The swinging whiskers

U 18.159-61: Mina Purefoys husband give us a swing out of your whiskers filling her up with a child or twins once a year

Gifford tells his readers that give us a swing out of your whiskers is an expression from the West of Ireland meaning “Preserve me from the story you’re telling”. But, as Dent was the first to point out, there is no documentary evidence to support this reading and “it does not obviously fit the context”.1 Bloom’s interior monologue has already informed us in the Lestrygonians episode about Mr Theodore Purefoy’s impressive growth of facial hair: “Still his muttonchop whiskers grew” (U. 8.360-1). And in the Cyclops episode we are told by the scoffing I-narrator that Queen Victoria in her dotage supposedly pulled her coachman’s whiskers when he put her into bed and sang him old bits of songs. (U. 1395-7).

Whiskers were such a conspicuous feature that they invited often mocking comment. Poking fun at the supposedly stuffy, self-important wearer by making him subject to the ridiculous image of someone swinging from his dangling whiskers seems to have come naturally in Edwardian times. This is a first hint at a childish use to which whiskers could be put, and documentary evidence confirms that this is the most promising lead to an understanding of Molly’s baffling phrase:

Mr M’Gregor was greeted with ironic cheers and cries of "whiskers". He was quite imperturbable though and waited till the riot subsided. "I want," he commenced, "I want" – "To swing on your whiskers," chirped a voice. After the uproar had subsided, he said he was there to give them facts and figures of what No-licence had done to Masterton; but for some time, although he continued speaking his remarks were not audible at the press table.

Evening Post (Wellington, New Zealand) (1911), 2 December, p. 5

To the Editor

Sir. – There appeared in your columns of February 24 a letter signed by Tom Giller attacking Mr Neiderer because he admits he is a moderate, and slandering Burns, the great Scottish bard. Tom Giller, I would like to have a swing on your whiskers. You ask what did old Burns’s "An' here’s a han my trusty frien'" do for him poor fellow but land him in a premature drunkard’s grave. Burns does not require any “poor fellow” from Tom Giller.

Southland Times (Invercargill, New Zealand) (1919), 26 February, p. 6

The second source above is reminiscent of Molly’s aggressive invitation to the proud possessor of whiskers to allow their use as a swing for either himself or others. A feature we find repeated in Sean O’Casey’s autobiographical memory of a church service conducted by the awe-inspiring rector, the Reverend Hunter:

- How would you like to have a swing outa Hunter’s whiskers? asked Massey.

Johnny said hush, and giggled, screwed up his face seriously, for he was afraid he would laugh out loud at the picture rushing into his mind of Hunter yellin' 'n yelling while he was swingin' outa his whiskers, swing-swong swing-swong […]

Sean O’Casey, "I Knock at the Door", in Autobiographies (1984), p. 108

As O’Casey shows, the phrase implied some kind of punishment for the vanity and folly of the person thus addressed:

"On'y just let — me ger 'old o' owd Kroo-ger. an' I'll, I'll, I'll — swing on his whiskers." It was out. There was no disguising the fact. He had used a sanguinary word to qualify the President of South Africa's whiskers.

The Idler (1901), vol. 18, p. 386

What 'Varsity man would care to run a ten miles race, say, against one harrier of repute who once threatened to "swing on the whiskers" of a Wolverhampton waiter if he did not bring him something to eat?

Baily's Magazine of Sports & Pastimes (1907), vol. 87, p. 364

The documentation compiled here leaves little doubt that Gifford’s explanation is neither here nor there as regards Molly’s spiteful aside on the upright, self-serving Methodist who makes his wife methodically pregnant without giving a thought to her physical well-being. As Molly puts it in the lines immediately preceding:

nice invention they made for women for him to get all the pleasure but if someone gave them a touch of it themselves theyd know what I went through (18.157-9)

Swinging out of Theodore Purefoy’s whiskers might be the “touch” required.

Harald Beck


1 R. W. Dent, Colloquial Language in Ulysses (Newark: 1994), p. 255.

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