Come home to ma

Come home to ma

In Brief

At the beginning of Lotus Eaters Bloom watches a wretchedly poor boy and imagines his daily existence: "Waiting outside pubs to bring da home. Come home to ma, da." This is the first of many moments in Ulysses when Joyce draws attention to the division of Irish society into stay-at-home women and linger-in-the-pub men. His observations of the harms done to Irish family life by constant drinking are frequent enough to be called a major theme of the novel.

The 1904 Dublin through which Bloom starts walking at 9 AM, not to return for nearly 17 hours, was an exceptionally homosocial place. Women figured marginally in its public life, in large part because so much of that life took place in public houses. It is hard to say how many of these popular gathering places actually banned females, but women were scarce enough to effectively segregate the alcoholic thirst and competitive social bonding of men from the domestic lives of families. Vincent Van Wyk points out in a personal communication that some Victorian and Edwardian pubs had partitioned rooms called "snugs" where women (or couples, or priests, or policemen sworn to sobriety) could drink privately, often behind doors locked from the inside. But Joyce does not mention any of these. His pubs are places for men to gather, and their atmosphere is jovial and relentlessly masculine. The monopoly is summed up in Sirens when Miss Douce says that men are "frightful idiots" and Miss Kennedy replies, "It's them has the fine times."

The gender divisions were not absolute. In response to the 19th century temperance movement, which cut into business, many publicans had diversified into groceries, tea, and wine, advertising themselves as "spirit grocers" or "wine merchants" and offering shopping in the front of the store. In recent years grocery store chains and other large firms have taken most of this business away from the pubs (though some of them still feature the old language on their shopfronts), but in 1904 the practice was still thriving. Women shopping for groceries could pick up wine or whiskey in the same shops, and drink it at home. 

Ulysses depicts several such women: the "bent hag" in Calypso that Bloom sees in front of "Cassidy's, clutching a naggin bottle by the neck"; Mrs. Dignam in Circe, "her snubnose and cheeks flushed with deathtalk, tears, and Tunney's tawny sherry"; Molly in Penelope, who thinks, "Ill have to knock off the stout at dinner or am I getting too fond of it the last they sent from ORourkes was as flat as a pancake." In these details Joyce shows women drinking from all the major food groups—hard liquor, wine, beer—and he shows public houses doubling as package stores. O'Rourke's is the pub that Bloom passes in Calypso, and Tunney's is mentioned twice in one section of Wandering Rocks, when Patsy Dignam thinks of his mother sipping "the superior tawny sherry uncle Barney brought from Tunney’s," and of his father's frequent visits to the pub: "The last night pa was boosed he was standing on the landing there bawling out for his boots to go out to Tunney’s for to boose more."

Women who had the inclination and the money to drink certainly could do so in 1904. In Hades Bloom commiserates with Martin Cunningham for having to endure "that awful drunkard of a wife of his." Mrs. Cunningham has the habit of regularly "pawning the furniture," probably for money to spend in spirit shops. Bloom thinks that "she must have looked a sight that night Dedalus told me he was in there. Drunk about the place and capering with Martin's umbrella." But this display took place in the couple's home. Homes, and private parties in homes, afforded the only real opportunities for women to drink, while men could find establishments to walk into on every street, at every hour of the day.

In several of the stories of Dubliners Joyce explored the tensions between the freedom that men feel in bars and the constraints they experience when they return home. "Eveline" tells the story of a young woman who lives in fear of her violent father and is wearied by "the invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights," when he was "usually fairly bad." "A Little Cloud" shows a family man having drinks with an old acquaintance and feeling frustrated with his unaccomplished life when he comes home, until he screams in rage at his infant child and is savagely rebuked by his wife. In "Counterparts," Farrington's night of drinking ends with him beating his "little boy" with a stick.

The narrative stream of these three stories flows uninterruptedly through Ulysses, where the gap separating men's public lives of drinking from their private lives of providing for families is visible at many points. In Lestrygonians Nosey Flynn, sitting in the same pub where he sat in "Counterparts," comments disapprovingly on having seen Bloom one day "with a jar of cream in his hand taking it home to his better half. She's well nourished, I tell you. Plovers on toast." In Wandering Rocks Dilly Dedalus buttonholes her father to contribute a penny or two from his pocketful of drinking money to support his starving family, which he begrudgingly does: "Get a glass of milk for yourself and a bun or a something. I’ll be home shortly." (Dublin remembers John Stanislaus Joyce as a "street angel, house devil.") In Oxen of the Sun the hospital's halls resonate with the raucous shouts of drunken young men while a woman struggles to give birth in her third day of labor.

Nausicaa presents the perspective of the women who wait at home for their men to return. Gerty thinks of the effects of alcohol on her family: "But that vile decoction which has ruined so many hearths and homes had cast its shadow over her childhood days. Nay, she had even witnessed in the home circle deeds of violence caused by intemperance and had seen her own father, a prey to the fumes of intoxication, forget himself completely for if there was one thing of all things that Gerty knew it was that the man who lifts his hand to a woman save in the way of kindness, deserves to be branded as the lowest of the low." Later in the same chapter, Bloom too thinks of what women have to put up with when their husbands come back from the pub: "Worst of all at night Mrs Duggan told me in the City Arms. Husband rolling in drunk, stink of pub off him like a polecat. Have that in your nose in the dark, whiff of stale boose. Then ask in the morning: was I drunk last night?"

On this topic as on so many others, Molly Bloom has the last word. She knows that she is fortunate to have married a man who, after 17 hours tramping Dublin's streets, has consumed just one glass of wine and kept a careful mental tally of the day's expenses. Less prudent, more profligate men intrude repeatedly in her thoughts: Tom Kernan "that bit his tongue off falling down the mens WC drunk in some place or other," Simon Dedalus who "was always turning up half screwed" at concerts in which he was about to perform, Professor Goodwin who "was a patent professor of John Jameson," Paddy Dignam "Im sorry in a way for him what are his wife and 5 children going to do unless he was insured comical little teetotum always stuck up in some pub corner and her or her son waiting Bill Bailey wont you please come home."

Bloom has come home quite late on this unusual day, prompting Molly to "hope hes not going to get in with those medicals leading him astray to imagine hes young again coming in at 4 in the morning it must be if not more still he had the manners not to wake me what do they find to gabber about all night squandering money and getting drunker and drunker couldnt they drink water." Even if Bloom has gotten carried away for once, she is determined not to let it become a regular thing: "theyre a nice lot all of them well theyre not going to get my husband again into their clutches if I can help it making fun of him then behind his back I know well when he goes on with his idiotics because he has sense enough not to squander every penny piece he earns down their gullets and looks after his wife and family goodfornothings."

Pubs proliferated at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution as havens from dehumanizing workplaces, and it seems that they quickly became havens from domestic responsibilites as well. Whether they still perform the latter function today is beyond this commentator's capacity to say, but the implicit ban on women in most Irish pubs has now been gone for a good half century. Some traditional pubs (e.g., John Clarke's in Irishtown, Thomas Maher's in Waterford, Pat Gleeson's in Kilkenny) remained all-male into the last few decades of the 20th century, but they were fighting a rear-guard action in the midst of a full-on retreat.

A wonderful 1968 video from the archives of the RTÉ,  which can be accessed at, shows journalist Paddy Bolger's gruff acknowledgement of a whole new social scene in the Dublin bars of his time: women invading the male sanctum, bars becoming "lounges," dark mahogany surfaces and product-branded mirrors giving way to glitzy decorations, fancy drinks being sipped so mincingly that deep swigs of porter suddenly seem gauche, musical acts spreading like a maniacal cancer, miniskirted thighs displayed by girls whose fathers should be looking after them, ridiculous games imported from England. Thanks to Cathal Coleman for recommending this marvelous video to me.

JH 2020
Playwright Brendan Behan laughing with companions in August 1952, in a photograph held in the Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Source:
Larry O'Rourke's pub in a photograph of unknown date. Source: