Not so long ago, I was alerted to the existence of a little-known Irish bullfighter who, after hanging up his cape, had retired to Clifden to indulge his passions for the more pleasurable – if sometimes no less risky – pursuits of drinking pints of stout and swinging a golf club.
It sounded an intriguing yarn. However, it turned out my informants had been misled by a faded bullfighting poster they had seen hanging on the wall of a Clifden hostelry.
For while my quarry's conspicuously Irish name appeared at the bottom of the poster, sandwiched between the legendary Paco Camino and El Cordobés, there was no doubt it was a fake – the type you used to be able to buy, with your own name inserted, in countless souvenir shops on the costas.
Nonetheless, it had not been a complete waste of time. For my research threw up an actual Irish bullfighter who plied his trade in the bullrings of 19th-century Spain. And while John O'Hara's hope and expectations of making his fortune never came to pass, he did come to enjoy a brief fame and popularity in the bullring.
Born in Limerick on June 30th, 1852, O'Hara was an impecunious British army sub-lieutenant attached to the 23rd (Royal Welch) Regiment stationed in Gibraltar who, enthused by what he saw of bullfighting in Andalusia, decided to resign his commission to make his fortune as a torero.
Like generations of suffering Irish who had spent time in Spain before him, he bore the nickname El Inglés.
During his short career as a bullfighter in the mid-1870s, he appeared in some of the most storied bullrings on the Iberian peninsula, including Seville’s Maestranza, where he failed to impress the rather fussy – and knowledgeable – spectators.
In fact, O’Hara seems not to have mastered the skills of a top-level torero; he himself was a novillero and was confined to fighting young bulls.
One newspaper report made it clear that while the Irishman was “handsome and brave”, he knew very little about bullfighting. Instead, he earned his small degree of fame through his eccentricities and the fact that he was a non-Spaniard rather than through devotion to his craft.
The historian of Spanish bullfighting José María de Cossío relates that O’Hara once asked to borrow a purple bullfighting costume from a renowned Sevillan torero, Manuel Domínguez. The latter initially agreed but changed his mind when he was informed of the rumours that O’Hara never wore underwear. O’Hara rustled up a costume from somewhere else.
Joyce would have probably appreciated the anecdote. Although he was no aficionado of the toros like the hyper-macho Hemingway, he makes reference to bullfighting in Ulysses. O'Hara turns up in the Ithaca episode. Leopold Bloom mentions that he would like to visit "the Plaza de Toros at La Linea, Spain (where O'Hara of the Camerons had slain the bull)".
Bloom misremembers or has been ill-informed. O'Hara neither belonged to the Cameron Highlanders nor fought at La Línea. He received his commission, aged 20, in the 95th (Derbyshire) Regiment in 1872 before transferring, in 1873, to the Royal Welch. The ring at La Línea was not completed until 1883, after O'Hara had retired from bullfighting.
It is likely that Joyce chose La Línea because of its proximity to Gibraltar, where O'Hara was garrisoned. It is also, of course, the birthplace of Molly Bloom.
In her soliloquy, she recalls visiting La Línea as a child “when that matador Gomez was given the bulls ear”.
We get a glimpse of Molly’s feelings about bullfighting, and perhaps Joyce’s, when, a little later in the soliloquy, Molly mentions being afraid when that “ferocious old Bull began to charge the banderillos [...] and the brutes of men shouting bravo toro sure the women were as bad in their nice white mantillas ripping all the whole insides out of those poor horses”.
As for O’Hara, a fellow officer recalled meeting him in Cork when the latter had returned home to visit his old regiment. He was “looking somewhat out-at-elbows” but proud of “the matador pigtail neatly plaited and curled up on the crown of his head”.
Strapped for cash, O'Hara rejoined the army. At the end of the 1870s, he was working as an gym instructor at the Curragh Camp. He was later reassigned to Aldershot.
However, he seems not to have lost his propensity for risk-taking. According to the Royal Welch Regiment's records, O'Hara died in England when he climbed onto the roof of the Dover train and was hit by a bridge.