Having recently observed the anniversary of WB Yeats’s death (January 28th) and as today is James Joyce’s birthday (February 2nd), I have been thinking about the many links between the two great writers, including a little-known equestrian one.
There is a sense in which James Joyce’s Ulysses is a book about horses. In the novel’s second episode we are introduced to “images of vanished horses” on the walls of Mr Deasy’s office, “lord Hastings’ Repulse, the duke of Westminster’s Shotover, the duke of Beaufort’s Ceylon …”.
While Leopold Bloom is preoccupied all day with his wife Molly’s looming infidelity with Blazes Boylan, most of the novel’s other characters have their thoughts firmly fixed on that day’s Ascot Gold Cup. In the Lotus Eaters episode, Bloom, who is decidedly not a betting man, unwittingly gives Bantam Lyons what he takes to be a tip for Throwaway, the horse that went on to win the race at odds of 20/1.
That outsider’s triumph causes great chagrin among the drinkers at Barney Kiernan’s pub that afternoon as captured in the Cyclops episode. Most had wagered on the favoured horses, Zinfandel and Sceptre. The belief that Bloom had made a killing on the race and did not share his good fortune by standing a drink contributes to the animosity he faces that ends with “the citizen” hurling a biscuit tin at Bloom as he flees the pub. In the Eumaeus episode set in a cabman’s shelter near Butt Bridge, Bloom reads about the race in the evening paper where he also sees himself misnamed as L. Boom among the also-rans attending the funeral of Paddy Dignam.
Ulysses chronicles Bloom’s stoic endurance in the face of adversity as he meanders around Dublin on that long summer’s day, and his return to his Ithaca on Eccles Street where he is reunited with Molly. When he arrives home, he has the indignity of seeing evidence of Boylan’s presence around the house, including his imprint on the Blooms’ marriage bed and some flakes of potted meat that Boylan had evidently consumed there. Bloom, who actively disapproves of gambling, must have taken some compensatory satisfaction from his discovery of two losing betting slips belonging to his nemesis. We learned earlier in the novel that Boylan had “plunged two quid” on Sceptre for himself and “a lady friend”, Molly.
Yeats too sometimes dwelt on equestrian themes, including the Galway races:
There where the course is,
Delight makes all of one mind,
The riders upon the galloping horses,
The crowd that closes in behind.
Later in his writing life, he would extol the “hard riding country gentlemen” of his imagination while his famous epitaph urges a figurative horseman to “pass by” his grave at Drumcliff. In the years before Joyce left Ireland in 1904, Yeats, driven in part by a desperate desire to win the hand of Maud Gonne, was busy burnishing his nationalist credentials. He spoke out against the visit of Queen Victoria to Ireland in 1900 and, together with Augusta Gregory, wrote the robustly nationalistic play, Kathleen ni Houlihan, in which Maud Gonne played the lead role when it premiered in Dublin in April 1902.
Then in 1903 he signed a strongly-worded letter opposing the visit of King Edward VII. After the royal party had returned to London, and with tongue firmly in cheek, he wrote to Arthur Griffith’s paper, The United Irishman, about the monarch’s visit to Maynooth when “by a happy inspiration not to be expected from that quarter”, the college’s reception room was draped in “His Majesty’s racing colours” and sported images of two of his horses, Ambush II and Diamond Jubilee. In his letter, Yeats laid a sarcastic ambush for Ireland’s two leading Catholic churchmen when he expressed the hope that Cardinal Logue will have “something” on Sceptre and that Archbishop Walsh has “a little bit of allright” for the Chester Cup. Yeats relished this modicum of revenge for Cardinal Logue’s condemnation of his play, The Countess Cathleen, when it was performed in Dublin in 1899. He also suspected that the Catholic Church was behind the persistent attacks on him by DP Moran in his Irish Ireland weekly, The Leader.
Yes, Sceptre is the very same horse that let Boylan down in the 1904 Gold Cup. This makes me wonder if Joyce had read Yeats’s letter in the United Irishman, a publication he is known to have admired. That’s because the King’s visit to Maynooth features in almost identical terms in the Cyclops episode. There, Joe Hynes asks about “the holy boys, the priests and bishops of Ireland doing up his room in Maynooth in his Satanic Majesty’s racing colours and sticking up pictures of all the horses his jockeys rode”. This leads to a ribald enquiry from Alf as to why Maynooth did not display images of the King’s women, to which, quick as a flash, JJ responds that “considerations of space influenced their lordships’ decision”. As it happens, Yeats was friendly with Lord Howard de Walden, owner of the 1905 Ascot Gold Cup winner. De Walden once said of Yeats that “one should never lose an opportunity of listening to Yeats though one should forget what he said”.
Even if Ulysses had been set in 1905 instead of 1904, Blazes Boylan would still have lost his bet, for de Walden was the owner of Zinfandel and not Sceptre. Yes, I think that Yeats did, like Leopold Bloom, unwittingly give this racing tip to that literary magpie James Joyce.
Daniel Mulhall is Parnell Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge and Honorary President of the Yeats Society. His latest book is Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey (New Island Books, 2022). Twitter: @DanMulhall