The swinging whiskers
U 18.159-61: Mina Purefoys husband give us a swing out of your whiskers filling her up with a child or twins once a year
Gifford tells his
readers that give us a swing out of your
whiskers is an expression from the West of Ireland meaning “Preserve me
from the story you’re telling”. But, as Dent was the first to point out, there
is no documentary evidence to support this reading and “it does not obviously
fit the context”.1
Bloom’s interior monologue has already informed us in the Lestrygonians episode
about Mr Theodore Purefoy’s impressive growth of facial hair: “Still his
muttonchop whiskers grew” (U. 8.360-1). And in the Cyclops episode we are told by the scoffing I-narrator that
Queen Victoria in her dotage supposedly
pulled her coachman’s whiskers when he put her into bed and sang him old bits
of songs. (U. 1395-7).
Image credit: Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg Memorial Website
Whiskers were such a conspicuous feature that they invited often mocking comment. Poking fun at the supposedly stuffy, self-important wearer by making him subject to the ridiculous image of someone swinging from his dangling whiskers seems to have come naturally in Edwardian times.This is a first hint at a childish use to which whiskers could be put, and documentary evidence confirms that this is the most promising lead to an understanding of Molly’s baffling phrase:
The second source above is reminiscent of Molly’s aggressive invitation to the proud possessor of whiskers to allow their use as a swing for either himself or others. A feature we find repeated in Sean O’Casey’s autobiographical memory of a church service conducted by the awe-inspiring rector, the Reverend Hunter:
As O’Casey shows, the phrase implied some kind of punishment for the vanity and folly of the person thus addressed:
The documentation compiled here leaves little doubt that Gifford’s explanation is neither here nor there as regards Molly’s spiteful aside on the upright, self-serving Methodist who makes his wife methodically pregnant without giving a thought to her physical well-being. As Molly puts it in the lines immediately preceding:
Swinging out of Theodore Purefoy’s whiskers might be the “touch” required.
1 R. W. Dent, Colloquial Language in Ulysses (Newark: 1994), p. 255.
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