A Barry White in the Jacks.

Anne Enright’s NYRB essay on reading Ulysses (January 13, 2022) is interesting in general, but I’m posting it for this passage near the end:

For some years now, I have lived close to the Joyce Museum in Sandycove, which is housed in the Martello tower where Joyce once slept and where he later set the first chapter of Ulysses. The sea, I am happy to say, is no more snot-green than Homer’s was wine-dark. But though the water resists Joyce’s famous description, the squat, round stone tower belongs almost completely now to the book. It is populated by shades both fictional and historical, and by living people who are their familiars. I walk through a neighborhood of Joyce tourists and badly behaved Joycean ghosts. There, up the road, is the house where the real playwright J.M. Synge lived and a fictional Dedalus pissed against the hall door—unless, as he says, it was Mulligan. (“—Me! Stephen exclaimed. That was your contribution to literature.”) Another example of Joyce fixing the real to the literary by a transgressive use of waste matter.

Recently, just to get the full experience, I sat on a bench near the Forty Foot, the swimming spot below the Martello tower where Buck Mulligan goes for his dip, and I read a page or two. It was a mild September afternoon. The day was so windless and still, I could hear a man address a quiet friend, one leaving, one arriving, both of them with their towels rolled.

“Hello there, young Thomas,” he said. “Were you aware that a certain gentleman is home this week? Your presence may be required.”

And it seemed to me a continuation of the book I held in my hand.

The dialogue in Ulysses uses tricks of speech that are as real and abiding as the streets of the city that Joyce worked so hard to recreate. This tone is not exactly camp, but it is rakish, mock-heroic; a glittering game that fills the verbal space between men who like each other—but not too much!

“I’ve been in since four,” the man went on, cheerfully. “Went for a walk, took a Barry White in the new jacks they have up there. Lovely.” The local council had recently reopened a nearby public restroom, so this good news was both personal and civic.

Barry White” is rhyming slang for “shite,” and “jacks” is an Irish term for the lavatory (corresponding to English jakes).


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    This is true celebrity: to be so famous that your name is used in rhyming slang.

    Of course, you have to have a surname which lends itself to this, preferably by being monosyllabic.


    “I’m just off to the William Franz to get a new Jacob for the mobile dog, so long as it doesn’t cost an August.”

  2. The Luas is called the Daniel Day, which is richissime rhyming siang.

  3. Speech like that of young Thomas’s acquaintance is sometimes indeed a dialogue of men who like each other, but often a monologue of a man who likes himself

  4. I see Green has bean-jacks but doesn’t note the pun on banjax. We do love our macaronic puns; they’re the only keeping the Irish language alive.

  5. Stu Clayton says

    The sea, I am happy to say, is no more snot-green than Homer’s was wine-dark.

    Times have changed. The Thames was snot-green in those days, when it was not black. So I have read.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    But when does this rhyming slang get clipped to the rhyme-excluding “took a Barry”? That’s the step that’s really impressive.

  7. Does anyone else have a feeling about a place becoming so strongly tied to a book that you’re a little sad on behalf of the place? No disrespect to towers but I wonder how that tower would feel if it wasn’t so strongly tied to Ulysses.

    (I always rather liked Flann O’Brien better than Joyce.)

  8. Now, see, I have exactly the opposite reaction — if I were the tower, I’d be thrilled that I was the most famous Martello tower in the world, and not because of some disaster but because a great writer immortalized me.

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