A woman brought sin

In Brief

As if in response to Stephen's salvo about God being a shout in the street, which cannot possibly make any sense to him, Deasy's argumentative tirade trails off into irrelevancy and sheer unintelligibility. He scores a glancing ad hominem blow: "I am happier than you are." But then he veers into thoughts of sexual sin: "We have committed many errors and many sins. A woman brought sin into the world. For a woman who was no better than she should be, Helen, the runaway wife of Menelaus, ten years the Greeks made war on Troy. A faithless wife first brought the strangers to our shore here, MacMurrough's wife and her leman, O'Rourke, prince of Breffni. A woman too brought Parnell low." What is one to make of all the misogyny? One possibility is that there has been adultery in Deasy's marital past.

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In addition to Eve, who tempted Adam to transgress God's command and thereby "brought sin into the world," Deasy mentions "Helen, the runaway wife of Menelaus," whose adulterous elopement with Paris occasioned the long and catastrophic Trojan War. Stuart Gilbert argues that this reference to ancient Greek history makes Deasy like Nestor in the Odyssey, since Nestor tells Telemachus about the adulterous Clytemnestra's murderous reception of her husband.

Two more references to adultery follow. Another "faithless wife" who caused disaster was Devorgilla, the spouse of "O'Rourke, prince of Breffni," whose adulterous elopement with Diarmait "MacMurrough," the king of Leinster, contributed to MacMurrough's deposition and subsequent conspiracy with the English king Henry II to launch the first Anglo-Saxon invasion of Ireland, and thus "first brought the strangers to our shores here." Thornton observes that Deasy has managed to switch the two men, turning MacMurrough into the husband and O'Rourke into the lover: Deasy gets his facts wrong once more.

But this domestic history seems to be a staple of Irish political mythology. In Cyclops, the Citizen makes the same claim about how the "strangers" came to Ireland: "Our own fault. We let them come in. We brought them in. The adulteress and her paramour brought the Saxon robbers here. . . . A dishonoured wife, . . . that's what's the cause of all our misfortunes." A third faithless wife, Katherine O'Shea, "brought Parnell low" when their adulterous affair was discovered.

Deasy's list of female sinners makes an odd lead-in to his assertion that "we" have committed "Many errors, many failures but not the one sin," which seems to reprise his claim that the Jews "sinned against the light." And it does not contribute intelligibly to the exchanges he has been having with Stephen about Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Tories, and Fenians.

It may, however, make some sense in terms of Deasy's personal life. In Aeolus Myles Crawford tells Stephen that he knows Deasy, "and I knew his wife too. The bloodiest old tartar God ever made. By Jesus, she had the foot and mouth disease and no mistake! The night she threw the soup in the waiter's face in the Star and Garter. Oho!" After recalling Deasy's misogynistic catalogue, Stephen asks the editor whether Deasy is a widower. Crawford replies, "Ay, a grass one," i.e. a man separated from his wife.

JH 2012
Adam and Eve, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1533). Source: www.wikipaintings.org.
Miniature photograph of Katherine O'Shea that Parnell kept with him in Kilmainham Gaol. Source: Wikimedia Commons.