Stephen's inability to read "the Greeks" in "the original" mirrors the author's, and Joyce regretted this deficiency. But Mulligan's display of familiarity with the language seems more pretentious than impressive.
Epi oinopa ponton is probably the most familiar ancient Greek phrase on the planet, and Thalatta! Thalatta! likewise is something that a beginning student of Greek might take away from his Xenophon. Spraying around quotations like these hardly does Mulligan credit as a scholar.
Joyce was a gifted linguist. The Jesuits taught him Latin, and he excelled in it. He taught himself Dano-Norwegian in order to read Ibsen’s plays in the original. He learned enough French to live in Paris, enough Italian to live in Trieste, and enough German to live in Zurich. Finnegans Wake contains echoes of nearly 70 languages. But the writer who modeled his first great masterpiece on the Odyssey never learned classical Greek.This ignorance abashed him. Richard Ellmann reproduces a June 1921 letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver in which Joyce observes,
I don’t even know Greek though I am spoken of as erudite. My father wanted me to take Greek as third language, my mother German and my friends Irish. Result, I took Italian. I spoke or used to speak modern Greek not too badly (I speak four or five languages fluently enough) and have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onionsellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck (512).He felt the same way about the Greek colors in which the first edition of Ulysses was bound: white letters on a carefully chosen sea-blue background. They brought him luck (524).
Despite his lack of classical Greek, Joyce’s choice of Homer as the model on which to base his epic reflects a determination no less fervent than Mulligan’s to bring Ireland into the long European tradition of learning and art that began with the Greeks. Ellmann astutely observes that “Gogarty spoke of Hellenizing Ireland, Joyce (who knew no Greek) of Europeanizing it” (118). Ireland was a cultural backwater made stagnant by religious piety and colonial domination, and could not come into its own simply by turning inward. In the lecture titled "Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages," Joyce lamented the present backwardness of his nation and expressed hope that it would "resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north some day."