Beef to the heels

In Brief

In her letter to her father in Calypso, Milly reports that "all the beef to the heels were in" Mullingar—a confusing phrase, since fair day was the occasion for driving cattle to town, but she seems to be referring to people. The expression is used widely in rural Ireland for well-fed cattle; "Beef to the heels like a Mullingar heifer" suggests livestock richly endowed with flesh right down to the ground. But by association it also frequently refers to well-off people, particularly women who look like they haven't missed many meals. An odd assortment of connotations results: appreciation of wealth (Milly's usage), contempt for sexual unattractiveness (Bloom's in Lestrygonians), desire for fullbodied womanhood (Bannon's in Oxen of the Sun).

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In Lestrygonians Bloom recalls Milly's letter while gazing at a woman's stockinged calves on Grafton Street: "Thick feet that woman has in the white stockings. Hope the rain mucks them up on her. Countrybred chawbacon. All the beef to the heels were in. Always gives a woman clumsy feet. Molly looks out of plumb." In Nausicaa, Gerty's attractively presented legs make him think back to women's calves that he has perused earlier in the day, including the pair on Grafton Street: "Transparent stockings, stretched to breaking point. Not like that frump today. A. E. Rumpled stockings. Or the one in Grafton street. White. Wow! Beef to the heel."

In Oxen of the Sun, the phrase returns full circle to Milly, when Bannon (whom Milly has mentioned in her letter) shows up at the hospital with Mulligan and "would tell him of a skittish heifer, big of her age and beef to the heel." Here, the phrase seems to suggest that Milly is well filled out for her tender age—a toothsome morsel. Thornton reports that Fritz "Senn suggests, I think correctly, that Milly has heard the phrase from her boy friend."

The saying, then, not only crosses a species barrier but also encompasses a sea of economic and sexual ambivalence. A 2013 Welsh exhibition of new paintings by Gordon Dalton titled "Beef to the heel like a Mullingar heifer" offers the following catalogue commentary on its title: "Irish derogatory slang, but also means high quality. Gordon Dalton’s work, like a backhanded compliment, has the same anxious contradictions" (www.artswales.org.uk).

JH 2013
Mullingar heifers, property of David Clarke Livestock in County Westmeath. Source: cows.ie/beef-cattle.