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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James Joyce Ulysses Buck Mulligan

Ulysses CCD: Mulligan Mocks Mass

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

Part of an occasional series on Catholic allusions found in Ulysses.


In 2017, I was a founding member of the Ulysses Support Group at T.C. O’Leary’s pub in Portland, Oregon. Our goal was to read the entirety of Ulysses aloud between two Bloomsdays. On the first night, as we started analysing the opening lines of the novel, I pointed out that Mulligan’s actions atop the Martello tower were a blasphemous mockery of the Catholic Mass. One of the other participants blurted, “How do you KNOW it’s about Catholicism??” It caught me off guard, but another member deftly responded, “Joyce was Irish. Of course it’s about Catholicism!”

I was raised Catholic in a small town where most people were Catholic. I went to Sunday school (called CCD) every week. Monty Python and the Meaning of Life was banned in our house because of the “Every Sperm is Sacred” song. One thing I learned through our book club is that a lot of the religious references and imagery don’t necessarily stand out for those of us who didn’t grow up steeped in Catholicism. I also notice a lot of reading guides and annotations for Ulysses assume the reader’s familiarity with Catholicism. In this post and many posts to come, I hope to answer the question of Book Club Dude: “How do you KNOW it’s about Catholicism??”

Today, I’m taking on that very first passage of Ulysses about stately, plump Buck Mulligan.
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ulysses joyce heretics blasphemy

Decoding Dedalus: Heresies in “Telemachus”

This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a paragraph of Ulysses and give it the ol’ Frank Delaney treatment – that is, break it down line by line. As an aside, if you haven’t listened to Frank Delaney’s excellent podcast, Re:Joyce, go treat yourself. His page by page analysis of Ulysses is informative and charming. I’m not going to analyse every line, (sorry!) but some passages require a more in-depth treatment than others.

The passage below comes from “Telemachus,” the first episode of Ulysses. It appears on pages 20-21 in my copy (1990 Vintage International).

……….

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

The proud potent titles clanged over Stephen’s memory the triumph of their brazen bells: et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam: the slow growth and change of rite and dogma like his own rare thoughts, a chemistry of stars.

Let’s start with the most intimidating bit here, the Latin. This phrase translates to “and one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Stephen quotes this phrase in English a few lines before as an explanation for his Italian master – the Catholic church headquartered in Rome. These lines are the “proud potent titles clanging over Stephen’s memory” as they are words every Catholic memorizes as a child. They come from a prayer called the Nicene Creed that lays out the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism and is recited during the Mass.

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Irish grandmother

The Women of Ulysses: Mother Grogan and the Milk Woman

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

Part of an occasional series on the women of Ulysses.

Mother Grogan pops up a couple times throughout Ulysses. She is a reference to an anonymous folk song called Ned Grogan. I couldn’t find a recording of it, so I suppose it’s fallen out of popularity, but if you’re curious about the lyrics, you can find them here

Buck Mulligan invokes her during breakfast in the Martello tower in Telemachus:

—When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water.

In Harry Blamires’ Bloomsday Book, he says that this line establishes a connection between making tea and urinating, which is a symbol of fertility and creativity.

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