Armstrong, Cochrane and Sargent) rush outside to play the English game of hockey rather than its Irish counterpart hurling. Mr. Deasy’s school is located in Dalkey, an affluent village in south Dublin, surrounded by similarly affluent villages. The boys attending this school are future Trinity College scholars and officers in the British military. Or at least they’d better be. Their fathers certainly paid for them to be.

Joyce uses a preoccupation with money and coins to clock Deasy as a little too Anglophilic right off the bat, ironic considering his anti-semitism. Shadow projection. Of course, in ‘Telemachus,’ Haines the English student is portrayed as anti-semitic, as well. He says:

I don’t want to see my country fall into the hands of German jews either. That’s our national problem, I’m afraid, just now.

Joyce deliberately links Englishness with a distaste for Jewish people. Haines is not far from Stephen’s thoughts during this exchange:

The seas’ ruler. His seacold eyes looked on the empty bay: it seems history is to blame: on me and on my words, unhating.

Mr. Deasy’s focus on Stephen’s impecuniousness shows another shade of the headmaster’s chauvinism. It was commonly believed by the upper and middle classes in the 19th century Britain that the wealth disparity between the English and Irish was a circumstance of ethnicity. While the Anglo-Saxon temperament lent itself to financial practicality, the Irish were given to indebtedness and the squandering of their menial funds. Ireland’s economic woes in this period were caused by its own intemperance rather than through any fault of the oppressive policies enacted by a foreign parliament. This stereotype often had disastrous consequences, especially when it came to famine response in the 1840’s, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Stephen’s lack of savings is no surprise to Mr. Deasy precisely because Stephen is Catholic and Irish. This might seem confusing since Mr. Deasy is also Irish, but due to his Protestantism, he identifies with the ruling English over his own people. The headmaster’s prejudice is motivated by class as much as by ethnicity. It’s easy to assume that Mr. Deasy is from Ulster, the Protestant-majority, northern province of Ireland, or England because he frequently references both, but he is as much of a Dubliner as Stephen is.

Mr. Deasy is presented not as a commentary on Ulster Protestants but instead as a parody of the Dublin bourgeoisie. Men like Mr. Deasy truly believed that Ireland’s best interests would be served by Ireland being part of the United Kingdom rather than an independent republic. It’s worth considering that by 1904, the constituency of south Dublin was largely nationalist, meaning that Mr. Deasy’s politics were already old-fashioned. His conservative views are symbolized by the collection of devalued Stuart coins and hollow seashells decorating his desk, leftovers of a bygone era. The more hardcore Irish nationalists of the era saw West Brits like Mr. Deasy as traitors and heretics.

Naturally, since this is ‘Nestor,’ the conversation falls to history. Mr. Deasy can tell Stephen sees him as some old, tory (conservative) crank, so he appeals to the young Artist’s sense of history:

Mr Deasy stared sternly for some moments over the mantelpiece at the shapely bulk of a man in tartan filibegs: Albert Edward, prince of Wales.

He literally looks to a picture of the reigning king of England, Edward VII (aka Albert Edward, prince of Wales), to gather energy for his argument.

—You think me an old fogey and an old tory, his thoughtful voice said. I saw three generations since O’Connell’s time. I remember the famine in ’46.

O’Connell refers to Daniel O’Connell, perhaps the most important figure in Irish politics in the early 19th century. Known as the Liberator, O’Connell pushed for Catholic civil rights in Parliament following the Act of Union in 1801. The Act of Union dissolved the Irish Parliament in Dublin and absorbed Ireland into the United Kingdom. When you hear characters in Ulysses mention the Union or repealing the Union, this is what they’re referring to. Supporters of Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom, like Mr. Deasy, are referred to as unionists. Repealing the Union would result in independence for Ireland and was supported by Irish nationalists, the most radical of whom were the Fenians.

Daniel O’Connell

Under the British Penal Laws, Catholics had few civil rights. Though this had begun to change by the late 1700’s, Catholics during this era were prohibited from doing everything from voting to owning a horse. O’Connell, a Catholic, was elected to Parliament in 1828 despite his inability to legally hold the office. The ensuing legal battle, over this law lead to Catholic Emancipation.  O’Connell would go on to campaign for the repeal of the Union in the 1840’s, though he was unsuccessful at that time.

The famine of ‘46, better known as the Great Famine or the Great Hunger, peaked in 1847, a year so terrible it is remembered as Black ‘47. This tragic event claimed millions of lives in Ireland and caused millions more to emigrate to England and North America. Economic policies imposed upon Ireland by the British government are considered the major cause of the famine. If you’d like to know more about the famine, the Irish History podcast is in the middle of an incredibly in-depth series that you can find here.

Mr. Deasy is using his age and experience here to prove he is a wise old man. He’s been witness to changes in society that are only stories in  history books to a young whippersnapper like Stephen. The famine was 57 years prior to 1904, meaning Deasy is likely in his late 60’s. For context, 1962 was 57 years prior to 2019. The distance in time between the Great Famine and 1904 is roughly the same as the distance between the current moment and the Kennedy assassination. Mr. Deasy tries to drive his point home with the next line.

Do you know that the orange lodges agitated for repeal of the union twenty years before O’Connell did or before the prelates of your communion denounced him as a demagogue? You fenians forget some things.

Mr. Deasy’s appeal teaches us two things about his personality: he feels a strong connection to Ulster, and his grasp on history is slippery at best. 

Orange lodges” refers to branches of the Orange Society (known as the Orange Order in the present day), a protestant fraternal organization similar to the freemasons. Founded in 1795, this Ulster-based group was anti-Catholic and pro-Union. In Gifford’s annotation of Ulysses, he describes the Orange Society as “an organization for the maintenance of British authority in Ireland.” While the Orange Society initially opposed the Act of Union when it was first proposed in the 1790’s, by the time it passed in 1800, they had come around to support it and had certainly never agitated for its repeal in the proceeding decades. 

Orange Order parade, Belfast, Northern Ireland, July 12, 2011

Mr. Deasy may be conflating the Orange Society with the Society of United Irishmen, a mixed Catholic and Protestant group organized in the 1790’s  to campaign for Catholic Emancipation and repeal of the Penal Laws. However, the government backed the Orange Society against the Society of United Irishmen to weaken the latter group and their cause. This did happen twenty years before O’Connell’s rise to prominence, but Mr. Deasy’s assertion is still way off. Perhaps he wants to exonerate his Ulster roots in the eyes of Catholic Stephen.  But then…

“The prelates of your communion” refer to the bishops in charge of the Catholic church. While the bishops didn’t always agree with O’Connell, there isn’t much evidence of outright denunciation. They were more supportive of his views on Catholic Emancipation than the repeal of the Union, but they never outright denounced him, as a different group of bishops denounced Charles Stewart Parnell, a pro-Catholic politician prominent in the late 19th century. In Mr. Deasy’s version of events, the Orange Society was more sympathetic to O’Connell than the Catholic bishops. Okay.

Stephen knows Mr. Deasy is wrong, but he keeps his rebuttal to himself, perhaps out of respect for his employer or simply because there’s nothing to be gained by arguing with a man who so poorly understands his own history. Maybe he calculates it’s best to let him think the fenians (nationalists) “forget some things” and allow the headmaster to save face. It’s also possible that Stephen hears this speech once a month when he goes to collect his salary. In any case, it’s clear that Stephen thinks Mr. Deasy is full of b.s. based on Stephen’s internal response that follows (You can read my thoughts on this here).

Mr. Deasy goes on from here to boast about his noble ancestors from County Down (in Ulster) in the next passage and once again mangles the details. (You can read my discussion of this passage here). For Mr. Deasy, I think the details are beside the point. I don’t believe he is intentionally deceitful, but that the version of history he subscribes to is inherently skewed. No one sees themself as a historical villain. The members of groups that have collectively done villainous things (in this case, the Protestant Ascendancy in 19th century Ireland and Britain) tend to see only the positive outcomes of their activities. The middle class are the patrons of the arts and scholarship, the keepers of the faith, the businessmen who create jobs and prosperity, never mind the bodies in the street. If only Stephen had the wisdom see it his way!

In the end, I do believe that Stephen and Deasy have a mutual respect for one another. Stephen does, after all, carry out Mr. Deasy’s request to deliver his letter to the newspaper. Mr. Deasy, though his grasp on historical facts is dismal, seems to understand Stephen’s ambition. He knows his young teacher has his eyes on a bigger prize than teaching young boys. I don’t feel that he begrudges Stephen his worldview and that he genuinely enjoys “breaking a lance” intellectually with the young Artist.

Further Reading and Listening:

A concise history of the Orange Order. (2014, Jul. 5). The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/a-concise-history-of-the-orange-order-1.1855664

D’Arcy, A.M. (2014). Dindsenchas, Mr Deasy and the nightmare of partition in Ulysses. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 114C, 1-31. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/3524058/Dindsenchas_Mr_Deasy_and_the_Nightmare_of_Partition_in_Ulysses_Proceedings_of_the_Royal_Irish_Academy_114C_2014_1-31

Delaney, F. (2011, Nov. 6). Episode 77: Fogies and Tories. Re:Joyce [Audio podcast].

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

Heffernan, B. (2011, Sept. 21). Martin McGuinness backtracks after ‘west Brit’ jibe. The Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/republic-of-ireland/martin-mcguinness-backtracks-after-west-brit-jibe-28660225.html


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