At the beginning of the Sirens episode, while Miss Douce serves Mr Dedalus at the bar, Lenehan enters the Ormond Hotel and asks if Mr Boylan was looking for him. The other barmaid, Miss Kennedy, is sitting on an empty crate behind the counter, at first invisible to him, finishing her tea and reading. Later, he tries to attract her attention with a “low whistle of decoy”. As Miss Kennedy rises and closes her reading “dreamily”, he asks:
– Did she fall or was she pushed?1
Lenehan is the master of the stale joke, the old chestnut that makes you wince, and not surprisingly Miss Kennedy, who is slightly prissy in comparison with her colleague Miss Douce, “answered slighting”:
– Ask no questions and you’ll hear no lies.
Lenehan’s quip has not received the attention of annotators who, contrary to Miss Kennedy, seem to have been unaware that he was using a clichéd phrase and joke, perhaps even alluding to a popular music-hall song. This excerpt from the Hampshire Telegraph of 10 October 1903 can illustrate the point:
A murder occurred in the first act, which naturally led to its own discovery by an unintentionally comic police inspector who brought down the curtain to thunders of applause by propounding the conundrum: "Did she fall, or was she pushed?"
Apart from the obvious association of the saying with a police enquiry into an accident or death and subsequent newspaper reports, a figurative use suggesting that “she” (or “he” as in the following example) was seduced, or left the path of virtue voluntarily, can be documented from at least the 1890s:
"Did he fall or was he pushed?" became the agitating question in the Breckinridge case. Papa Breckinridge claimed as his defense that he was dragged, not led astray.
'Fayette Lexington', The Celebrated Case of Col. W.C.P. Breckinridge and Madeline Pollard (1894, p. 263)
Lenehan’s question has led some critics to fall for his insinuation and have suggested that Miss Kennedy was indeed reading a “smutty book”. Considering her character, this seems rather unlikely, even “under the counter”; her colleague, Miss Douce, the waiter, Pat, and the brazen Boots all having easy access to that area. After all, she just closes her reading and doesn’t hastily put it away. So it is more likely she read a detective story or, judging from her dreamy mood, some sentimental romance.
Two advertisements for performances in London in The Era of 1890 and 1892 provide a further explanation for the popularity of the phrase:
On 4th January a concert of the "Comic singer" Fred Harvey is announced and "Did she fall, or was she pushed?" named as his latest success. (p. 23)
Two years later readers are informed in an article about the London music halls of 9 January:
Mr Joe Lawrence, the well-known negro comedian, has followed, introducing himself with a little comical patter. On the night when we were present he promised to sing his celebrated song "Did she fall, or was she pushed". (p. 17)