Simon Dedalus tells his toddler son Stephen a story about a cow who meets a boy named baby tuckoo. Stephen imagines that he is the boy named tuckoo, and that the cow is walking along a neighboring road, where a woman named Betty always sells candy and sings an old song. Stephen’s mind drifts to the song, which reminds him of the sensations and smells of bedwetting; thinking of the bad smell reminds him of his mother’s good smell.
As a toddler, Stephen perceives the world mostly through wide associative leaps. He is just as likely to pay attention to the people and sights in front of him as he is to follow the trail of a memory, often inspired by sounds and smells. The novel follows Stephen’s imagination, so it proceeds not in a straight narrative line but in wild zigzags.
Next, Stephen remembers dancing for Uncle Charles and Dante, his Catholic governess; Dante carries brushes that symbolize people named Michael Davitt and Charles Parnell.
Dante’s brushes show her support for Davitt and Parnell, two nationalist Irish leaders who headed the Irish separatist cause in the 1870s and 80s, an effort to gain Ireland self-rule from England.
At some point, young Stephen tells everyone that he wants to marry the girl next door, a Protestant girl named Eileen Vance. Stephen’s Catholic family is shocked. and Dante tells him that eagles will eat his eyes if he doesn’t apologize for his accidental profanity. Stephen makes a little song out of the threatening words.
In the late 19th century, when this story takes place, Ireland was a predominantly Catholic country. The small Protestant minority was by and large loyal to the British Empire and received many special privileges. The tension between Catholics and Protestants was both spiritual and political.