'Stately and plump' - but what else? In search of the real Buck Mulligan
James Joyce dramatised the end of his friendship with Oliver St John Gogarty - born on this day in 1878 - in Ulysses' first chapter. But his relationship with the man he depicted as ‘stately, plump Buck Mulligan’ was as complicated as any of his writings.
During Bloomsday literary pilgrims do what pilgrims do - commemorate a day that never happened in a place that does exist.
Some, in Edwardian gear, transport the city back to June 16, 1904, when in Joyce's Ulysses Leopold Bloom wandered through Dublin, avoiding his home in Eccles Street, where his wife Molly cuddled Blazes Boylan; he rescues Stephen Dedalus from a brawl in Nighttown and tries to befriend him in a fatherly way.
Ulysses enmeshes readers in the nets of fiction so that they can tread the boundaries of fact. Our pilgrims may tread them, crossing from Newman House, 86 St Stephen's Green, where Joyce, like his Stephen Dedalus, attended the Catholic University.
They may spot the statue of Hygeia, goddess of health, on top of the College of Surgeons, holding what looks like a towel. She used to look out over a public lavatory in the Green (where reputedly Gerard Manley Hopkins caught typhoid from the drinking water) to the bust of James Clarence Mangan, who died of a fever and, opposite Newman House, the bust of Joyce, his protruding chin clean-shaven.
Hygeia surveys things that do not wash - not just her dear dirty Dublin, but also the defamation of one of her accomplished medical representatives: Dr Oliver St John Gogarty, who fought to wash the city clean and was felled by the super-reality of Joyce's fiction. The dirt Joyce did on him has stuck.
Richard Ellmann, Joyce's biographer, described him unfairly as a man who was heartless, a doctor whose attitude was more clinical than humanitarian.
Without Gogarty, there would be no Ulysses, and no Bloomsday.
Like many novels, Joyce's is inspired by its villain. Gogarty it was who offered Joyce hospitality in the Sandycove Martello tower in early September 1904. He lent and gave Joyce money and clothes (Joyce repaid his generosity by pawning his .22 rifle).
Indeed, he was responsible for Joyce's clean visage. When Gogarty first met him, Joyce had a slight beard; he removed Joyce's golden down, on top of that tower, with stagnant but not sterile water from a cistern.
"It was the first shave he had," Gogarty recalled in 1949. "He avenged himself with the portrait of me shaving in Ulysses."
Gogarty opens Ulysses as "stately, plump Buck Mulligan". In his parodies and witty sallies he mocks Stephen's sensitivities. Joyce captured Gogarty's timbre, but he reduced his multi-faceted, myriad-minded friend into a two-dimensional joker, a "mercurial Malachy", an anti-semitic reactionary snob.
Small wonder that Gogarty was indignant when Ulysses appeared: "that bloody Joyce whom I kept in my youth has written a book you can read on all the lavatory walls of Dublin."
What prompted Joyce's malice? His aversion to Gogarty was deep: in his Trieste notebook Joyce wrote with biblical fervour, "Heaven and earth shall pass away but his false spirit shall not pass away."
It has been suggested that Gogarty drove him to drink, with his incessant mockery of Joyce's stoic sobriety (when Joyce had the idea of making money by turning himself into a company with limited liability, Gogarty chortled that he "might have to go into liquidation").
In view of the dipsomania of Joyce's father and uncle the argument for congenital, rather than congenial, alcohol dependency seems more convincing: all alcoholics find a "facilitator".
Then, too, Joyce may have felt victimised by the startling events in the Martello tower on the night of September 15, 1904. Another guest, Herbert Chevenix Trench, an Oxonian Celtic enthusiast, had a nightmare vision of a black panther, at which half-waking he took a pot-shot. Gogarty took the gun, and, trying to dispel the cacodemon, shot at some tin cans, which fell on Joyce, who upped and left.
His dramatic departure suited both parties: the remaining occupants were relieved of a difficult companion, and Joyce got his dramatic persecution; he was handed his own fictional model: a Judas for his Christ, a Healy for his Parnell.
There is an "agenbite of inwit", a stab of conscience, which may have prompted Joyce.
In Ulysses "baddybad Stephen lead astray goodgood Malachi" (indeed Gogarty's mother did not approve her son's keeping company with a "bad Catholic" who "was, or pretended to be, an agnostic"): Joyce's unwavering non serviam, his refusal to kneel and pray beside his dying mother, was frowned upon by Gogarty, as it is by Mulligan in Ulysses, who, with characteristic insensitivity, points out that Stephen's mother is "beastly dead" (Gogarty would later dismiss the probability that May Joyce was unconscious at the time). His real answer to Stephen is His Epitaph:
Don't let death confuse you all
Death is not unusual.
Gogarty, Joyce felt, was spreading the word that he had killed his mother by "telling her what he thought". Gogarty did say out loud what others secretly whispered, and cherished tales for their piquancy, but he was not malicious or sneaky.
George Yeats, WB's wife, defended him once. When challenged, "But don't you know - that the man is sitting somewhere at this minute saying the most scandalous things about you?" she replied, "And don't you know - that a man may do that and still be the most loyal friend you ever had?"
Joyce's departure from the tower did not end their correspondence. He solicited his friend's medical help when suffering from a dose, and in turn offered aid from Trieste with the publication of Gogarty's bawdy verses.
Gogarty must have been astounded that when they eventually did meet, on Joyce's visit to Dublin, the bard proved unconciliatory.
Joyce recorded their last meeting triumphantly: Gogarty asked, blushing, "Well do you really want me to go to hell and be damned?" Joyce professed to bear no ill will: "I believe you have some points of good nature. You and I of six years ago are both dead. But I must write as I have felt."
Gogarty replied, "I don't give a damn what you say of me as long as it is literature."
"Do you mean that?" asked Joyce.
"I do. Honest to Jaysus. Now will you shake hands with me at least?"
"On that understanding," Joyce did, and exited, this time for good.
It was really Joyce's sense of superiority that caused the break-up.
Gogarty's novel Tumbling in the Hay describes Kinch's [Joyce's] "fine, long, curved eyelashes" conveying contempt - a view reinforced by Joyce's "official" biographer, Herbert Gorman, who writes that "Joyce was too much of an individualist to permit himself to be submerged by lesser individuals, no matter how strident or mocking they might be, and his peculiar tenancy in Time was not to be usurped by any scoffing jester."
Where Joyce hated water, Gogarty was essentially the hydrophile of Irish letters. In a wasteland of modernist moan, he produced anachronistic life-embracing poetry in which water, the life-giving source, looms large. A good swimmer, he saved three people from drowning.
As a senator of the Free State he was hijacked by Republicans, and escaped by jumping into the ice-cold Liffey. He later presented two swans to the river in gratitude, and titled his first volume of poetry An Offering of Swans. The IRA repaid him with fire, burning Renvyle, his country house in Galway.
His poem Leda and the Swan would serve as an impetus to Yeats's poem of the same title - the first a gentle questioning of the mythical nature of that coupling, the latter a forceful rape with potent post-coital implication (he observed that Yeats had come to an age where he could not take "yes" for an answer).
Gogarty was forthright in his indictment of the unsanitary conditions in which the poor lived in Dublin. His first play, Blight, an anticipation of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, attacks the way the acute need for preventive measures is stifled by corruption and self-important charity.
He has fallen victim to his lack of public image; he never played the masses. He hated the vox pop, and shunned popularity. Yet he was a successful athlete, and a cycling champion. He was diffident about his poetry.
"What right have I to figure so bulkily?" he asked when Yeats represented him with more poems than anyone in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (the reason was that he embodied "tragic joy", and shared Yeats's faith in Renaissance values). He shut the door on his private life, and though he suppressed his bawdy verse so as not to embarrass his family, he was as nonconforming as the 18th-century bucks.
His cure of a singer who had lost his voice was somewhat unconventional: "Your parents both had syphilis," Gogarty diagnosed.
"They damn well did not!" the man shouted.
"That will be 10 guineas," Gogarty concluded. (An ear, nose and throat specialist, he appropriately made his private patients pay through the nose so that he could offer his services to the poor for free.)
George Moore, not given to praise, called him "Gogarty, the arch-mocker, the author of all the jokes that enable us to live in Dublin".
After Joyce's death, two books were found on his desk: one a Greek lexicon, the other Gogarty's I Follow Saint Patrick. Like all bucks, Gogarty was not one to throw the towel in the ring.