The tryptich of the three men is quite wonderful here. Despite the clarity of the arrangement, however, the politics of this moment are quite complex.
Haines, the Englishman, asks about the tower, “Martello, you call it?,” apparently unaware of who built the towers or why, or how they represent a particularly painful moment in British/Irish relations. Mulligan explains that the famous British Prime Minister William Pitt had them built “when the French were on the sea,” that is, at a moment when many Irish people hoped that Napoleon would invade Ireland and free them from British rule. So the towers were build not purely for the defense of Ireland, but rather to defend against an invasion that a significant number of natives would have welcomed.
Mulligan is quoting to an Irish song called the “Shan van Vocht,” a/k/a the Poor Old Woman, in which the nation of Ireland, in her frequent guise as an old woman, sings about how the French will soon come to save them from the devils who rule Great Britain, of the House of Orange (“and the Orange will decay,” etc.), and who, after the Battle of the Boyne, will rule Ireland without rival for a long time. Of course the old woman is wrong, and the French never came. But it’s an Irish song, so this all has a nostalgic glow to it anyway.
Here is a latter-day Mulligan, Haines, and Dedalus doing a bit of a dance that is reminiscent of Joyce’s famous “spider dance” to the same tune:
Mulligan quickly redirects Haines away from this line of thought by saying that the tower now serves as the “omphalos,” or center, of modern Irish thought. In talking about the last page, we mentioned how Mulligan’s real-life counterpart Oliver Gogarty hoped that the tower would become a new capital of Irish bohemian intellectualism, and that Joyce would play a significant part in this.
Haines is quite interested in Irish culture, but not contemporary Irish intellectuals. As we will soon hear more about, when Haines looks at the tower he thinks, naturally, of the greatest English poet, Shakespeare.