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Haines tries out his Irish on the old milkwoman, but she has no idea what he’s saying. She asks if he’s from the west of Ireland (where Irish is more commonly spoken), but as we know, he’s English. Stephen thinks about how impressed the woman is with the Englishman and the Doctor, while he goes unnoticed.
The irony of the Englishman being the only one who knows Irish is pretty straightforward. Historically, there’s a basis for it–the use of Irish dropped during the 19th century thanks to the Great Famine and the ban on teaching Irish in the National Schools. It survived in the West and in more remote parts of the island, but in “The Pale,” the area around Dublin that had the strongest British influence, Irish was largely unknown at this time. It was revived by the writers and scholars of the Celtic Revival, which was just gaining momentum in 1904. Because language nearly became extinct, the new Irish republic made it a required subject in schools–for a while it was a requirement to pass an Irish exam in order to get a government job. Every Irish student now learns it, but they don’t tend to use it, and the language is again gravely threatened. Joyce famously tried to learn Irish, but gave up after a few lessons.
Perhaps for this reason, whatever it is that Haines says in Irish is not in the text of Ulysses. Rob has come up with a clever solution–if you roll over the Irish text, you’ll get a translation. (This is true wherever you see foreign words in Ulysses Seen.)
You might be confused by the milkwoman’s question to Haines, “Are you from West, sir?” This is how the question appears in the first edition, the 1922 edition, of Ulysses, so that’s what we’re using. In later editions it would be corrected to “Are you from *the* West, Sir?,” but you get the idea either way.
Extra Credit: Whom do you think Rob has Haines is modeled after? Who does he look like?