The Unimportance of Being Mulligan


To atone for his impertinence, Browne made his way to the Pro-Cathedral and encountered another John Mulligan, no relation to the publican, sweeping wedding rice from the church steps.

"How come," the cartoonist asked the sexton, "Dublin, with the largest percentage of Catholics of any city in Europe, does not have a magnificent gothic cathedral instead of just a pro-cathedral?" Your man answered, without a touch of irony, "We've got two: St. Patrick's and Christ's Church. We're waiting for the Prods to get out."

My brother, John Mulligan, retired deputy fire commissioner of New York City, went straight to that eponymous public house on his first visit to Dublin, even before visiting the lads at the Fire Brigade headquarters just up the street. He posed for my camera in front of the twin etched glass windows proclaiming "Wines and Spirits."

This venerable facade adorns the cover of a scholarly tome, Irish Pubs of Character, and has been reproduced endlessly on tourist posters and linen tea towels. "Is there a John Mulligan still extant?" the brother asked the older of the two barmen before identifying himself as a possible kinsman.

"Ach, no," came the answer. "The last in the line passed on quite some time ago. He was known to one and all as a decent old skin." To which a scowling chap in the corner muttered into his foam-flecked mustache, "Mulligan was the tightest old skinflint that ever pulled a pint. He wouldn't stand his own mother a glass in the middle of the Sahara."

My wife is a Murphy, a descendant of Irish kings, so she keeps reminding me. And high kings at that. To determine whether the Mulligans ranked even among the low kings, I ventured into the genealogy office or whatever they call it at Dublin Castle.

I was attended by a tall mournful looking researcher whose thin smile, as Daniel O'Connell said of Sir Robert Peel, "was like the silver plate on a coffin." After a brief search though the files, he photocopied for me some slender data that did indeed confirm regal forebears, not quite Irish, somewhere back in the Mulligan begats.

"The gaelic name is O Maolagain," the genealogy report stated. "The Mulligan family is descended from Milesius, King of Spain, through the line of his fifth son, Ir."

Well, I once heard a young priest straight out of Maynooth say from the pulpit that St. Patrick probably was born in Spain. So there's glory enough for you, even if there were letters to the bishop about his preposterous assertion.

The data further revealed that the Mulligans "were styled Princes of Meyliffey, and their possessions were located in the present counties of Mayo, Derry and Cavan. In the last named county, the Mulligans were hereditary bards to the O'Reillys," which may account for my own journalist tendencies.

The chap at the castle added, rather disinterestedly, that Mulligan may have been Anglicized from the Norman name Molyneux. Trinity College in the 18th century, I later learned, graduated three famous Molyneuxs: Samuel, an astronomer; William, the philosopher, and Thomas, a physician who was one of the founders of the Dublin Horse Show.

A French branch of the family boasted a Capt. Molyneux, who made a fortune as a distiller, not of whiskey or brandy, but of eau de toilette - toilet water. I purchased a spray bottle of the Captain's shaving lotion at the Shannon Duty Free Shop and found it to be potent stuff.

The flight attendant brought me three or four gargles of Cork Gin before serving dinner and, afterwards, when I gave my chin another spritz, a couple of Baileys on the rocks.

On this side of the ocean too, the name Mulligan has come in for some unflattering usage. In the 1880s, when unwelcome Irish immigrants were still flooding these shores, the Mulligan Guard was a sell-out figure of fun in the music halls.

Written by Ned Harrigan and performed with his partner, Tony Hart, the plays and skits lampooned the tenement-dwelling Irish on Manhattan's Lower East Side as drinking, brawling, dancing, singing amadáns with pretensions of climbing the social ladder all the way from shanty to lace curtain.

George M. Cohan might have rescued the Mulligan name from such cruel satire by fitting the spelling into the lyrics of "H-A-Double R-I-G-A-N." Instead, he chose to honor his idol, Ned Harrigan, who perpetrated these stage-Irish stereotypes.

Even Tennessee Williams, who kindly invited me to his New Year's Eve party when I was crossing to Ireland on the S.S. America, has two inconsequential characters, Lord and Lady Mulligan, in Camino Real, one of his more incomprehensible plays. I don't have total recall of that party, but I hope I was not the inspiration for these babbling bibblers in a Mexican bordello.

The "Mulligan" in golf, an illegal extra swing on the first tee after an errant drive, is a purely American invention. It is not granted or even known on any of Ireland's 350 golf courses, except maybe when some Yankee tourists are playing by their own rules.

As far as I have ever been able to find out, golf's original Mulligan was an affluent New Jersey dentist who was a deplorable hacker but very generous when it came to making up the annual deficit at his country club.