The British imperial enterprise from the 18th century to the 20th (and particularly the frenzied rush to control African territories in the late 19th) afforded opportunities for employment and profit to many Irishmen. During that long span of imperial ambition, the British Army drew large numbers of recruits, as well as separately standing regiments, from countries other than England and Scotland, Ireland chief among them. In Joyce's Dublin, an imperial capital, stories circulate of men who have joined the British armed forces, and also of unscrupulous individuals who have made obscene profits off the war machine.
In Eumaeus, Leopold Bloom thinks "Irish soldiers had as often fought for England as against her, more so in fact." At times in the nineteenth century, Irish troops even outnumbered English ones. The great famine of 1845-1852, and growing nationalism, reduced Irish enlistment from over 40 percent of the force earlier in the century to less than 10 percent by World War I, but the total numbers were still large. Nearly 30,000 Irishmen fought in the Second Boer War, just before the time represented in Ulysses. In Lotus Eaters Bloom contemplates recruiting posters on the wall of the post office, and at the end of Telemachus Mulligan learns that his friend Seymour has "Chucked medicine and [is] going in for the army." In Nestor, Stephen thinks of one of his students' family as "Welloff people, proud that their eldest son was in the navy." Bloom thinks in Lestrygonians of young revolutionaries who quickly change their tune: "Few years' time half of them magistrates and civil servants. War comes on: into the army helterskelter." In Eumaeus, the old sailor calls Irish troops and sailors "the backbone of our empire," while the innkeeper retorts that "he cared nothing for any empire, ours or his, and considered no Irishman worthy of his salt that served it."
Craftier souls found ways of profiting without risking their skins. Mulligan says of Haines that "His old fellow made his tin by selling jalap to Zulus or some bloody swindle or other”—jalap being a violent purgative obtained from the dried tuberous root of a Mexican vine of the morning-glory family. (It should be noted that this story is probably pure invention. Trench’s father apparently enjoyed a distinguished career in the army and was a scholar rather than a huckster; he published several military studies.) Cyclops reports a rumor about Blazes Boylan’s father: “Dirty Dan the dodger’s son off Island bridge that sold the same horses twice over to the government to fight the Boers.” Penelope at least partially confirms this story, when Molly thinks that “his father made his money over selling the horses for the cavalry.”