Of every thousand people who claim to have read Ulysses, James Joyce’s enormous novel set in the Irish Metropolis, the second city of the United Kingdom on 16 June 1904, I reckon that nine hundred will actually have given up before the hundredth page. Out of the other hundred, ninety will see the experience as a sort of cultural penance but the other ten, Dear save us, will become obsessed.
Among other things, this means that Stephen Daedalus’ interview with Garret Deasy, the headmaster of the school where he is teaching only in order to earn money, is one of the few episodes in the book which most people who claim to have read it will actually have read, since it’s near the beginning.
Garret Deasy is not a simple character. To me, it seems clear that he is a Presbyterian: he represents himself as a descendent of rebels who then became unionists; he shows the Presbyterian respect for the value of work and of money; the characteristic, contemporary Presbyterian concern for the rights of the tenant farmer – he writes a letter to the ‘papers arguing that an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease would be containable and should not lead to an embargo on Irish beef – and a Presbyterian bluntness. If he was a neighbour of Stephen, Buck Mulligan and Haines at Sandycove, he might have been a member of, what was then, the Kingstown congregation. On the other hand, he might, actually, have been a Non-Subscriber since, later, fun is made of his relationship with his wife and Non-Subscribing Presbyterian women were especially prominent in the struggle for women’s suffrage.
I propose that Joyce may have meant him to be contrasted with The Citizen, since both deal with money – Deasy frugally, the Citizen as a drunken spendthrift; both talk about politics – Deasy good humouredly, The Citizen intemperately; both talk about the Jews – Deasy with a poor joke, the Citizen with violence.
Deasy is interesting in another way, in that he used to be viewed in a generally positive light by critics, but by modern ones very negatively. This is partly because he is a unionist, and a unionist must necessarily be a bad person; some critics actually refer to him as an ‘Orangeman’ and what could be worse than that? The other reason for this negative analysis is his northern bluntness, his willingness to say what he thinks unequivocally.
Actually, in spite of the pomposity and bluntness, he treats Stephen not only fairly but with a respect that a person in his position had no obligation to render. He also gives him some very good advice about life which Stephen entirely fails to heed.
The difference between the fairly positive view of Deasy which I reckon Joyce had and the almost exclusively negative one which prejudiced commentators take today is a timely reminder to us of the Truth that Deasy would have reckoned to be the Ninth Commandment and Stephen, if he thought of it at all, would have reckoned the Eighth:
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. (Exodus 20:12).