Bloomsday 2009: Gogarty16/06/2009
By Jim Gavin
In June 1901, several Royal Navy ships returned to the Dublin docks, carrying Irish troops who had fought on behalf of the British in the Boer War. To celebrate the return of these brave men, a conservative Irish newspaper, Irish Society, printed a touching and patriotic poem sent in by one of its readers:
The Irish Yeoman’s Return, or Love is Lord of All
The Gallant Irish yeoman
Home from the war has come,
Each Victory gained o’er foeman,
Why should our bards be dumb?
How shall we sing their praises
Or glory in their deeds,
Renowed their worth amazes,
Empire their prowess needs.
So to Old Ireland’s hearts and homes
We welcome now our own brave boys
In cot and hall; ‘neath lordly domes
Love’s heroes share once more our joys.
Love is the Lord of all just now,
Be he the husband, love, son,
Each dauntless soul recalls the vow
By which not fame, but love was won.
United now in fond embrace
Salute with joy each well-loved face.
Yeoman, in women’s hearts you hold your place.
As a tribute to British Imperial glory, this was adequate stuff. But the poem was more than that. Alert Dubliners quickly recognized the poem as an acrostic, the first letter of every line spelling out a slightly less romantic vision: THE WHORES WILL BE BUSY.
This was the infamous handiwork of Oliver St. John Gogarty, a young medical student who had been contributing articles to Sinn Fein protesting Irish recruitment into the British army. A second-rate poet, blessed with a gift for blasphemy, he was the consumate man-about-town and at the time he had the reputation of being the wittiest man in Dublin. His exploits as a provocateur guaranteed his fame locally – during the Civil War he escaped his IRA captors by jumping out a window and diving into the Liffey – but to his great regret, his most enduring contribution to literature would come not from his own pen, but from the pen of his former friend and rival.
Gogarty and James Joyce met in 1903. Milling around the check-out desk at the National Library, the two young men fell into a conversation about Yeats, as one does. Both sniffed out the competition, and from then on their relationship consisted almost entirely of ball-busting and back-handed praise. Gogarty referred to Joyce as the “Dante of Dublin” and Joyce accused Gogarty of lacking sincerity. At the time, Joyce didn’t really drink. He was determined to be a rebel in his own land, but Gogarty, an accomplished drinker, took it upon himself to teach his friend about the pleasures of the national wine – stout. Joyce was a quick study.
Money was often an issue with these two. Joyce, knowing that he was a genius, felt it a great injustice that he had to keep borrowing money from a hack like Gogarty. He once asked to borrow Gogarty’s rifle, for some unspecified purporse, and not long after Gogarty found out that Joyce had pawned it. Their decision to become roommates, a few months later, would prove disastrous.
Just south of Dublin, on the coast, there sits a stone military fortification called the Martello Tower. Thick and round and about forty feet high, it was built early in the 19th century to fend off a potential invasion by Napoleon. It had been out of use for years when Gogarty, somehow, got his hands on the lease.
He moved in with an Anglo-Irish Oxford man named Trench, and later, Joyce, at loose ends after his mother’s death, was given a key. The arrangement didn’t last long. Joyce grew weary of Gogarty’s constant jibes and his refusal to recognize Joyce as a genius, but the three poets in the tower did manage to create a bit of a sensation. Many writers stopped by to drink and take in the stunning view of the Irish Sea. One especially florid visitor, William Bulfin, had this to say about his stay in the tower: “The poet (Gogarty) was a wayward kind of genius, who talked in a captivating manner, with keen, grim humour, which cut and pierced through a topic in bright, strong flashes worthy of the rapier of Swift.” Ugh…he went on: “The other poet (Joyce) listened in silence, and when we went on the roof he disposed himself restfully to drink in the glory of the morning…”
Joyce was often late on the rent, and his brother Stanislaus, in a diary entry, suggested that the only reason Gogarty put up with this was because he feared that Joyce would make it some day, and he wanted to stay in his good graces. But both men were too stubborn and arrogant to maintain their friendship. The party finally ended one night when Trench had a nightmare that he was being attackd by a panther. He screamed himself awake, grabbed his revolver, and shot the fireplace, a few feet from Joyce’s head. Trench went back to sleep, and Gogarty took his gun. When Trench screamd awake again, Gogarty gallantly called out, “Leave him to me!” and shot some pans hanging over Joyce’s head, which landed on him. Joyce, a delicate creature, apparently, couldn’t abide gunplay. He moved out that night and not long after he and Nora Barnacle departed for Europe.
Joyce and Gogarty grew estranged, rarely communciating during the next few decades, but Joyce would end up paying him tribute, in a back-handed sort of way, by making his old friend the model for Buck Mulligan, the first person we meet in Ulysses. Mulligan mounts the stairhead and intones the first words of the Latin Mass, raising the curtain on Joyce’s epic. Mulligan is portrayed as a brutal and mocking antagonist, but a hilarious one, a genius force of negation, totally unsympathetic to the sorrows of young Stephen Dedalus, who has just lost his mother. Gogarty’s wit is everywhere in this chapter and in other places throughout the novel; it’s always a joy when he shows up on the scene. You know someone is about to get cut to pieces, and you know you’ll be gifted a few choice obsentities.
(The Mulligan/Dedalus dynamic, two poets starving in a tower, both jealous of and dependent on each other and fearing that they will be the one who doesn’t “make it”, has been exploited with regularity throughout the last century, and for me the most beautiful example is Bruce Robinson’s “Withnail & I”)
Joyce, ever silent, lets his old friend have all the best lines. He even inserted one of Gogarty’s famous pub pieces, a bit of blasphemy called the “Ballad of Joking Jesus”:
I’m the queerest young fellow that ever you heard.
My mother’s a jew, my father’s a bird.
With Joseph the joiner I cannot agree.
So here’s to disciples and Calvary.
Gogarty was just another aspect of Ireland that Joyce tried to leave behind. He failed, of course. After Joyce died in 1942, two books were found on his desk. A Greek lexicon and a copy of I Follow St. Patrick, a long-forgotten memoir by the wittiest man in Dublin.
Jim Gavin lives in California.
“Gogarty” is Jim’s 2009 Bloomsday letter, an annual phenomenon.