"Kevin Egan" is Joyce's fictional avatar for Joseph Casey, a fenian who was involved in the revolutionary actions of the 1860s. Egan now lives quietly in Paris, working as a typesetter, drinking absinthe, and rolling "gunpowder cigarettes" whose shreds of tobacco evoke the more incendiary material of the Clerkenwell bomb fuse. Both Stephen, in Proteus, and the Citizen, in Cyclops, recall meeting him there.
Joseph Theobald Casey, born in Kilkenny in 1846, was a cousin and godson to James Stephens, who founded the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1858. He was arrested for alleged involvement in the attack on the police van in Manchester in September 1867, and imprisoned in London's high-security Clerkenwell Prison. In December 1867 a plot to free him and other Fenians by blowing up a wall of the prison failed.
In a subsequent trial, Casey was acquitted of the charges against him. He moved to Paris, and eventually he took a job as a typesetter ("fingers smeared with printer's ink") for the New York Herald, which opened a press in that city in 1877. As the young James Joyce prepared to move to Paris in 1902, he wrote to Lady Gregory about his plans, mentioning that "I know of a man who used to live somewhere near Montmartre but I have never met him" (Ellmann 107). He met that man, Casey, on several occasions in 1902 and 1903, and became familiar with his life: "Making his day's stations, the dingy printingcase, his three taverns, the Montmartre lair he sleeps short night in." Both Joseph and his son Patrice lent the impoverished Joyce small amounts of money. The James Joyce Centre's website, jamesjoyce.ie, notes that on 17 March 1903 Joyce sent his mother a postcard, complaining that no one at home had sent him a shamrock to commemorate St. Patrick's Day, but mentioning that Joseph Casey had given him some. Casey died in Paris in 1907.
Ellmann notes that Joyce and Casey would meet for lunch at the Restaurant des Deux-Écus near the Herald building (125), and it seems to be this setting that Stephen recalls when he thinks of Kevin Egan sipping his absinthe while "About us gobblers fork spiced beans down their gullets." The narrative also preserves the memory of Casey's son Patrice, who served as a soldier in the French army ("Mon fils, soldier of France"), and of his estrangement from his wife: "She is quite nicey comfy without her outcast man, madame in rue Git-le-Coeur, canary and two buck lodgers. Peachy cheeks, a zebra skirt, frisky as a young thing's."
The three long paragraphs devoted to Stephen's memories of his conversations with Kevin Egan give a pitying account: "Weak wasting hand on mine. They have forgotten Kevin Egan, not he them." The aging man with "Raw facebones under his peep of day boy's hat" wants Stephen to know that he once cut a fine figure: "I was a strapping young gossoon at that time, I tell you. I'll show you my likeness one day. I was, faith." He wants to relive the glory days of his youth and talk about current hopes for independence, but Stephen resists an appeal that sounds to him like cooptation: "To yoke me as his yokefellow, our crimes our common cause." Stephen thinks that he lives in a vanished world "Of lost leaders, the betrayed, wild escapes. Disguises, clutched at, gone, not here." Like the follies of his own youth, and the disorder of his uncle's house, and the rotting remnants of things strewn about the tide flats, Egan's life registers in his consciousness as an emblem of ruinous protean flux.
Nevertheless, Joyce sought out this man in Paris, and Stephen seems not only to have spent some considerable time with Egan, but also to have formed some sense of personal connection. Later in Proteus, stretching his frame back across some rocks, and nudging his hat down over his eyes against the sun, he thinks, "That is Kevin Egan's movement I made, nodding for his nap, sabbath sleep."