Musical breakfasts and a walk with the band

U 8.470-1: Halffed enthusiasts. Penny roll and a walk with the band.

Don Gifford finds an explanation for Joyce’s sentence in the history of the Salvation Army:

Penny roll and [a] walk with the band - The Salvation Army (formed in 1865) offered a penny’s worth of bread to anyone who would march through the streets in witness to his "conversion" (Ulysses Annotated, p. 171)

And yet it is surprising that this slogan (if that is what it is) does not appear in other literary or newspaper text. There is no doubt that the Salvation Army was associated with the provision of food and shelter at a premium for those living on the streets, but perhaps not in the form cited by Joyce. Historian Paul White discusses the introduction of just such a scheme by the Salvation Army in London in 1888:

The General’s Scheme. In February 1888 the Salvation Army opened a sleeping shelter near the West India Docks, offering soup, bread, music, and a meeting for a penny. It was the first of many such establishments in the poor districts of London.

Paul White Thomas Huxley (2003), ch. 5 p. 155

What was available to the working man of Dublin for his breakfast was, however, the subject of black humour in the days of the famines. At a union meeting of stucco plasterers in Dublin in 1841:1

Mr. Gibson […] said that to such a state of distress was the [stucco] trade now reduced, that it was lamentable to see many of them obliged, through want of employment, to go to the Castle at 11 o’clock every morning to enjoy the luxury of a musical breakfast (roars of laughter).

Breakfast for the unemployed stucco-plasterer would consist of nothing more that air and music, listening to the band of the Royal Fusiliers (or that of another regiment) as they relieved the guard at eleven o’clock in the morning in Dublin Castle yard.

The changing of the guard at Dublin Castle

The Industries of Dublin (1887), p. 22

In 1859, the unwholesome “Irishman’s breakfast” was traditionally said to be “a glass of water and a walk with the band”, again possibly in allusion to the changing of the guard at Dublin Castle. Similar expressions are not found outside an Irish context:

He takes two meals a day; in the morning, his breakfast, if not as lively as the Irishman's, 'a glass of wather and a walk with the band', is not much more substantial. For the latter item, he only substitutes a hunch of dry bread.

Getting On: a tale of English Life (1859), vol. 2 ch. 45 p. 451

That the saying was becoming proverbial is evidenced by later documentation:

"It's outrageous, Mary," I replied, "I don't know what the world is coming to! I often heard my father say that an Irishman's breakfast was air, water and a fine view, and now they shout bloody murder if they can’t get good bread into the bargain."

Elocutionist’s Journal (1877) p. 7

Charles Du Val must have encountered an Irish volunteer in his With a Show through Southern Africa, published in 1884. The “musical breakfast”, once the preserve of the socially advantaged in the early nineteenth century, sums up the poverty of the Irish in contrast to the empire show of the British:2

Many a volunteer who had done his duty like a man had the privilege of enjoying the somewhat aesthetic morning meal defined by one of them as a 'musical breakfast', which he explained as consisting of a glass of water and a walk with the band of the Fusiliers.

The formula is proverbial, and comparable with the weather-lore saying about “an Englishman’s summer: three fine days and a thunderstorm”. But in Joyce’s case the expression reminds the early twentieth-century reader – by way of a phrase then passing out of use - of the difficulties experienced in the mid nineteenth century by the Irish under a regime symbolised by the Anglo-Irish of Dublin Castle and the British regimental bands, and the bread and water which came to represent a staple diet for the poor of Dublin in those days.

Harald Beck

Another satirical view of the “Musical Breakfast”, from an illustration in Dicken’s

David Copperfield (1850) ch. 5, between pp. 54 & 55


1 Freeman’s Journal (1841), 9 January.

2 Charles Du Val With a Show through Southern Africa (1884), vol. 2 ch. 8 p. 180.

Search by keyword (within this site): Phrases Food Drink Music Exercise Famine Poverty Army Religion