Analysis: Dive into Ulysses and you'll find much about cattle - and the economic relationship between Ireland and Britain

Leopold Bloom, the fictionalised protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses, is arguably the most famous advertising salesman in literature. What is less well-known is that Bloom is also connected in the novel to Ireland’s meat economy. 

The Blooms lived for a time in the City Arms Hotel, which was a popular choice of accommodation for Irish cattlemen and foreign buyers because of its proximity to the Dublin Cattle Market. In "Ithaca", we discover that Bloom was a clerk in the early 1890s in the employment of Joseph Cuffe, a Dublin-based businessman who makes his money from the sale of cattle and auctioning of pasture lands. 

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Bloom’s daughter, Milly, works in a photo-shop in Mullingar and the land around the town is particularly prized for the fattening of cattle. She tells Bloom in a letter that the shop "did great biz yesterday" as it was fair day and all the "beef to the heels" were in town. While this term can be a derogatory way of referring to a woman considered overweight, it is more likely here to be an allusion to a rural bourgeoisie created by beef-made wealth; Milly’s clients who can afford to get their photos taken professionally. 

This wealth is shown in the novel to be reliant upon a steady stream of beef cattle leaving the country for England. The funeral cortège making its way from Paddy Dignam’s house to Glasnevin Cemetery is forced to stop when a "divided drove of cattle passed the window, lowing, slouching by on padded hoofs, whisking their tails slowly on their clotted bony croups...Emigrants, Mr Power said." Bloom speculates about alternative forms that the cross-city transportation of cattle could take and he is in favour of the establishment of a tramline from the Cattle Market to the quays paid for by the more affluent cattle farmers. 

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Bloom is not the only character in the novel to devote thought to aspects of Ireland’s beef industry. In the second chapter of the novel, we learn that there has been an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Irish cattle. Mr Deasy has written a letter on methods currently being employed in Austria to treat the disease that he wants Stephen Dedalus to use his connections with the press to get published. 

Deasy has also contacted William Field, an historical figure who was a nationalist politician, one of the most prominent butchers in Dublin and president of the Irish Cattle Traders and Stockowners' Association. He requested that the letter be read aloud at the association’s meeting about the outbreak that is taking place later that day in the City Arms Hotel. Those attending the meeting, we discover, include a man purported to be running for mayor. The cattle-traders are thus established by Joyce as an important political constituency.  

Cowtown revisited: the Dublin Cattle Market in 1900. Photo: Robert French/Lawrence Photograph Collection National Library of Ireland

In contrast to Bloom's concern with practicalities, underpinning Deasy’s current obsession with Ireland’s beef industry is an abstract adherence to the laissez-faire economic doctrine. He opposes any interference with the market, even an embargo against diseased cattle. This fervent unionist is keen to tell Stephen that he remembers the Famine, but at no point does he acknowledge the discrepancy between Britain interfering in the market to protect itself from the outbreak of foot and mouth disease and its earlier reluctance to interfere in the market to prevent Irish people from starvation. The aforementioned steady stream of cattle leaving Ireland in Ulysses conjures up an image deeply engrained in the Irish psyche of the food stuffs that left the country during the Famine. 

The size and significance of Ireland’s export-orientated beef economy is not exaggerated in the novel. At the time of its setting, over half of Ireland’s land surface was being used for the raising of livestock, most of which was transported through Dublin on its way to England; a veritable assembly line of cattle as Bloom’s imagined tramline suggests. The slogan "roast beef for old England," recalled by Bloom when he looks out from a carriage at the herd of cattle that has halted the funeral cortège, points to beef’s status as a symbol of superiority within the mythology of British imperialism. 

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The additional mention of the "juicy ones" on the way to England suggests that this is simply another form that the draining of a colony of its resources can take. Bloom, who carries a potato in his pocket (a further reference to the Famine in Ulysses), thinks of the lost "fifth quarter," the potentially highly-profitable remnants of the animal that travels to England with the prized meat. Live export, which is what England demands, ensures that Ireland loses out on the subsidiary industries of what the novel terms "the dead meat trade."  

The Ireland of Ulysses is a colonial cattle pasture reminiscent of Sir William Petty’s plans for the country. In his 1687 "A Treatise of Ireland", Petty proposed the transportation of a million people from Ireland to Britain, with 300,000 left behind as herdsmen and dairywomen to look after the cattle that would feed England. 

While Petty’s plan was never implemented, the Famine achieved at least some measure of what he had proposed. The post-Famine "corn to horn" transition as it is sometimes called, with "corn" standing in for tillage more generally, is presented in Ulysses as a product of an unequal relationship, notwithstanding the benefits that it offers some in Ireland. More specifically, Irish agrarian capitalism is revealed in the novel to be reliant upon a bloated cattle industry grounded in Ireland’s colonial history with England and thus subservient to the latter’s requirements.  

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James Joyce’s portrayal of Ireland’s cattle industry in Ulysses is relevant to an analysis of the deep-rooted structural issues that resulted in a highly dependent and volatile Irish economy. The scale of this industry ensured that, even after Ireland gained partial independence in 1922, its economy remained closely intertwined with that of Britain. Moreover, the nature of the industry – export-orientated and over-inflated – meant that Ireland’s economic relationship with Britain continued to be underpinned by a power imbalance. 

While Ireland was an important food-source for Britain, the cattle industry was not under Ireland’s control. This can be seen in an agreement made by an Irish delegation to London in 1947 that the total number of cattle to be exported from Ireland to continental countries following the establishment of an Irish Republic would be the subject of consultation between the Irish government and the British Ministry of Food. 

Even to this day, Ireland's cattle economy remains a lens through which to examine the legacies of the relationshipb etween Ireland and England

It is by now commonplace for Irish commentators to note the irrelevance of Ireland to the Brexit vote. The focus in such discussions tends to be on the potential impact of Brexit on the peace process. But the vote also demonstrated a lack of awareness or concern about the extent to which Ireland’s economy was shaped around Britain’s needs, even after formal independence.  In Ulysses, Joyce uses cattle to explore the colonial relationship between Ireland and England. After formal independence and even to this day, Ireland’s cattle economy remains a relevant lens through which to examine the legacies of that relationship.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ