Ikey Mo

Ikey Mo

In Brief

When 1904 Dubliners want to express ethnic contempt for Jews, one choice term of opprobrium seems to be "jewy." Others are the familiar "sheeny" and the literary "Barabbas." A term of less obvious significance, "Ikey," expresses a milder strain of anti-Semitic feeling. It came from an English comic strip.

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The narrator of Cyclops imparts visceral ugliness to "jewy" when he says, "Jesus, I had to laugh at the little jewy getting his shirt out," and "I'm told those jewies does have a sort of a queer odour coming off them." Buck Mulligan's description of Bloom as "The sheeny!" in Scylla and Charybdis is not much better, and Stephen's willingness to incorporate such language into his Shakespeare talk shortly afterward—"Shylock chimes with the jewbaiting that followed the hanging and quartering of the queen's leech Lopez, his jew's heart being plucked forth while the sheeny was yet alive"—is one measure of just how indiscriminately he gathers material for his thesis and how eagerly he seeks to be included in the Dublin literary community.

Mulligan follows this slur with another: "He jumped up and snatched the card. / —What's his name? Ikey Moses? Bloom." This phrase, which is heard again in Circe as "Ikey Mo," combines the names Isaac and Moses. It may have originated with, and at a minimum was popularized by, the Ally Sloper cartoon series that began running in Judy magazine (the counterpart to Punch) in August 1867, and later in its own magazine called Ally Sloper's Half Holiday. The name of Ally Sloper, the main character, derived from the fact that he was often to be seen sloping off up some alley to avoid a landlord or creditor. He was the first recurring comic strip character, and inspired a host of imitators from Charlie Chaplin's tramp to W. C. Fields' lush. Later in Circe a "hobgoblin in the image of Punch Costello" is given an "Ally Sloper nose."

Ally's Jewish pal Ikey Mo was similarly disreputable, drawing on ancient stereotypes of Jews as money-grubbing. Gifford notes that he "is portrayed as an unctuous pickpocket and small-time con man; he even picks his hostess's pocket during a Christmas party." Despite the derogatory nature of the representation, these two characters, Gentile and Jew, were presented on an equal footing, and their occasionally successful scheming invited affection as much as disdain. It seems that "Ikey" could, as Gifford notes, mean not only "Jew or Jewish," but also "smart, alert, artful, clever." Bloom uses it in this sense in Calypso when he admires Arthur Griffith's witty remark: "He prolonged his pleased smile. Ikey touch that: homerule sun rising up in the northwest."

But "Ikey Moses" certainly did carry strains of anti-Semitic contempt. Versions of an Irish and Scottish music hall song sometimes called My Old Cloth Shop present a tailor of that name who is eagerly concerned with making money, sometimes against the wishes of the Gentile customers who would like to take their new clothes without paying the dirty Jew who made them.

Alan Collins, the Australian Jewish author of Alva's Boy: An Unsentimental Memoir (2009), records that he would often join in his gentile companions' singing of another song that used the name, simply because he liked the tune:

Ikey Moses King of the Jews
Sold his wife for a pair of shoes,
When the shoes began to wear
Ikey Moses began to swear. (159)

A version of this song appears in Circe:

Moses, Moses, king of the jews, 
Wiped his arse in the Daily News.

Racial hatred is despicable, but today's climate of ultra-solemn multi-cultural political correctness can make it impossible to appreciate the not-always-hateful vitality of late 19th and early 20th century cities lit up by the antagonisms, stereotypes, and mocking jokes of rival ethnic communities. "Ikey Moses" seems to fall more in the category of insensitive ribbing than in the realm of violent bigotry occupied by men who say that jewies have a queer odor coming off them.

JH 2017
Panels from Some of the Mysteries of Loan and Discount, the inaugural strip by Charles H. Ross and his wife Émilie de Tessier, in 1867 issue of Judy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Ally Sloper and Ikey Mo in cahoots, first in their scheme to open a loan bureau, and then drinking and smoking together in a pub, in Some of the Mysteries of Loan and Discount. Source: brbl-archive.library.yale.edu.