As ugly as Poll Ash

U 12.1266-71: The fashionable international world attended en masse this afternoon at the wedding of the chevalier Jean Wyse de Neaulan, grand high chief ranger of the Irish National Foresters, with Miss Fir Conifer of Pine Valley. Lady Sylvester Elmshade, Mrs Barbara Lovebirch, Mrs Poll Ash […]

Among the numerous ladies who attend the wedding of the chevalier Jean Wyse de Neaulan [...] with Miss Fir Conifer of Pine Valley we find the comparatively unobtrusive Mrs Poll Ash.

As Gerard O’Flaherty has kindly pointed out in private correspondence the expression “as ugly as Poll Ash” was proverbial in Dublin. A book and newspaper search produces interesting results for “Poll Ash(e)”. An early reference to her can be found in a song published in 1852:

There's a looking glass that Stoney bought,

To make his room look snugly —

It's the one Poll Ash looked in, the day

She died for being ugly.

From "Stoney Pocket’s Auction" in: The Sprig of Shillelah: A Collection of the Most Humorous and Popular Irish Songs, compiled by Dinny Blake (London: 1852), p. 241

The story behind this song is explained in the Dublin Historical Record (1944: vol. 7, p. 145):

He [Dandyorum] was accustomed in Winter and Summer to appear in an enormous mackintosh — a present from some humorous patron. He was very vain and used to carry a piece of looking-glass about with him, for the purpose of inspecting his person. According to Shalvey [Doyle], it was the same in which Poll Ashe looked the day she fell dead on finding herself so ugly. Stoney Pockets was a poor half-cracked fellow who tramped the country from Howth to the Tower of Hook. He carried stones in in his pockets to steady himself, for, he said, "His head was flying away with him!"

Stoney Pockets and Dandyorum, friends of Zozimus [= Michael Moran, d. 1846], belonged to a group called the Liberty Birds

The Irish Times Weekly for 24 April 1886 shows that the expression had become more or less proverbial by that date:

I never knew a woman whose beauty shone brighter than her actions. Find an affectionate woman – let her be as ugly as Poll Ashe in every lineament – and still her manner has more attractions than the beauties of Apollo steeped in vanity.

It survived into the 20th century, as this quote from Maura Laverty’s novel No more than human (London, 1944), p. 23, shows:

I already realized that a woman would need to be as ugly as Poll Ash and as old as Granuaile not to have a quick flower thrown to her in the street.

Cyclops is easily the funniest episode in Ulysses, provided we don’t miss too much of what was obvious and familiar to the generations of Dubliners raised during Joyce's lifetime.

Harald Beck

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