Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.Ulysses by James Joyce
Their First Meeting
Their first meeting, as would prove to be the case with their last, generated two versions of events. James Joyce and his biographers hold that the introductions took place in the National Library. Two dilettantes on the up, in the physical epicentre of the nascent Irish literary revival – where else? Oliver Gogarty placed the meeting in the altogether more mundane settings of the number 19 tram.
Regardless of the truth, what cannot be contested is that within a very short period of time of their orbits crossing, the two were inseparable. Their relatively brief, but intense, and suddenly truncated relationship, was to echo throughout their lifetimes and in Gogarty's case at least, into posterity.
As Guy Williams details in 'The Real Buck Mulligan', their closeness was forged in the idyllic gardens of Fairfield House, Glasnevin. The Gogarty family kept a country house there. Both young men soon found that they had much in common — chiefly a budding interest in penning romantic verses. Their early poetic outputs are virtually interchangeable. Both have an irreverent attitude towards society and religion generally and a sneeringly condescending attitude towards the cod Irishness that beset much of the emerging Celtic Twilight scene. By 1902, the poet, Padraic Colum describes them as “rarely seen one without the other”. Gogarty was now three years into his medical studies. Dublin and 'the kips' in particular was their playground, as it was for all the medicos and their 'pals'. They drank often and heavily. Joyce suffered as much mentally from his lack of self-sufficiency, as he did physically. His near starvation diet contributing greatly to an ability to keep pace with his fellows.
Late in 1902, Joyce cemented his position in the group by decamping to Paris to pursue medical studies himself. Around the same time, Gogarty spent a period in Oxford. The two corresponded often, typically in good spirits, throughout this time. Gogarty took the time to assist his companion by referring him on to a medical friend, so that a bout of gonorrhoea might be treated in confidence. Joyce pointed to this period as being particularly formative, in terms of realising what would be required of him, so that he could fulfil his literary potential. It is no coincidence that it is around about the time of his return from Paris that the fissures started to appear.
Much has been written of how Joyce's Paris sojourn was truncated by the need to return home to attend to his mother's deathbed – not least by Joyce himself. Stephen Dedalus was haunted by the event throughout much of Ulysses and was deeply wounded by Buck Mulligan's lack of empathy. Gogarty went on record with a version of events that threw a completely different slant on things. He held that Joyce returned a different person from Paris – in full "rebel without a cause" mode. Gogarty maintains that Joyce immediately sought to burn all bridges. He wanted to generate the degree of isolation, which having studied Rimbaud on the subject, he believed was necessary for an artist to be true to himself.
Joyce’s Mother Dies
In September 1903 Joyce refused his dying mother's request to join her in prayer. The one person whom Joyce might have expected some affirmation from, for displaying such courage in his convictions, was surely 'the most irreligious man in Dublin'. But Gogarty was horrified at how Joyce had conducted himself throughout his mother’s death and was very clear in making these feelings known to him.
“I hurt him tremendously by imploring him to go and pray beside his dying mother. He refused to bend the knee and he never forgave me for being right”.
It was not, Gogarty held, a deficit of empathy on his part that so upset Joyce. He had forced the realisation onto his companion that his stance, however principled, had been fundamentally and irretrievably wrong on a human level. Young Dedalus’ anxiety over the issue hints at what Joyce felt about his actions with the benefit of 15 years hindsight. Crucially, each was diminished in the eyes of the other – a hypocrite and a brute.
Broken with Joyce
In 1904 Joyce wrote his infamous poem, "The Holy Office", in which he mocked his contemporary Irish authors. There is no doubt that Gogarty was offended, and on the , wrote of having "broken with Joyce”. Nora Barnacle had appeared in Joyce’s life by now. She had replaced his mother as his primary female influence. But it seems that she also gave him the strength to be able to fall out with his friends.
Because Your Voice Was At My Side
Because your voice was at my side
I gave him pain,
Because within my hand I held
Your hand again.
There is no word nor any sign
Can make amend ––
He is a stranger to me now
Who was my friend.
With Gogarty and Joyce's relations already circling the drain, the short-lived stay in the Martello Tower was doomed from the outset. It was likely forced upon Joyce because a combination of impecunity and ingratitude had closed off his already limited options. There is little to be added to the Tower debate at this point. By now, Gogarty was himself living 'on tick'. For him to run the monied Dermot Trench from their digs would have removed a key financial lifeline to the inhabitants. Regardless of the motive, and in contrast to their falling out over the death of May Joyce, Gogarty was to express regret later in life for not being as in-tune with the sensitivities of his roommate during this episode as he should have been.
The Holy Office is published
On Joyce eloped into self-imposed exile and within a month the first salvo was fired. Joyce took time to post copies of the newly published, "The Holy Office" to some of his main targets back in Dublin. Gogarty was one of those afforded this honour, but as we've already seen, he was well aware of the poem before then. Joyce described Gogarty as “him whose conduct seems to own, a preference for a man of tone". He appears to have taken Gogarty siding with Trench, in the 'Tower incident', particularly badly. Despite this, when Nora discovered that she was unexpectedly pregnant on their arrival at Pula, it was to Gogarty that a nervous Joyce turned. He wrote to his brother Stanislaus, asking him to consult Gogarty for advice. The request was never passed on.
The two Gallants
The Holy Office offered Joyce a short diversion from Dubliners, in which he was immersed at the time. The Two Gallants story, completed in 1906, provides us with the second dart aimed at his former companion. It was a busy year for Gogarty who had finally finished his medical studies, married Martha Duane and moved into a house and practice on fashionable Ely Place, Dublin. It was commonly held that he had married purely for financial reasons. His inheritance had vanished along with the family land in Glasnevin and with it, the life of carefree luxury he had expected. The gallants referred to are Corley and Lenehan, and the tale concerns Corley unscrupulously taking advantage of a plain serving girl for financial gain. The route described in the story sees them start out by descending the hill on Rutland Square (Gogarty's birthplace) and concludes on Ely Place. Joyce even takes the time to don his then trademark yachting cap on the head of Lenehan — the lesser of the two evils. Gogarty's views on this coincidence were unrecorded.
A Little Cloud
Less obvious a Dubliners connection to our story is "A Little Cloud", in which Ignatius Gallagher — local man-made good — lords it over his companions on a return home from London. Joyce was to refer to the newly wedded Gogartys as Mr and Mrs Gallagher in his letters to Stanislaus.
Unable or unwilling to let go, the two appeared keen to maintain contact and picked up the threads of their correspondence around this time. While Joyce’s letters are lost (burnt in the IRA arson attack on Renvyle during the Irish Civil War), the surviving Gogarty versions indicate that they came very close to a full reconciliation on more than one occasion. Stanislaus Joyce (who had a genuinely mutually antagonistic relationship with Gogarty) can take some credit for preventing his wavering brother from effecting a full reconciliation. But, whatever the reason, several chances to bury the hatchet in person were passed up on.
Vincent Cosgrave and Nora
Any possibility of this happening would be lost forever upon Joyce’s fateful visit to Dublin in 1909 with his young son, Giorgio. Again, we find layers within layers when we attempt to unwrap what happened on this particular visit. The commonly accepted version requires us to believe that Gogarty concocted a plan to belittle Joyce and paid Vincent Cosgrave to put around the rumour that he had kept company with Nora in the early days of their relationship. That story then made it back to Joyce who, distraught, sent a series of accusatory letters back to Nora.
It was at number 7 Eccles Street that another friend, John Francis Byrne consoled Joyce and set his mind at ease by informing him of the alleged conspiracy. Few analysts have appeared willing to apply Occam’s Razor to the entire story. So, Gogarty’s name was now further blackened by a story that may very well have had very little grounds in fact.
1922 — Ulysses & Civil War
Time passed and the two moved on with their lives but always in the background was the spectre of ‘that book’. Whatever revenge had been planned for Gogarty in light of the Tower incident and the disagreement over the death of May Joyce, was amplified by the alleged slurring of Nora. The timing of Ulysses' publication could scarcely have been worse for Gogarty. Snippets had been released piecemeal which hinted to its theme, but the book itself landed on . It was a particularly tumultuous time for Gogarty, and indeed Ireland. He was a successful, and respected ear, nose and throat surgeon and was still active in the Sinn Fein party that he had helped to form in 1904. He had recently witnessed the death of his great friends and heroes, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. He performed the autopsy of the first and medically attended to the second in his final days. The country itself was being torn apart at that time by bitter civil war. Within another year, Gogarty was to become a Senator, be kidnapped and very nearly murdered, and then flee to London with his family. He returned weekly under armed guard to attend to his Senate duties. The sudden appearance of a thumbnail sketch of one juvenile facet of his personality from the distant past can have done little for his carefully cultured image as a statesman. As Austin Clarke was later to pointedly remark “I couldn’t help sympathising with Gogarty. The real martyrs stayed.”
Rereading Ulysses recently, I was struck by the realisation that the portrait of Mulligan is no less flattering than that afforded Stephen Dedalus. Maybe Gogarty was overly sensitive in his reaction to the book? That being said, the Dedalus / Joyce character is fleshed out considerably by the appearance of his mature self in Leopold Bloom. The juvenile version of Gogarty is sentenced to remain frozen in amber for time immemorial.
It might even be proposed that Joyce had no need to include Gogarty in Ulysses at all, in order to finish him as a serious literary figure. Such was the tectonic shift, ushered in by Joyce’s striking modernism, that the era to which much of Gogarty’s output belonged, was doomed anyway.
The man with the most caustic tongue in Dublin had ample opportunity to counterstrike, but history shows no more than a few powder-puff blows landed by way of retort. "Tumbling in the Hay" recalls his medical student years and includes an appearance by Joyce in the form of Kinch. His 1917 play ‘Blight’ included a thinly disguised Stanislaus in the form of Stannie the Thug. There were opportunities to cash in and write a biography of Joyce, but he always refused, regardless of his financial circumstances. Gogarty was to say “I just couldn’t do it. Joyce was the saddest man I knew”.
To his eternal detriment, he refused to cooperate with Richard Ellmann when he was compiling his seminal biography of Joyce. Ellmann repaid this by repeating verbatim many of the biographical inaccuracies attributed to Gogarty via the Buck Mulligan character in Ulysses. The caricature moved from legend into hard fact. Every work on Joyce completed since has relied heavily on Ellmann for source material, which further calcified this version of the truth. A man more interested in posterity, instead of living in the here and now, might well have been less cautious about setting the record straight.
Perhaps Gogarty didn’t care much for legacies, and if so, neither should we. The real shame though, is that even at this distance, his own works have never received the attention they deserved. 'Tumbling in the Hay' and 'As I was Going Down Sackville Street' stand by their own merits. Wonderfully, whimsical portraits of a Dublin long gone. His poetic output, though patchy, produced some genuine moments of rare quality in 'Ringsend', 'Golden Stockings' and 'I Have Seen all the Pictures' to name but three.
If we are to learn anything from Gogarty, it is perhaps the importance of choosing ones enemies wisely. For a man seeking to make a mark in the fields of literature and politics in early 20th century Ireland, one can scarcely have selected a more powerful and vengeful pair of nemeses than James Joyce and Eamon de Valera.