Tired of the forced and imagined adventure in life, the schoolboy narrator decides that he can no longer yield to the inevitable triumph of his classmate Joe Dillon in their games, as Dillon played ‘too fiercely for us [the other children] who were younger and more timid.’ As the narrator contemplates a romantic, somewhat American ideal of adventure, possibly symbolic of freedom and liberalism, he elects to make his own adventure with Leo Dillon and an acquaintance named Mahony. With each party agreeing to play truant, they all contribute sixpence to the cause before their departure the following morning.
Next day, when only two of the group present themselves, Mahony and the narrator reach an agreement to pursue their adventure as a twosome. Along their way to the Pigeon House (the target of their day’s ‘miching’), the boys have several encounters, where we see class divisions and religious issues at the time. Some other children they meet, described as ‘ragged’, confuse a cricket badge with a symbol of Protestantism. After an unstructured schlep around, the boys find their way to a field and decide that this will be their makeshift, compromised destination. Before long an old man accompanies them, whose refreshing talk of ‘sweethearts’ appears rather liberal and positive for the narrator, yet he still had a sense of unease about the man. The man begins a monologue of his feelings about girls and interaction with the opposite sex and pauses this lecture to commit an undisclosed but seemingly indecent act, with Mahony exclaiming:
"I say! Look what he's doing!
"I say... He's a queer old josser!"
Upon the man’s return, Mahony leaves the two others alone and the man continues to talk about how interacting with girls is punishable by whipping. This alarms the narrator who lets the man finish before shouting the made up pseudonym of Mahony (‘Murphy’) who, after a short while, responds and comes to heed the narrator’s call as he finally exclaims: ‘He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little.’
Joyce’s constant change of direction is evident in this story as we begin thinking that this is an adventure story of two boys, before a sudden shift in emphasis where we observe a rather eerie and strange old man who poses a threat of possible danger. It almost signifies loss of innocence in a sense that even the adventure fabricated is underwhelming and disappointing, creating the idea that this idea of adventure isn’t really possible in Dublin’s bleak and struggling state. There are subtleties within the story that hint towards a possible future of the narrator embodying that strange old man. The story is, though bleak, utterly thought-provoking. It provides a different outlook on life and storytelling, as Joyce combines the sweetest innocence of childhood with the perverse and immoral aspects of adulthood. In this way he evokes Dublin’s contemporary climate, particularly its religious dimension: the man’s speech about whipping boys seems entirely rehearsed, as though he has been raised in an oppressive form of the Catholic faith and inculcated with an obsessive sense of sin and punishment.
This story, and indeed the whole Dubliners collection, is not a particularly cheerful work of prose, yet I believe that an aspirational reader would relish the challenge and appreciate Joyce’s commentary on life.