Bantam Lyons

Bantam Lyons

In Brief

The man who asks to borrow Bloom's newspaper in Lotus Eaters, and who receives what he thinks is a horse racing tip from him, is either seen or mentioned in half a dozen later chapters. His role in the novel is simple and well-defined: to remind readers of the Gold Cup race. But the character himself displays some strange ambiguities. Ithaca calls him "Frederick M. (Bantam) Lyons," and Vivien Igoe has identified a real Frederick M. Lyons who was alive in 1904, but that man's social status seems hard to square with the fictional character. Another confusion arises from textual prehistory. Bantam Lyons is mentioned in "The Boarding House," one of the stories of Dubliners, and another character with the same last name appears in a second story, "Ivy Day in the Committee Room." Joyceans have traditionally taken that second Lyons to be Bantam, but, again, the characteristics of the two men seem very dissimilar. 

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Near the start of Lotus Eaters Charley M'Coy tells Bloom that he was just now "down there in Conway's" with Bob Doran "and what do you call him Bantam Lyons." Near the chapter's end, across the street from that pub, Lyons approaches Bloom asking to inspect his newspaper for information about the Gold Cup race and mistakenly infers that Bloom is urging him to bet on Throwaway. Saying, "thanks" and "I'll risk it," he runs off. In Lestrygonians he enters Davy Byrne's pub with Paddy Leonard and Tom Rochford, and Leonard says that "He has some bloody horse up his sleeve for the Gold cup. A dead snip." Lyons is coy about the identity of the horse, but he points to Bloom as the source of his information and says, "I'm going to plunge five bob on my own." In Wandering Rocks Lenehan says, "I knocked against Bantam Lyons in there going to back a bloody horse someone gave him that hasn't an earthly." In Cyclops he adds that he dissuaded him: "I met Bantam Lyons going to back that horse only I put him off it and he told me Bloom gave him the tip."

These four chapters cumulatively create the impression that Lyons spends his days frequenting pubs, racetracks, and betting offices. Lotus Eaters adds some unsavory details of personal hygiene and deportment. Bloom watches as Lyons' "yellow blacknailed fingers unrolled the baton. Wants a wash too. Take off the rough dirt. Good morning, have you used Pears' soap? Dandruff on his shoulders. Scalp wants oiling." His speech too is unkempt: "Is that today's? Show us a minute.... I want to see about that French horse that's running today... Where the bugger is it?" The narrative observes how his eyes "leer" weakly, and Bloom notes the "Silly lips of that chap." Lyons is clearly not a self-possessed individual or one who worries much about his appearance. M'Coy's "what do you call him" implies that he is the kind of hanger-on whose name one struggles to remember. Joyce critics have often called him a "punter"—Irish and English slang loosely applied to pub denizens, sports fans, placers of bets, frequenters of brothels, and other anonymous customers.

That image seems hard to square with the biographical details supplied in Igoe's entry. She too calls him a "Punter" in her title line, but the body of her note supplies no details consistent with such an absence of occupation. Frederick M. Lyons was born in 1858 to Martin Lyons and his wife Julia. "His father was a commercial traveller who started his own stationery business" catering to the legal profession. He had a workshop at 16 Usher's Court and printing works at 6 Ormond Quay, both conveniently close to the Four Courts. He took his sons Frederick and James into the business, and those two men ran "a stationer's shop at 56 Grafton Street, which dealt in high-class writing paper." What are the odds that a 46-year-old businessman with a shop on Grafton Street would spend his days trying to get rich at the track while neglecting his appearance?

It is also hard to reconcile the images created by the two Dubliners stories. In "The Boarding House," the landlady who is scheming to coerce Bob Doran into marrying her daughter considers the vulnerability of her prey: "She counted all her cards again before sending Mary up to Mr Doran’s room to say that she wished to speak with him. She felt sure she would win. He was a serious young man, not rakish or loud-voiced like the others. If it had been Mr Sheridan or Mr Meade or Bantam Lyons her task would have been much harder." Ulysses shows that she is right to despair of shaming Bantam Lyons. A glance back at "The Boarding House" in Cyclops suggests that he was not only rakish and loud-voiced but also aware of the trap being set by Polly and Mrs. Mooney: "the bumbailiff's daughter, mother kept a kip in Hardwicke street, that used to be stravaging about the landings Bantam Lyons told me that was stopping there at two in the morning without a stitch on her, exposing her person, open to all comers, fair field and no favour."

It is easy to imagine the Bantam Lyons of Mrs. Mooney's estimation being the loud-mouthed source of scandal cited in Cyclops, but much harder to identify him with the quiet and thoughtful "Mr Lyons" of "Ivy Day." That man is, admittedly, a drinker. When he enters the committee room after canvassing for votes, he instantly notices the bottles of stout that have been brought in: "Where did the boose come from?... Did the cow calve?" Mr. O'Connor exclaims, "O, of course, Lyons spots the drink first thing!" But as he sits talking, it becomes clear that he is morally and politically principled and maintains a fidelity to the memory of Parnell that others have abandoned. The nationalist candidate that the men in the room are working to elect has praised the king, and one of the canvassers has secured the vote of a prominent Conservative. Both things seem to trouble Lyons: "And what about the address to the king?"

Parnell had urged his followers to shun the Prince of Wales when he visited Ireland in 1885. Now, as that man prepares to visit Ireland a second time as King Edward, Mr Henchy loudly insists that a royal visit will bring money to Ireland. Parnell is dead, he says, and the king isn't so bad: "Here’s this chap come to the throne after his old mother keeping him out of it till the man was grey. He’s a man of the world, and he means well by us. He’s a jolly fine decent fellow, if you ask me, and no damn nonsense about him. He just says to himself: The old one never went to see these wild Irish. By Christ, I’ll go myself and see what they’re like. And are we going to insult the man when he comes over here on a friendly visit?" Lyons, recalling Dirty Bertie's notoriously dissolute escapades, replies "argumentatively" that "King Edward's life, you know, is not the very..." Henchy rudely interrupts him: "Let bygones be bygones... I admire the man personally. He's just an ordinary knockabout like you and me. He’s fond of his glass of grog and he’s a bit of a rake, perhaps, and he’s a good sportsman. Damn it, can’t we Irish play fair?"

Mr. Lyons persists: "That's all very fine... But look at the case of Parnell now...we have our ideals. Why, now, would we welcome a man like that? Do you think now after what he did Parnell was a fit man to lead us? And why, then, would we do it for Edward the Seventh?" He is referring to Parnell's adulterous love affair with Katherine O'Shea, which caused puritanical Catholics to desert him even though the relationship was longstanding and essentially monogamous. Albert Edward's offenses against conventional morality have been far greater, but Mr. Henchy cannot see any reason to feel outraged by the fat lecher: "where's the analogy between the two cases?"

Albert Edward not only ate, drank, and fornicated out of all measure. As both Nestor and Cyclops remind the reader, this "good sportsman" also bet avidly on horse races. Could Bantam Lyons, who shares that fondness for the horses, be the same Lyons who says "we have our ideals" and who sets himself against the king so strongly? Given the careful way in which Joyce normally deploys details, it seems more likely that he is inviting readers to draw a contrast. There is also the fact that when we finally see Bantam Lyons inside a pub, in Lestrygonians, he is ordering "a stone ginger." Paddy Leonard expresses dismay and remarks that Lyons would normally "suck whisky off a sore leg," so it is clear that he is no teetotaler. But this is arguably a second way in which Joyce distinguishes "Bantam Lyons" from the "Mr Lyons" who spots the stout in the committee room.

Gifford, Slote, and many other Joyce critics assume that Bantam Lyons is the Lyons of "Ivy Day"—an assumption that the textual considerations sketched here would seem to challenge. Were it not for the identifying information offered in Ithaca, it would be tempting to suppose that Joyce created two characters named Lyons, one based on the respectable owner of a Grafton Street shop and the other a low-life "punter." But "Frederick M. (Bantam) Lyons" (Slote oddly changes the middle initial to "J."), by attaching both the biographical name and the fictional nickname to a single person, makes that hypothesis hard to entertain. If Bantam Lyons and Mr. Lyons are in fact one person, they would seem to be so in somewhat the way that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are.

JH 2022
Betting on the Favorite, engraving by W. L. Sheppard from sketch by W. B. Myers, published in the October 1870 Harper's Weekly. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Mr. Lyons (left) and Mr. Crofton entering the committee room in Robin Jacques' illustration of "Ivy Day." Source: James Joyce, Dubliners (Grafton Books, 1977).