King Billy

King Billy

In Brief

"Where the foreleg of King Billy's horse pawed the air Mrs Breen plucked her hastening husband back from under the hoofs of the outriders": Dennis Breen's heedless half-mad pursuit of justice in Wandering Rocks nearly reduces him to roadkill under the hooves of the viceregal cavalcade. Close by, a statue of King William III celebrates the reduction of Catholic Ireland to roadkill in 1690.

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Joyce's prose contrives to crush the Catholic Breen between the living horses pulling the carriages of Ireland's English governors and the bronze one carrying its most decisive English conqueror. The Dutch prince William of Orange invaded England to assist in the deposition of King James II, whose Catholic sympathies had alarmed the Protestant majority of that nation, and as the newly crowned King of England he invaded Ireland to pursue the fleeing James. The victory of "King Billy," as many Scots and Ulster Protestants call him, over James at the Battle of the Boyne near Drogheda ushered in the Protestant Ascendancy, the penal laws, and the systematic colonial subjugation of Irish Catholics.

William's "immortal memory" was celebrated in Dublin with an equestrian statue at the busy College Green intersection across from Trinity College. Gifford wryly summarizes the esteem in which it was held by Catholics: "He is remembered only a little more cordially than Cromwell as a great oppressor. The emphasis on the horse in this passage recalls a traditional Irish toast: 'To the memory of the chestnut horse [that broke the neck of William of Orange].' (It was actually his collarbone, but that and a chill were the death of him.) The controversial statue was removed after an encounter with a land mine in 1929."

Joyce had already once used this statue to symbolize the paralyzing subjection of life in a colonial city. In The Dead, Gabriel Conroy gracefully tells the story of his grandfather's horse Johnny, who spent his days walking round and round to turn the wheel in Patrick Morkan's starch mill. And "That was all very well; but now comes the tragic part about Johnny. One fine day the old gentleman thought he'd like to drive out with the quality to a military review in the park." Like the Dubliners bowing and scraping before the viceregal carriage in Wandering Rocks, Morkan puts on his best attire for "the quality" at the military review, and harnesses his old horse to his carriage.

"And everything went on beautifully until Johnny came in sight of King Billy's statue: and whether he fell in love with the horse King Billy sits on or whether he thought he was back again in the mill, anyhow he began to walk round the statue," over and over in his accustomed pointless repetition. The "tragic part" of Gabriel's funny story is that Irish men and women revolve in the same soul-killing orbit.

Stephen has associated fine horses with English nobility and Irish Ascendancy gentry in Nestor. Bloom too has his thoughts about the horsey set in Lotus Eaters, Lestrygonians, and Circe.

JH 2018