Do his duty

In Brief

In proclaiming that "Ireland expects that every man this day will do his duty," Mulligan mockingly perverts the famous call to battle of Great Britain’s great naval leader, Admiral Horatio Nelson, into a call to imbibe intoxicating beverages. 

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Nelson commanded the British fleet in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, a naval engagement off the coast of Spain that wrested control of the seas from Napoleon and secured England from the threat of French invasion. As the battle was about to commence, the admiral’s flagship HMS Victory hoisted signal flags conveying the message, “England expects that every man will do his duty”—a text that was slightly altered in 1811 to “England expects that every man this day will do his duty,” to fit the meter of a patriotic song by John Braham commemorating the victory.

The courageous Nelson, who had lost an arm and an eye in earlier battles, was shot to death near the end of the decisive engagement at Trafalgar, heightening the appeal of his stirring message. In 1904 a statue of him stood atop a massive pillar in the center of Sackville Street, the main thoroughfare in Dublin—as another does to this day in Trafalgar Square in London. Irish attitudes toward his great military accomplishment differ considerably from those of the English, however; on March 8, 1966 a bomb planted by the IRA destroyed the upper half of Nelson’s pillar and threw his statue to the ground. Mulligan’s patriotic aversion takes the form of mocking Nelson’s message of stiff-upper-lip militarism. Like the countercultural American rebels of the 1960s who urged their countrymen to “Make love not war,” Mulligan suggests that it is the duty of every good Irishman to hoist a pint every day (if not considerably more often).   

As so often in Joyce’s comical writing, however, the irony is not simple or stable; Irish drinking is itself ironically undermined by the comparison to British militarism. Like the Royal Navy, the pub culture of Ireland contains an element of coercive conformity. Visitors to a pub in 1904 might expect to be “treated” to a round by a friend whose pockets were not empty, and then, if their own pockets were not empty, to treat others to a round of drinks in turn. The alcoholism, poverty, domestic strife, and social irresponsibility cultivated by this tradition of unending drinks led to anti-treating leagues in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, comparable to the prohibition movement of the same era in the United States. Joyce was very far from being a teetotaler, but he recognized the corrosive effects of the custom and painted a devastating portrait of them in the story Counterparts. In Ulysses, Mulligan’s reaction to Stephen's receiving his pay for a month's labor—"We'll have a glorious drunk to astonish the druidy druids"—is only the first of many glimpses of alcoholic excess. Leopold Bloom’s heroism consists in part in his indulging only moderately in alcohol while others are losing themselves in drink. 

Bloom also dissents from most expressions of ardent nationalism. In Eumaeus, he recalls Nelson’s famous expression when thinking about the Irish “harbourmasters and coastguard service who had to man the rigging and push off and out amid the elements, whatever the season when duty called Ireland expects that every man and so on.”  This subsumption of Irish duty within the British imperial system coheres with the position he takes on the political disagreement in the cabman’s shelter: he believes that armed resistance is futile given the dominance of British power. Earlier in the same paragraph, he thinks of the sea, “as a casual glance at the map revealed, it covered fully three fourths of it and he fully realised accordingly what it meant, to rule the waves.”

JH 2011

Oil portrait of Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott, displayed at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Our daily duty.