Joyce was particularly attracted to expressions he encountered in his reading or conversation which contained an unexpected twist. “Retiring into public life” is one such expression.
In the early nineteenth century it was of course possible to refer to retiring from public life. It was also idiomatic – and perfectly logical - to speak of retiring into private life:
To admit that class of men into the House was, the General well knew, to resign the power of the sword, and to consent that he and his officers should retire into private life, on a diminished pay, and stripped of the commanding influence which they had exercised since the period of the Self-denying ordinance.
Michael Russell Life of Oliver Cromwell (1829), vol. 2, ch. 3, p. 152
But by the mid nineteenth century it became fashionable to refer to retiring “into public life”, to retire from one’s situation, but to become in demand during one’s retirement in a public role.1 The Athenaeum of 1854 provides an early evidence:
Others again are lamenting the waste of genius and the loss to Art involved in Mr. Leslie's withdrawal from his studio and his retirement into public life. (30 September, p. 1170/1)
The expression was appreciated internationally, and the Mercury of Hobart, Tasmania, found occasion to report its use in 1862, commenting on the retirement of an English politician from political life (a similar political context to Joyce’s):
Are we to witness in quietness the humiliating and disastrous spectacle, of the retirement into public life one after another of all whose character can attach respectability, whose deportment lend dignity, and whose talent impart lustre, to our institutions? (4 April, p. 2)
The verb retire (rather than the noun retirement) is found by the ealy 1860s:
"The dismissal of Mr. Gregory." As for my influence it is simply bosh. I have none. Passing over the fitness of a public officer, when retired into public life, for continuance in the commission.
Courier (Brisbane, Queensland) (1863), 13 June, p. 3
The Daily News of 26 January, 1900 employed the phrase as a sub-heading, on the retirement of Dr Guinness Rogers, pastor of the Clapham Congregational Church:
He had been told, however, that he was about to retire into public life, and, judging from the number of applications he had received from all over the country to preach or speak, that seemed to be the case.
Amongst numerous other occurrences from the period, it is perhaps worth singling out this extract from the Irish Examiner of 7 February 1902, again reporting on events in England:
One Farthing Damages […] In the King’s Bench to-day, Mr J Williams Been, London County Council, was awarded one farthing damages, without costs, against Mr Edward Ledger, proprietor of the "Era" newspaper, for alleged libel. Plaintiff advocated certain restrictions in regard to music halls, and the "Era" said his strong opposition was only accounted for by the fact that he had failed on the music halls, and had retired into public life as a paid agitator. Plaintiff said this was totally untrue. (p. 3)
Joyce tellingly places the expression immediately after a reference to applying to the Chiltern Hundreds, the mechanism by which MPs may leave their seat by notionally applying to become Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds, and hence “retiring into public life” in a small way. The phrase tended to fade from view as the twentieth century progressed, but it left a passing shadow in Ulysses.