As in "The Sisters," an unnamed storyteller (possibly the same narrator featured in that story) recalls a transformative boyhood experience. Here, the boy schemes with his friends Leo Dillon and Mahony to play hooky from their exclusive private school one day in June and walk across Dublin, and then ride a ferry boat across the River Liffey to the Pigeon House. When Dillon fails to show up, the narrator and Mahony leave without him.
After crossing the Liffey, the boys chase a stray cat across a field and encounter a stranger there. The man quizzes the narrator and Mahony on the books they've read, and then asks them if they have girlfriends. After a while, the man crosses the field and does something that the boys find "queer" — probably masturbating. Then he returns. When Mahony leaves to pursue the cat further, the strange man talks obsessively to the protagonist (main character) about the need for boys who misbehave to be whipped. When the stranger is done talking, the boy leaves, seeking Mahony.
Joyce continues here the themes of paralysis and spiritual death begun in "The Sisters." This story's main character wants more than to play cowboys and Indians with his schoolmates; he wants "real adventures." But he knows that "real adventures . . . do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad." Thus, he skips school one day and sets out for the Pigeon House across Dublin with his friend Mahony.
Significantly, however, the two truants never reach their destination. Instead, they are waylaid by a pervert with green eyes — Ireland's nickname is the Emerald Isle — who becomes sexually excited when the boys discuss girlfriends, though it appears he is more aroused by the boys themselves than by the young girls they mention. At this point the stranger walks away to masturbate, a kind of paralysis because it is sex that does not result in procreation. After his return, the man becomes aroused again while talking about whips and whipping.
Although neither of the boys has been overtly harmed by the incident, their journey in search of adventure has ended unexpectedly, to say the least, in an encounter (their first, probably) with adult sexuality and the kind of spiritual death represented in "The Sisters" by Father Flynn. Note that both old men show yellow teeth when they smile; the colors yellow and brown are symbolic of decay and paralysis throughout Joyce's work. Ireland itself has foiled their attempt at discovery and development.
tea-cosy a knitted or padded cover placed over a teapot to keep the contents hot.
hearing the four pages of Roman History supervising a class in Latin translation.
michin (slang) playing hooky.
coping the top layer of a masonry wall, usually sloped to carry off water.
pipeclayed whitened with pipe clay, a white, plastic clay used for making clay tobacco pipes or pottery; possibly a foreshadowing of "Clay," a later Dubliners story.
mall a street on the south side of Dublin's Royal Canal.
air a song or tune.
to have some gas with (slang) to have fun with.
Vitriol Works a north Dublin chemical factory.
Swaddlers! Swaddlers! Dublin slang for Protestants.
cricket a game associated by the Irish with the English conquest of their country.
Smoothing Iron a bathing place on Dublin Bay's north side.
right skit (slang) great fun.
jerry hat a stiff felt hat.
totties (slang) girlfriends.
josser (slang) fellow; guy.