Ulysses is a veritable treasure trove of short-lived phrases and figures of speech that often baffle the modern reader, but might also have baffled Joyce’s contemporary readers because of their restricted local currency and their lack of documentation, in accordance with their oral provenance.
“Steal upon larks” (7.448-9) or “I’d like my job” (5.178-9) illustrate the problem. When in Davy Byrne’s pub the appearance of its owner makes Bloom think of “Herring’s blush” (8.810) or when he later provokes the greeting “and pepper on him” (8.813) by one of his guests, we are at a loss to properly understand what is implied in spite of vast databanks of texts and dictionaries available to us now.
Even trickier are cases where we may not even suspect at first that we are dealing with such a phrase. In the Hades episode Simon Dedalus spots the moneylender Reuben Dodd from the funeral cab:
A tall blackbearded figure, bent on a stick, stumping round the corner of Elvery's elephant house showed them a curved hand open on his spine. (6.252-3)
As Simon harbours a vicious grudge against Dodd, and triggered by what he has just seen he curses appropriately: “— The devil break the hasp of your back!”
This imprecation seems straightforward enough, maliciously directed at a person suffering from spinal degeneration. We might wonder though, why Mr Power, a Castle employee, is “collapsing in laughter” about this exorbitantly aggressive remark. Is he reacting to a colourful and amusing phrase that he may not have heard before?
A thorough search for contemporary documentation of the phrase by John Simpson unearthed a single, but instructive, example in the Fermanagh Herald of 25 April 1903:
“What the devil do you mean, fellows?”, asked the cavalryman, loftily.
“Exactly what we say, my noble warrior,” replied Mac, and without further parley he seized his man by the coat collar and what is known as the hasp of the back swung him bodily over the battlements of the bridge, and held him suspended over the rushing river beneath.
“Now you puppy, eat that lily, or, by the Lord, I’ll drop you in”, shouted the giant.
Unlike us, the narrator of the story about an occurrence on Orangeman’s Day seems to be in no doubt about “what is known as the hasp of the back”, but the crucial information for the annotator is that he regards the expression as “known”. So obviously Simon Dedalus did not create a spontaneous collocation, but referred to some poorly attested regional Irish idiom. The context suggests that distinct from the coat collar, “hasp of the back” does not refer to a piece of uniform, but the soldier’s tailbone or backside. And just as the article avoids a direct expression for this “pudendum”, Simon Dedalus tries to keep up verbal appearances in the presence of Martin Cunningham, Power, and Bloom. Oddly enough he gave another guarded example of a threat to the backside of another perceived enemy some ten minutes earlier when he promised to tickle Buck Mulligan’s “catastrophe” (6.67-8).1 When he does not feel restrained by witnesses his aggressiveness, however, becomes plainly visible. When asked by his daughter Dilly for some money for the household he reacts like this:
— Wait a while, Mr Dedalus said threateningly. You’re like the rest of them, are you? An insolent pack of little bitches since your poor mother died.
With regard to the supposedly Irish origin of the phrase, Vincent Deane and Eamonn Finn have pointed out independently that the Irish word lúb is a possible candidate. As Eamonn Finn put it: “One of the ways Hiberno-English phrases are formed is by literal translation from Irish, and “not getting it quite right”, so to speak.” Curses employing the advocacy of the devil are frequent in Ireland, both in English and Irish. So Go mbrise an diabhal cnámh do dhroma, literally means: "That the devil may break the bone of your back ".
Eamonn Finn also found the following interesting post-Ulysses example of the phrase published in 1976, but obviously referring to a much earlier event:2
Petley began to holler for someone to take me away. If I didn't go, despite his broken limbs, he said he would jump out of bed and break the hasp of my back.
As the Editor had also said that he would break the hasp of my back if I didn't get Petley's story I sat down and wrote it. Petley never forgave me for this although subsequently we were good friends for 25 years.