The Unimportance of Being Mulligan


Irish literature and lore shows Mulligan little respect. The very opening sentence of James Joyce's acclaimed Ulysses introduces Buck Mulligan, a ribald braggart who, before many pages, is borrowing a quid to "get gloriously drunk so as to astonish the druidy druids," making an utter fool of himself in a "jester's dress of puce and yellow and a clown's cap" and identifying Shakespeare as "the chap that writes like Synge."

Prof. Kenner wrote in A Colder Eye, a scholarly work on Irish writers, that Mulligan "was a gilded turd of a name. If 'Buck' is an 18th century honorific, 'Mulligan' is slum-grubby, a low name indeed: Mulligan, a class of stew. To call your man 'Buck Mulligan' is to liken him to a tramp who affects calling cards."

The American Dictionary of Slang defines Mulligan as "a stew, originally made by tramps, composed of odds and ends of meat, vegetables, etc." As a usage reference, it cites Jack London describing "hundreds of hoboes with whom I cooked Mulligans."

In underworld parlance, the slang dictionary adds, Mulligan is a synonym for a copper, the police, and in Australia the name personifies a professional gambler.

The calumny on the proud name of Mulligan is even more shocking in The Informer, Liam O'Flaherty's powerful novel set in the declining days of the Irish Civil War.

Gypo Nolan, the lumbering giant, points a "thick, short, hairy fore finger" at the sickly tailor Peter Mulligan and cries out before an IRA court of inquiry, "It's him that informed on Frankie McPhillip an' he knows that I saw him."

The real informer, of course, was Gypo himself, as monumentally portrayed on film by Victor McLaglen in an Academy Award-winning performance. Yet "The Rat" remains the loyal and innocent Mulligan's nickname throughout both the novel and Dudley Digges' film script.

Film director John Ford compounded the fracture of a proud name by casting that super wimp Donald Meek as the tailor Mulligan.

Songwriter Percy French, who memorialized Ballyjamesduff, near where my forebears came from in County Cavan, seemed on the verge of giving the family name a bit of a boost in Phil the Fluter's Ball.

The dancers shyly took the floor when "First little Mickey Mulligan got up to show them how . . ." But Mulligan had hardly stepped out to the "toot of the flute and the twiddle of the fiddle," before the brazen "Widda Cafferty" shouldered him aside and was "lepping like a hare!" And that's the last we hear of Mulligan at that grand cotillion in the town of Ballymuck.

The name Mulligan is not writ large, if, indeed it is written at all, in Dublin's Writers Museum. However, it does have instant recognition elsewhere around town.

Almost everyone you meet, especially over a jar, seems to have heard of Biddy Mulligan, the Pride of the Coombe. And any street urchin can direct you to John Mulligan's Pub on Poolbeg Street, a block or so off the Liffey.

Biddy Mulligan was a drag creation of the comedian Jimmy O'Dea, who decades ago topped the variety bill at the Gaiety Theater and played the boozy old trout in endless Christmas pantomimes. In fact, O'Dea dreamed up the character when he saw an old biddie come stumbling out of a pub near the Moore Street market.

His "Biddy Mulligan" was a boisterous street vendor who reigned as "belle of the Charladies Ball." Her turf was the squalid tenements of "The Coombe," a slum area near Christ Church and St. Patrick's Cathedral that was gobbled up by urban renewers long before the Celtic Tiger reared internet millionaires.

Even its infamous pub, The Four Corners of Hell, was gentrified into a lounge bar with plush velvet banquettes, a color telly and an unpronounceable Irish name.

John Mulligan's Pub is still there in Poolbeg Street, little changed since Joyce used it as the setting for the denouement of Counterparts, his only pub-crawling tale in the Dubliners collection.

It was this literary connection that brought young Congressman Jack Kennedy to Mulligan's Guinness-stained mahogany bar and earned him a place of honor, along with the Pope and the Sacred Heart, in the portrait gallery along the paneled back wall. The future U.S. President had read the Joyce story in a literature course at Harvard.

My cartoonist friend Dik Browne, who created the comic strip Hagar the Horrible, also was drawn to John Mulligan's pub by his enthusiasm for Joyce's "dear, dirty Dublin."

Having spent several days investigating both his own Irish roots and Hagar's Viking roots, he wandered into Mulligan's early one evening.

Journalists from the nearby Irish Press newspaper offices had just begun to gather. "So this is where Joyce set that famous arm wrestling scene," Browne enthused, hoping to strike up a literary conversation. "I can't tell you what a thrill it is to be in a genuine Joycean pub."

He drew nothing but blank stares and several turned backs. Finally a wearily wise barman leaned over and whispered, "Yank, a flea in your ear. Don't keep going on about that Joyce fellow. He's not very popular around here." Nor should he be, after passing the Mulligan name to Buck.