In Telemachus Stephen says to Mulligan, "You saved men from drowning. I'm not a hero, however." Drawing on a real-life difference between Joyce and Oliver Gogarty, the novel returns repeatedly to the theme of rescuing another life, beginning with Stephen's meditations in Proteus on whether he could ever be capable of such a thing: "He saved men from drowning and you shake at a cur's yelping. . . . Would you do what he did? A boat would be near, a lifebuoy. Natürlich, put there for you. Would you or would you not?"
Gogarty did in fact save men from drowning, snatching people from the Liffey at least four times between 1898 and 1901, and his aquatic heroism outlived his twenties. In November 1922, the commander of an IRA faction that opposed the Treaty between Ireland and Great Britain authorized the killing of Irish Free State Senators, of whom Gogarty was one. Two months later he was kidnapped by IRA soldiers and held in a house near Chapelizod. Aware that he might soon be executed, he feigned diarrhea, was led out into the garden, broke free, jumped into the Liffey, and swam to freedom in Phoenix Park. Ulick O’Connor's valuable biography of Gogarty details these events beginning on p. 194.
Ulysses continues to follow the thread of aquatic heroism, but subsequent instances are tinged with sardonic irony. In Hades we learn that the son of Reuben J. Dodd jumped into the Liffey, probably in an attempt at suicide, and was hooked out by a boatman. Dodd rewarded the rescuer “like a hero,” with the un-princely sum of a florin (two shillings). Hearing the story, Simon Dedalus remarks “drily” that it was “One and eightpence too much.”
In Wandering Rocks Lenehan alludes to the story of Tom Rochford going down into a sewer to rescue a man overcome by gas. “’He’s a hero,’ he said simply. . . . ‘The act of a hero.’” In this instance, however, life complicates the simplicity of art. Robert Martin Adams describes how twelve men in succession went down the manhole, one after another becoming overcome by the methane and requiring a new rescuer to enter the fray (Surface and Symbol, 92-93). Tom Rochford was merely the third in this series of comically futile heroic actors, but Joyce knew and liked Rochford and decided to elevate his importance.
In Circe, the importance is inflated to absurd proportions, as Rochford, Christ-like, jumps in to save the dead (Paddy Dignam) rather than the dying. Paddy Dignam, who has become a dog, worms his way down through a hole in the ground, followed by “an obese grandfather rat” like the tomb-diving one that Bloom sees in Hades. Dignam’s voice is heard “baying under ground.” Tom Rochford, following close behind, pauses to orate: “(A hand to his breastbone, bows) Reuben J. A florin I find him. (He fixes the manhole with a resolute stare) My turn now on. Follow me up to Carlow. (He executes a daredevil salmon leap in the air and is engulfed in the coalhole. . . .)”