Pyrrhus, Pyrrhic victory, James Joyce, Ulysses

Pyrrhus: A Disappointed Bridge

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

In the Gilbert schema, the art of ‘Nestor’ is listed as history, so it is fitting that the episode opens with Stephen delivering a history lesson. The topic is Pyrrhus, an ancient Greek king mostly remembered by the phrase “Pyrrhic victory.” The basic facts of the battle are there, but let’s indulge in the art of history ourselves and expand on the details the young student Cochrane lays out in his recitation.

First, a definition: a Pyrrhic victory is a victory in which the victor incurs such heavy losses that it may as well be a loss. You can drop this phrase in conversation at fancy dinner parties to sound smarter when talking about politics or sports. I’m assuming. I don’t go to a lot of fancy dinner parties. Pyrrhus, as mentioned above, was a military leader in ancient Greece fighting against an early but ascendant Rome. Tarentum, as recalled by Cochrane, was a Greek city in the instep of the boot of the Italian peninsula. Pyrrhus’ army, which included several dozen war elephants because PETA didn’t exist back then, helped push the Romans out of Tarentum in 280 BCE.

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James Joyce Ulysses Mr Deasy Nestor The Odyssey Homer

Ulysses & The Odyssey: Nestor

   Mulligan will dub me a new name: the bullockbefriending bard.

Part of an occasional series on the Homeric parallels in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

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

The Odyssey, Book 3:

Telemachus and Mentor (Athena in disguise) find themselves in Pylos to meet Nestor, a wise king who fought with Odysseus in Troy. Unfortunately, Nestor doesn’t know what became of Odysseus on his journey home. Athena reveals herself by transforming into an osprey. Nestor is so impressed with Telemachus’ divine companionship that he sacrifices a heifer in Athena’s honor. There is much feasting upon the sacrificial heifer before Telemachus sets off to meet Menelaus, still in search of Odysseus.


Nestor’s biography is fairly exciting. He was the grandson of Poseidon and an Argonaut who fought centaurs and went to war with Odysseus and friends in Troy. When we meet him in The Odyssey, though, his salad days have gone and he is the wise old king of Pylos. His parallel in Ulysses is Mr. Deasy, who oversees his school from a dusty office stuffed with relics from the past, such as his collection of Stuart coins and seashells. Mr. Deasy’s CV is less impressive than Nestor’s (the only thing we know about him is that he is the headmaster of the school where Stephen works), but he is happy to rest on the laurels of his lofty ancestors, particularly Sir John Blackwood who died in an attempt to vote for Ireland to join the United Kingdom. This sort of parallel will arise again and again as we look at Nestor and Deasy. Mr. Deasy believes he is a vaunted wiseman like Nestor, but in truth he is all talk.

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Decoding Dedalus: A Dedalus Never Pays His Debts

—I will tell you, he said solemnly, what is his proudest boast. I paid my way. … I never borrowed a shilling in my life. Can you feel that? I owe nothing. Can you?

This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a paragraph of Ulysses and  break it down line by line. 

The passage below comes from “Nestor,” the second episode of Ulysses. It appears on pages 30-31 in my copy (1990 Vintage International).


A guide to pre-decimal currency can be found here.

Mr. Deasy’s quote above is meant to be the pride of the English – being so sensible (or just wealthy, let’s be real) that you live your whole life without debts. It’s worth recalling that in “Telemachus,”  Haines the Englishman said to Buck Mulligan, “Have you your bill? We had better pay her, Mulligan, hadn’t we?” just moments before Mulligan underpays the milkwoman for her milk, an underpayment on owed money. Stephen, most unEnglishly, also has his fair share of debts, of which he takes mental stock after Mr. Deasy extolls the virtues of lacking debt. Stephen’s debt mirrors the financial realities of James Joyce himself at a similar age.

Much like Stephen, Joyce had returned from medical school in Paris, his family in disarray following his mother’s death. His father, John Joyce, was selling off their household items to patch holes in the family’s dire financial situation while coping with the strain through alcohol. Though James could have hypothetically worked to support his family, he was dead set on making his mark as an Artist. This sometimes took the form of all-day writing sessions and other times sleeping until four in the afternoon following an all-night drinking session. In Joyce’s mind, one justified the other.

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James Joyce, Ulysses, literature, Stephen Dedalus, riddle, Ireland, Dublin

Stephen’s Riddle

I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality. – James Joyce

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

At the close of his lesson in “Nestor,” Stephen’s students ask for a ghost story, so naturally he provides them an unsolvable riddle. Classic Dedalus. The riddle, however, is not only unsolvable for the students of Mr. Deasy’s school, but also for most adult readers of Ulysses. It goes as follows:

The cock crew
The sky was blue:
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
Tis time for this poor soul
to go to heaven.

Answer: The fox burying his grandmother under a holly bush.

Yep.

So, what does it mean?

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Mr Deasy Dalkey James Joyce Ulysses Nestor

Who was the Real Mr. Deasy?

For all posts on Mr. Deasy, click here.

“You will see at the next outbreak they will put an embargo on Irish cattle. And it can be cured. It is cured. My cousin, Blackwood Price, writes to me it is regularly treated and cured by cattledoctors there.”

Discussing the real-life counterpart of Mr. Deasy, the headmaster of the school where Stephen Dedalus works, is a bit more complicated than characters like Buck Mulligan or Haines for the simple fact that he has no one-to-one correspondent in James Joyce’s life. Rather, Mr. Deasy is a mélange of two people from Joyce’s life.

Much like Stephen, Joyce briefly taught at Clifton School in Dalkey, an affluent suburb to the south of Dublin near Sandycove, home to Joyce’s Martello tower. Clifton School was originally housed in Summerfield Lodge on Dalkey Ave. and later moved to a house called Cintra on Vico Road on the far side of Dalkey. Joyce’s tower roommate Oliver St. John Gogarty (the real-life Buck Mulligan) wrote that Joyce took the job at Clifton School to finance their bohemian experiment in the Martello tower. Joyce being Joyce, however, originally had a more grandiose scheme. Thus spake Gogarty:

He had, at first, thought of forming himself into a company, the shareholders in which were to receive all the proceeds from his future writings. The idea was novel. The shareholders would have to keep and humor him…. There were worse investments than in James Joyce, Inc.

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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.

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.

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joyce ulysses haines black panther

Who Was the Real Haines?

God, isn’t he dreadful? he said frankly. A ponderous Saxon. He thinks you’re not a gentleman. God, these bloody English! Bursting with money and indigestion. Because he comes from Oxford. You know, Dedalus, you have the real Oxford manner. He can’t make you out.”

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


*A note about terminology: The native language of Ireland is referred to in this post as both “Gaelic” and “Irish.” I only use Gaelic in quotes or names. The language is referred to as Irish by those who speak it.


Many of the characters that populate the Dublin of Ulysses were based on people that Joyce knew, although sometimes briefly. One such character is simply known as Haines – the over-eager Oxford student who irritates Stephen Dedalus with his delighted passion for Irish culture. Haines was a real person – a friend of Oliver St. John Gogarty’s (a.k.a. Buck Mulligan) from Oxford called Dermot Chenevix Trench. I became determined to learn more about Trench upon discovering that he has no Wikipedia page. Who was he? Why did Joyce include him in Ulysses? Was he really as dorky as the fictional Haines?

In the text of Ulysses, Haines appears only a few times, most notably in “Telemachus,” where we learn he has been keeping Stephen awake at night with his night terrors of a black panther. He speaks Irish to the milk woman and seems very keen to learn about Irish customs and culture generally, much to the amusement of Mulligan. Later, in “Scylla and Charybdis,” we learn he was supposed to join the other young men in the National Library, but he has scampered off to buy a book called Love Songs of Connacht. He just couldn’t wait to get his hands on it. He appears finally in the “Circe” episode, assisting Mulligan in performing a Black Mass. He’s characterized as an innocuous source of curiosity for Stephen’s friends but is mostly just a background character.

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