In an Antique Frame.

My wife has been going through old boxes of family stuff, and she just came across a carbon copy of “Memories of Oliver Gogarty (Written for BBC Radio Program, ‘Portrait of Oliver Gogarty’, tape-recorded at Station CFPA, Port Arthur, Ontario, January 17, 1961),” with no indication of authorship. I have no idea whether it was ever broadcast, but it makes for very enjoyable reading (and makes Gogarty — who “wasn’t exactly grateful to Joyce for having immortalized him as Buck Mulligan in ‘Ulysses’” — sound like quite a good fellow); I can’t let this wonderful anecdote go unposted:

I remember best of all a story Gogarty used to tell about Yeats. Yeats, nearing the end of his life, had just returned from the Continent, where he had been under the care of a famous specialist. Gogarty, his old Dublin friend, was attending the bed-ridden poet, when a telegram was handed to him. Gogarty read it in silence, then quickly stuffed it into his pocket. But Yeats had caught him in the act. “That’s a telegram, Gogarty! Read it aloud.” Gogarty protested it was nothing. But Yeats insisted, and Gogarty had to read him the message. Though it was couched in gentle terms, Gogarty, as a doctor, knew it amounted to a death sentence. It read:


On hearing these fateful words, Yeats, with a great effort, pulled himself out of his bed and began pacing the floor, his deep, doom-like voice rolling out the words in cadence:

“Advanced cardio sclerotic in an antique frame.”

Then he called out, with sheer delight:

“By God, Gogarty, I’d rather have written those lines than be Lord of Lower Egypt!”

Gogarty was a famous raconteur, and I think we have leave to doubt the literal accuracy of the tale, but se non è vero, è ben trovato: it certainly catches the essence of Yeats!


  1. Yeats’ “doom-like voice”, here. It’s a good listen.

  2. David Marjanović says

    I don’t find it doom-like at all. But the “great emphasis on the rhythm” turns out to be practically singing, and I note a distinct lack of Un-Canadian Lowering.

  3. David Marjanović says

    Doom proclaimed in an appropriate voice.

  4. I’m taken by some instances of his pronunciation of the very word poem (etc.), e.g. at 0:05, 0:15, 0:58. It’s certainly not quite poiem, but there’s an unusual approximation there. I don’t hear it in other instances, e.g. 0:46.

  5. What I don’t quite understand is why the telegram was a “fateful” message, to be hidden. The telegram from the “specialist” said Yeats was an old man with congestive heart disease, nothing more specific. Wasn’t that a general enough observation for a British doctor to have made (even without a newfangled ECG)? Isn’t this brief diagnosis vague enough to allow for a range of outcomes, from “fateful” (a.k.a. “Doom!”) to “you’ve only got a few years left”?

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    @Y, I suppose it might depend on how precise an understood-by-fellow-medicos meaning in context “advanced” conveyed in terms of likely remaining lifespan?

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    @Y: yes, it’s nonsense to suppose that it represents a “death sentence.”

    I’m just trying to understand quite how it would have come about that this “famous specialist” would have sent a telegram worded in quite that way to Yeats at all. I strongly suspect that nothing of the kind ever actually happened. After all, Gogarty was an ENT specialist. Such people are strangers to truth, in my experience.

  8. I strongly suspect that nothing of the kind ever actually happened.

    Yes, my gently worded demurral was meant to imply more or less that.

  9. I should have written “coronary heart disease”. Amateur, me.

  10. Bedridden can’t mean on his deathbed, considering Yeats died back in France.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    WP on Gogarty:

    He became known for flamboyant theatrics in the operating room, including off-the-cuff witticisms and the flinging of recently removed larynxes at the viewing gallery.

    A familiar type, unfortunately.
    I’d say that Joyce has captured his essence perfectly in Malachi Mulligan.

  12. The plural is an exaggeration. Here’s the passage, from Ulick O’Connor’s biography cited in WP:

    Even during the difficult operations, he could seldom resist the chance of a quip. He performed the second laryngectomy ever done in Ireland, when he was thirty-three years of age — an operation which took over five hours to complete. He was watched breathlessly by a crowd of students in the gallery. During the operation, which took place in the Richmond Hospital, a knocking was heard on the floor underneath the operating table. A river flows under the Richmond, which comes from Grangegorman Mental Hospital. Gogarty’s comment on the knocking was, as he continued to operate: ‘Pinkeens with G.P.I., imagining they are salmon.’ A picture of these tiny denizens of the deep, leaping from the stream in delusions of grandeur, drew a roar from the listening audience. At the end of the operation, when he had successfully removed the larynx, Gogarty sent it up with a flip from behind his back, to the gallery, saying: ‘There you are, boys, have a look at it.’ A typical finish to a brilliant piece of work.

    He only did it once, that’s all. Surely, David, you’ve seen a parlour trick or two done with a freshly excised lens?

    (“Pinkeens with G.P.I.” draws no roar from me, only puzzlement.)

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Surely, David, you’ve seen a parlour trick or two done with a freshly excised lens?


  14. (I didn’t think so; it was a rhetorical question.)

    A quick search teaches me that a pinkeen is a minnow, and GPI is likely general paresis of the insane, a mental disorder resulting from late-stage syphilis, which is a topic always good for a knee-slapping pleasantry.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, that’s what GPI is (for medics, it’s a familiar standard abbreviation, though you don’t see the horrible thing itself in rich countries these days, thanks to Chain and Florey.*)

    As I say, I recognise the type: the charming arsehole. He’s not laughing with you.
    Unlike our dear Prime Minister, Gogarty was at least clearly a highly competent charming arsehole.

    Medics are indeed often lovers of dark humour. This is not that.

    * Not Fleming, the man who didn’t realise that pencillin might be, like, useful. But at least he didn’t patent it, like Coghill and Moyer in the US …

  16. Fleming is widely famous for his peculiar discovery of penicillin. Florey is only famous among people in the medical field, even though he did so much more than Fleming. I have heard that when the importance of penicillin was becoming widely known, during the Second World War, many doctors who admired Florey’s work were angry that the popular press focused so much on Fleming’s more picturesque contribution. (Perhaps surprisingly though, the British Empire honors system seemed to have done quite a good job evaluating the various contributions to penicillin development. Fleming and Chain received knighthoods, but Florey—even though he was Australian—received a life peerage and the Order of Merit.)

  17. ktschwarz says

    Speaking of Buck Mulligan and GPI, the Wikibooks annotation claims that when he says to Stephen “That fellow I was with in the Ship last night says you have g.p.i. … General paralysis of the insane,” it should be *paresis* instead of *paralysis*, and therefore Joyce is portraying Mulligan as a bad student. Sounds dubious; as far as I can tell from the internet, both versions are accepted, and the Google ngram shows the version with “paralysis” as ~30x more common in the early 1900s.

    GPI was one of the illusory Joyce-first-uses created in the OED by Burchfield’s tendency to include just about every word that occurs in Ulysses, without trying to antedate them (which was much harder then). That was fixed in the June 2018 revision: the quotation from Ulysses was dropped and replaced with an earlier use in the British Medical Journal. John Simpson’s comment: “It is extraordinary that Joyce should ever have been credited with the first use of this abbreviation … It is possible that early OED readers in the 19th century were not attuned to abbreviations being valuable records of our vocabulary, and so failed to record examples they encountered.”

  18. Check out Burchfield’s entry for “umbershoot”

  19. David Marjanović says

    I’ve never heard of Chain or Florey.

  20. Check out Burchfield’s entry for “umbershoot”


    umbershoot, n.

    Pronunciation: /ˈʌmbəʃuːt/
    Etymology: Perhaps fanciful formation < umbrella n. and shoot n.¹ Compare umber n.¹

    (A word of obscure meaning.)
    Apparently an isolated use.

    1922 J. Joyce Ulysses ii. ix. [Scylla & Charybdis] 184 Crosslegged under an umbrel umbershoot he thrones an Aztec logos.

    That’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen.

  21. ktschwarz says

    You know where Burchfield could have found umbershoot? In Wentworth’s American Dialect Dictionary (thanks, Wordwizard), which the OED2 did use a few times. It’s listed as a variant of the better-known (and definitely American) bumbershoot, which was added to the OED in 2003, but evidently nobody made the connection. (Ben Yagoda on why Americans *think* bumbershoot is British.) You can see it in Wiktionary now, with quotations going back to 1896.

    Would Joyce use an Americanism? Or was it also (maybe even originally) an Irishism? Or did Joyce make it up independently? In any case, that one’s overdue for total revision!

  22. Green lists a British bumberella, from 1861.

  23. ktschwarz says

    Bumberella is an easy phonetic alteration that could happen anywhere; it’s the “shoot” part that requires explanation (and confounded Burchfield) and seems much less likely to be independently re-invented. DARE (1985) tentatively said “perh infl by chute”, while the OED (2003) was more confident: “probably an alteration of -chute (in parachute n.; compare chute n.2).”

  24. Kate Bunting says

    ‘Gamp’ is a, now pretty well obsolete, Britishism for ‘umbrella’ (explained here ). I once heard the jokey combination ‘umbergamp’, but not ‘bumbershoot’ (though I’ve seen it in print). ‘Brolly’ is definitely the usual nickname in the UK nowadays.

  25. Back to that carbon copy of a typescript of a BBC program about Oliver St John Gogarty — the Joyce connection means that to the extent that it contains (apparently) first hand recollections about him, this could be an important piece of Joyceana, and I hope you’ll try to find a home for it in some academic library and some attention from Joyce scholars. Gogarty lived until 1957; your script has a date of 1961, so whoever wrote it, their recollections were possibly pretty fresh. Records of the BBC or that Ontario radio station could possibly identify the author.

  26. Good point.

  27. The Radio Times archive has a listing for what must be the resulting programme, including a list of interviewees.

  28. The author seems to be W. R. Rodgers, who is listed in mollymooly’s link as the host of that program, and is also credited here with the same Yeats anecdote, somewhat differently told. Rodgers was a poet and BBC producer. His Irish Literary Portraits, based on his broadcasts and including the Yeats one, was published by the BBC in 1972.

  29. credited here

    Is that the right link? It goes to “The Narrowing of the Creative Vein: Yankev Glatshteyn and the Poetics of Sclerosis,” by Sunny S. Yudkoff.

  30. Yes, look at the quotation in the middle of the page. (Who knew there was such a thing as the poetics of sclerosis…)

  31. Ah, quite right! That’ll teach me to judge by the title…

  32. poetics of sclerosis
    My hand, it shakes,
    My mind, it fails,
    My pen, it breaks,
    My mouth repeats
    What is it
    That I wanted
    To say

  33. Come to think of it, the anecdote as written in your typescript is way better than the one quoted in Yudkoff’s paper (where it is missing the key phrase “I’d rather have written those lines”). Presumably Yudkoff quoted from the BBC book. (Or maybe not; Yudkoff’s paper was published in 2018 so there was plenty of time for intermediate versions.) If he did, and if the typescript is by Rodgers, there was also some transformation between the broadcast version and the book.

  34. @Brett: “Florey is only famous among people in the medical field, even though he did so much more than Fleming.”

    Chain, Florey and Fleming shared the 1945 Nobel prize in physiology/medicine. Fleming had made two great discoveries: Lysozyme (1922; more of a re-discovery but still great) and penicillin (1928-9). However, there were light years between Fleming’s findings and the mass production of the antibiotic. Florey, Chain and at least two other scientists were the principal figures in making penicillin universally available. Florey’s achievement was both purely scientific and practical. For his contribution to public health, surely he deserved a peerage.

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