Sitting on a form

U 12:241: Health, Joe, says I. And all down the form. 

Joe Hynes passes round the drinks in Barney Kiernan’s pub in the Cyclops episode, and the I-narrator offers him good health for his hospitality. The next sentence (“And all down the form”) is easily glossed over, but means that his response is echoed by everyone seated along the “form” or bench.


  This use of form is no longer common but was frequent in Britain and Ireland into the twentieth century. Joyce uses the word form or forms eighty-three times in Ulysses, but only twice in this sense. Mostly form is employed to mean ”shape”, “type”, or “variety”: “Buck Mulligan’s gowned form”, “the soul is the form of forms”, “human form divine”, “republicanism is the best form of government”, or “The Irish Caruso-Garibaldi was in superlative form”. It is used as a verb only once. The second occurrence of form in the sense “bench” occurs at the cabman’s shelter in Eumaeus, with reference to the sailor D. B. Murphy:


Regaining his seat he sank rather than sat heavily on the form provided. (U 16.984)


  The OED dates this usage (“a long seat without a back; a bench”) from the late medieval period. Don Gifford correctly identifies the meaning, but disappears at a tangent with reference to Irish wakes:


Mourners at Irish wakes sat on long benches, or forms, usually supplied by the funeral parlor. (Ulysses Annotated, p. 328)


  Forms are traditionally associated with the schoolroom (it is suggested that the meaning “school class” derives from schoolrooms where several classes were taught together, each class on its own bench or “form”, but this is not proven). See for comparison Seamus Heaney’s memory of “the traditional heavy plank top” (a “form”) used for seating in his school, described in Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping stones: interviews with Seamus Heaney (2008) p. 243. But they also appear in many other contexts by the nineteenth century, in mainland Britain and in Ireland): in yards, domestic houses, police stations, at wakes, and elsewhere.


  To substantiate Joyce’s use it would be preferable to uncover printed instances in which form (= “bench”) refers to seating in a public house. Such usages are common. The first illustrative example comes from a case heard in Oxfordshire, in which beer was sold illegally at a private house without a licence:


O‘Donoghue and the two men drank the beer between them as they sat on the form, and, when they had drank it, O'Donoghue placed the cup on the sill of appellant's window outside, and then went away. (Weekly Reporter, 10 January 1863, p. 211)


In this case the form was just outside house, by the front door.


  The second example shows evidence of a form within a public house, in Ballymacarrett in County Down, where Mary Jane MacNamara, “a well-known pickpocket”, was seen stealing money from the pocket of Michael Murphy, comatose (or at least rather the worse for wear):


The man was drunk, lying on a form, and about ten o’clock the woman went to him, put her hand into his pocket, and abstracted some silver. (Belfast Morning News 5 December 1866, [p. 4]


  Amongst many other examples comes one from Drogheda, in another case of breaching the Licensing Act at Mrs Mangan’s public house:


Head Constable Skelly … entered Mrs Mangan’s house [at 8 30 o’clock] and found a man lying asleep on a form; he awoke him and got his name. A niece of Mrs Mangan’s was behind the bar, and he asked her where was Mrs Mangan, and she said in Dublin. (Drogheda Independent 8 October 1910, p. 2)


  A second case involved another Mrs Mangan:


Sergeant Roche deposed that at 8.30 on the evening of the 10th inst. He saw a man named Daniel Casey stretched on a form in the defendant’s house; he was near the bar. (Kerry News (Tralee) 30 May 1913, p. [3])


  More recently in Dublin in 1962, a witness attending Portarlington Fair:


Went to Joe Brennan’s licensed premises with [the accused] and sat on a form near the fire. Quinn sat on a seat near the door. Wallace passed a remark about Dunne’s father and Dunne got off the form to move away. [etc.]. (Dublin Evening Mail 26 May 1962, p. 10)


  Joyce’s use in Ulysses was quite in keeping with typical usage of the day. There is perhaps a parallel in German, where the phrase durch die Bank (= “along the bench”) has come to be an expression meaning "all" or "everybody".


John Simpson

I am grateful to Ian Gunn for the reference to Seamus Heaney.