The buck

The buck

In Brief

Mulligan receives a nickname in the novel's opening sentence, but several paragraphs later he mentions that his actual given name is Malachi. He follows this up by remarking that Malachi Mulligan sounds "Tripping and sunny like the buck himself." The phrasing here is intriguing: why should Mulligan speak of himself as the buck? An answer can be found in Ireland's Georgian past, when swashbuckling young dudes sometimes called bucks roamed the streets of Dublin, anticipating in their well-dressed, aristocratic way the American Wild West.

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18th century Dublin had clubs or gangs of young Protestant gentlemen who walked about the city armed with swords and pistols, defying the authorities by regularly engaging in duels and other energetic acts. Among them were groups called the Bucks, the Cherokees, the Pinking Dindies, the Shams, and the Fire Eaters. Oliver Gogarty's biographer Ulick O'Connor observes that this tradition "flourished side by side with the passionate oratory and patriotic spirit of the Anglo-Irish Parliament in College Green. The legend lived on in the novels of Charles Lever, and in the street ballads which recorded their feats and escapades." O'Connor notes that "The Bucks' Castle (the Hell-fire Club) can still be seen on a hill-top near Dublin. Here they galloped in the evening dressed in red and black, the devil's livery, not so much to show their sympathy with Satanism, as their contempt of superstition." He agrees with Stephen Gwynn that "Dublin never quite left the eighteenth century, and there were vestiges of this tradition extant in the city in the Edwardian age" (41).

Mulligan's nickname, O'Connor infers, shows that Joyce saw Gogarty as "a descendant of the Bucks, a primrose-vested gallant against the picaresque society of lower middle class Dublin.... There is an elegance and panache about Gogarty as a young man that is reminiscent of the Bucks. Like them he seemed to relish danger for its own sake" (42). In addition to Mulligan's aristocratic dandyism ("God, we'll simply have to dress the character. I want puce gloves and green boots") and his physical daring ("Out here in the dark with a man I don't know raving and moaning to himself about shooting a black panther. You saved men from drowning. I'm not a hero, however"), other details in Telemachus contribute to this image of a daring Georgian blade. Mulligan's evocation of a Satanic Black Mass at the beginning of the chapter displays exactly the kind of contempt that O'Connor describes. His imitation of Jesus' takeoff from the Mount of Olives, his puzzled consideration of the odd rite of circumcision, and other such mockeries express a blithe superiority to religious superstitions. His threat to subject Haines to a schoolboy hazing also fits the picture.

The name Buck was used in the 18th century not only by one group of reckless young men but also by some individuals in the subculture. Alexander "Buck" English was famous for his dueling exploits at a time when duels were very common. O'Connor notes that he "once shot a dilatory waiter, and then had him charged on the bill" (41). Another Buck, born Thomas Whaley, was known for forms of reckless behavior that map more closely onto Gogarty and Mulligan. The subject of a 2019 biography by David Ryan, Whaley was famous as a spendthrift (he burned through more than $100 million in today's money) and as an adventurer (he successfully bet £10,000 that he could make the dangerous voyage to Jerusalem and back in less than two years). Like Gogarty, who flew about on bicycles, automobiles, and aeroplanes without a hint of fear, Whaley was totally reckless in the face of physical danger. He was also irresistibly charming and indifferent to moral conventions. O'Connor observes that when he finally got to Jerusalem he "played handball against the Weeping Wall amidst the wails of indignant rabbis" (41).

Although his reasons remain obscure, it is known that Gogarty gave Joyce the nickname "Kinch." Whether Joyce give him the nickname "Buck" in return is not known, but it seems unlikely that Gogarty adopted the handle himself, given his outrage at how he was portrayed in Ulysses: he said that Joyce was trying to make him into "a stage Irishman."

JH 2022
An 18th century fencer dueling in front of the gates of Trinity College, Dublin, with other men seen dueling with pistols in the background, from the book Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland (2017). Source: