`Bullock-befriending bard." Such is the title that Stephen Dedalus, in Ulysses, imagines that his "friend" Mulligan will give him after he decides to become involved in a campaign to rid Ireland of foot-and-mouth disease. But Dedalus's involvement, however odd it may appear, is also that of his creator, James Joyce, who was himself part of just such a campaign, and who would sympathise with those being affected by the current outbreak.

Joyce's involvement in this issue arose in a peculiar way. One of his few compatriots in Trieste was Henry N. Blackwood Price, an Ulsterman who was assistant manager of the Eastern Telegraph Company there. Price claimed descent from Sir John Blackwood of Co Down, who died while putting on his topboots to go to Dublin to vote against the Act of Union. (The Blackwood family have a distinguished place in Irish literature, being descended from Richard Brinsley Sheridan and counting Caroline Blackwood among several writers in the clan.)

Price was keenly interested in the treatment of foot-and-mouth, and sought to enlist his friend Joyce in the cause. Before Joyce's last visit to Ireland, in 1912, Price gave him a letter for the president of the Cattle Traders' Society, William Field MP, detailing methods of treating the disease which Price had observed in Austria.

There was a serious outbreak of foot-and-mouth in Ireland at the time and Price hoped his letter would have an immediate practical effect. Joyce did pass on the letter and Field had it published in the Evening Telegraph of August 19th, 1912. Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus, back in Trieste, that Price was writing to him every day urging him to get involved in the campaign to free Ireland of foot-and-mouth. "Be energetic. Forget Leinster for Ulster," Price is quoted as saying. (By the latter sentence, he seems to have meant that Joyce should adopt the practical, active bent of the Northerner rather than the more passive attitude of the Southerner.)

In his letter to Stanislaus, Joyce takes a rather sarcastic tone about Price's efforts. He says he wishes Price would "find a cure for the foot-and-mouth disease of Anna Blackwood Price".

But, in fact, Joyce did exert himself in the cause: he wrote a second leader, or editorial, on the issue for the Freeman's Journal of September 12th, 1912. Evidently, Joyce was no more qualified than I am to write about the scientific aspects of the disease; indeed, this was part of the reason for his reluctance to become involved. His editorial, instead, concentrates on the political implications of the outbreak. In 1912, unlike in today's situation, foot-and-mouth was quite prevalent in Ireland, and Britain, which had cases of its own, had restricted Irish imports as a result.

Joyce's editorial takes an essentially practical, non-ideological approach to the issue. Its most surprising feature is the adherence he shows to the line of the Irish Party at Westminster, which he habitually despised due to its "betrayal" of Parnell.

He begins by rejecting demands from unspecified "factionists" for the party to retaliate in parliament against the English government in the event of a refusal to permit resumption of Irish cattle imports. Such demands, (which he also, rather implausibly, attributes to some Unionist interests - though he does succeed in landing a sideswipe at The Irish Times on the issue), only play into the hands of English rejectionists, he writes, by making it appear that any British relaxation of restrictions would be because of fear of Irish retaliation.

The issue is not a question of Irish pride or humiliation, but of the best means of restoring access to the British market. In this, Joyce is strongly supportive of the attitude of the prominent Irish Party member, John Dillon, pointing out that other matters of interest to Ireland, such as the Home Rule Bill, would also be jeopardised by a retaliatory approach.

In a similarly practical vein, he urges Irish farmers not to conceal foot-and-mouth outbreaks. Such an attitude, he again argues, is self-defeating and tends to undermine what is actually a very strong case.

Joyce's involvement in foot-and-mouth does not end here. In the curious way he had of cannibalising every scrap of his own experience for his writing, the issue surfaces again in Ulysses. Mr Deasy, the principal of the school where Stephen Dedalus teaches, is exercised about foot-and-mouth. Anachronistically, the novel transfers the 1912 outbreak back to 1904, when there was none (the historical faithfulness of the 1904 setting is often exaggerated).

Deasy is writing a letter to the papers about a possible cure for foot-and-mouth which his cousin, Henry Blackwood Price - the same! - has come across in Austria. Though his letter is not given in full, it is obvious that it echoes closely the tone and content of the actual letter that Price sent to Field. (Amusingly, it also contains phrases from another article that Joyce had written.) The letter contains a certain amount of scientific data, much of it erroneous, though Deasy's basic point - that foot-and-mouth can and should be remedied - is sound.

Deasy's versions of history are completely wrong - he has Sir John Blackwood voting for, rather than against, the Union, a rather serious historical blunder - he is a unionist bigot and an anti-Semite, but Stephen decides to assist him, as Joyce did Price, in getting his letter into print. Indeed, apart from writing a four-line poem partly cadged from Douglas Hyde, this is the most productive thing Dedalus does all day. Dedalus's presence in two of the episodes - those set in the newspaper and the library - is due to his efforts on behalf of Deasy. We learn towards the end of the book that the letter, surprisingly enough, does in fact (sorry, that should be in fiction) appear in the Evening Telegraph of the day.

The fact that Joyce gave his admittedly peripheral role in this issue a relatively prominent place in his novel is striking. Despite Deasy's obvious defects, there is a certain pathos in his lonely fight against foot-and-mouth and it is this pathos that appeals to Dedalus. More fundamentally, perhaps, Deasy is a contrary old cuss, and Dedalus (Joyce's persona) is of course a contrary young cuss, so to that extent there is a rapport between them. Dedalus makes Deasy's battle his own, and to a limited extent wins. The foot-and-mouth issue - non-ideological, non-political, non-partisan - strikes a common chord in the embittered young writer and the embittered old teacher. And, of course, it actually was a worthy cause.

It should be mentioned that Joyce's brush with foot-and-mouth is not the only occasion on which an Irish writer had an engagement with the disease. In the early 1960s, Myles na Gopaleen, also known as Flann O'Brien, also known as Brian O'Nolan, held forth on the subject with his customary omniscience in the pages of this newspaper. Two young veterinary students, perhaps not quite realising who they were tangling with, ventured in a letter to query, in a good-humoured way, the accuracy of some of na Gopaleen's statements.

His reply was couched in terms so very close to the abusive that it is a trifle surprising that they appeared in the paper - they possibly would not today. A phrase that Dedalus uses in this context comes to mind: "Open thy mouth and put thy foot in it".