In Brief

As the carriage begins its journey in Hades, the men inside notice "crustcrumbs" on the seats and speculate that someone has been "making a picnic party" there. Neglecting to clean the vehicle before sending it out for a funeral is cause enough for disapproval, but their reactions suggest that they think something more than food has been spilled inside.

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The insinuations are subtle but strong:
     Martin Cunningham began to brush away crustcrumbs from under his thighs.
      — What is this, he said, in the name of God? Crumbs?
      — Someone seems to have been making a picnic party here lately, Mr Power said.
      All raised their thighs, eyed with disfavour the mildewed buttonless leather of the seats. Mr Dedalus, twisting his nose, frowned downward and said:
      — Unless I'm greatly mistaken. What do you think, Martin?
      — It struck me too, Martin Cunningham said.
      Mr Bloom set his thigh down. Glad I took that bath. Feel my feet quite clean. But I wish Mrs Fleming had darned these socks better.
      Mr Dedalus sighed resignedly.
      — After all, he said, it's the most natural thing in the world.
Eating is the most natural thing in the world, but surely special intuition would not be needed to infer that from the crumbs, nor would it inspire the crinkled noses and creeping flesh. A couple having sex in the carriage––presumably after hiring it to take them out in the countryside––would account for these reactions. Since this inference is never explicitly confirmed, readers thinking it will inevitably ask whether they are imposing their own lubricious fancies on Joyce's text. But there are many reasons outside the passage to suppose that the dirty mind is the author's.

Slote cites an apposite observation in Ian MacArthur's "Some Notes for Ulysses," JJQ 41.3 (2004): 523-35, p. 526. In chapter 23 of As I Was Going Down Sackville Street, Oliver St. John Gogarty recalls what is evidently a familiar anecdote:
      'Are you coming to the picnic, Mrs. Murphy?'
      'Picnic, me neck! Look at Mary's belly since the last picnic.'

I do not know if there are other examples of this association in Irish popular culture, but there are two in Ulysses: the picnic on Howth Head that both Bloom (in Lestrygonians) and Molly (in Penelope) remember as an occasion of rapturous sexual pleasure, and the Lough Owel trip in Milly's letter that gets Bloom thinking nervously (in Calypso) about "some young student and a picnic." And in a more general way, Joyce repeatedly associates nature trips and the great outdoors with sexual release. Examples are legion: Stephen's vision of the bird-girl on the beach (represented in A Portrait), his outburst on the Howth tram (recalled in Proteus), Bloom's adolescent naughtiness at the Poulaphouca falls (recalled in Circe), his masturbation on the beach (represented in Nausicaa), Lynch's dalliance in the bushes with his Kitty (represented in Wandering Rocks, recalled in Oxen of the Sun), and the recurrent theme of lustful adoration associated with the Seaside Girls song. All of these details suggest that "making a picnic party" may involve something more than food. Having sex in nature is "the most natural thing in the world."

John Hunt 2023
Source: stock.adobe.com.
Poster for the 1956 movie Picnic. Source: moviesanywhere.com.