by Bruce Stewart
Throughout his life James Joyce tirelessly revisited the givens of his own family history as well as the wider life of the city in which he was born, transforming the sluggish matter of experience into the imperishable art - as his autobiographical alter ego Stephen Dedalus concisely asserts in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Because of the intensity of imagination and technique that Joyce brought to the task, the web of memory and invention which resulted from this process not only provides an image of the biographical subject (to echo Eliot again) but also offers a unique insight into the character and complexity of Irish life in a period that has been to some degree occluded by the emergence of the modern Irish state, founded as it was upon a simplified version of the social and cultural realities of contemporary Ireland. Retracing Joycean biography today is therefore more a question of capturing the actual shadings of his social and political context than of making the wholesale political identifications associated with received nationalist ideology in the interim and in particular its notion of the ethnic and religious unity of the Irish nation. What one finds in Joyce is a dynamic process of an art and mind that confronted divisiveness at all levels with a more exacting concern for the truth of the being of the visible world than any other modern prose writer, Irish or otherwise. He also, to a unique extent, explored the peculiar tensions and fractures of the late-colonial Irish world, albeit on the brink of a new political formation from which he was ultimately to withhold his assent and approbation when the assumed the form of a separate nation-state.
To a great extent the final measure of Joyces literary art resides in his implacable resistance to technical, emotional and philosophical simplification, opting instead for the indefatiguable pursuit of unknown arts required by the attempt to construct a mimetic equivalent of that reality of experience which Stephen Dedalus (and arguably Joyce) identifies in the closing pages of A Portrait as the touch-stone of his aesthetic thinking . Indeed, from Dubliners to Finnegans Wake we may seek an explanation for the artistic means in the anterior complexity of the social and psychological experience which the Irish world made all too painfully available to James Joyce in his formative years.
John Stanislaus Joyce (1849-1931), the writers father, was himself the grandson of James Joyce, a man of property in Cork at the beginning of the nineteenth-century who named his only son James Augustine Joyce (1827-1866). The latters son was meant to be called James in turn but apparently this design was thwarted by an error in the baptismal register. The first James Joyce was an anti-clerical nationalist who was condemned to death for taking part in Whiteboy agitation but reprieved, presumably through family influence. He prospered in County Cork and in 1835 was joint-owner of the lease in a salt and lime works at Carrigeeny near the city. His son, born in Fermoy, entered his fathers business and shared in his bankruptcy in 1852. Remembered by the novelists father as the handsomest man in Cork, he married Ellen OConnell, a daughter of John OConnell, descended from the Liberators brother Maurice, on 28 February 1848. That marriage also connected him with John Daly, the Lord Mayor of Cork, and Peter Paul McSwiney, the nationalist Lord Mayor of Dublin whose name appears on the rebuilt Capel St. - formerly Essex - Bridge. In spite of a second bankruptcy, he maintained a family home at the fashionable Sundays Well suburb of Cork and held the post of Inspector of Hackney Coaches in the city through the influence of his father-in-law. John Stanislaus Joyce was born on 4 July 1849. During 1859-1860 he attended St. Colmans School, Fermoy, then under direction of Dr. Thomas Croke, later Archbishop of Cashel. In spite of the favouritism of Dr. Croke, his tuition went unpaid and he was removed. An illness experienced a little after was addressed by sending him out on pilot ships to emend his health, incidentally colouring his vocabulary in ways he would transmit to the next generation. Another patrimony was the taste for operatic music that infused the novelists sensibility so heavily: when his grandfather lay on his death-bed in October 1866 he sent his son to the Royal Theatre in Dublin to hear Mario sing.
In 1867 the young man entered Queens College, Cork, and passed first-year Medicine, winning certificates of special merit in the examinations (by his own account). Soon, however, his attention turned exclusively to sport and acting, with the result that he failed his second-year exams in June 1869, repeating unsucessfully in 1869-70. At this point he enjoyed an income of £315 per annum to which was added £1,000 from John OConnell on his coming of age in 1870. When high spirits induced him and three others to attempt to join the French Army at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, his mother managed to stop him at London. Back in Cork, he became active in Fenian politics before moving to Dublin in the winter of 1874/1875, possibly to elude the consequences. There he lived on his income, sailing in Dalkey and singing in public and private to such effect that he earned the name of a successor to Campinini, in the company of Barton McGuckin at Antient Concert Hall - a distinction to be echoed by his son when he sang at the same venue with John McCormack some thirty years after.
At the end of the 1870s Joyces father entered into partnership with one Henry Alleyn by means of an investment £500 in the Dublin and Chapelizod Distillery but suffered the loss of the whole sum when the companys funds were embezzled by the partner (an injury that Joyce would avenge in naming the disagreeable solicitor in Counterparts after him). During the General Election of 1880, he acted as Secretary of the United Liberal Club - a grouping with which he was only tenuously connected through the political alliance of Parnell and W. E. H. Gladstone, the Liberal leader. In this role John Stanislaus exerted himself to such effect Liberal candidates Robert Dyer /Lyons and Maurice Brooks were elected by a safe margin on 5 April 1880, ousting the Conservative seat-holders Sir Arthur Guinness and James Stirling. In recompense Joyce père received the post of Collector of Rates for Inns Quay and Rotunda Wards (later for North Dock Ward) with an income of £500 per annum based on rates collected. He retained this post, barely removed from a sinecure and expected to last a life-time, up to the end of 1892 when government reorganisation resulted in its abandonment. Flushed with success, he married Mary (May) Jane Murray, then ten days short of her twentieth birthday and ten years his junior, on 15 May 1880. May Joyce was the daughter of an agent for wines and spirits from Co. Longford - a family background that Stanislaus Joyce felt entitled to consider inferior to his own and often disparaged in vernacular terms (O weeping God, the things I married into). The marriage was contrary to wishes of both their parents, and John Stanislaus remained unforgiven for it by his mother. In spite of this, May was well-enough brought up to have been a fellow-pupil of Katharine Tynan - best known to scholarship for her correspondence with W. B. Yeats - at the Misses Flynn School at 15 Ushers Island where dancing, politesse and piano were taught. (It was later to supply a setting for The Dead.) In the event the Murrays lasted better than the Dublin Joyces; Mays sister-in-law Josephine (née Giltrap) was the older relative towards whom Joyce bore the most respectful, good-humoured and affectionate regard throughout his life.
On returning from their honeymoon in London, the newly-weds settled at 47 Northumberland Ave., Kingstown (later Dun Laoghaire). A first child, John Augustine Joyce, was born in 1881 but did not survive long. In December of that year John Stanislaus took out the first of a succession of mortgages which would regularly punctuate his economic decline in future years, beginning with two further mortgages in 1882 and 1883. James Joyce, the eldest son and first surviving child, was born at 41 Brighton Square West, Rathgar (in fact a triangle), and baptised by Rev. John OMulloy at St. Josephs Church, Terenure on 2 February 1882 - though erroneously registered as James Augusta Joyce. In the ensuing twelve years, May Joyce endured thirteen more pregnancies bearing four boys and six girls, with three miscarriages. The writers siblings were Poppie (Margaret Alice), born in early 1884; John Stanislaus, the writers whetsone, born in late 1884; Charlie, born in 1886; George Alfred, born in 1887 and killed by typhoid & peritonitis in March 1902; Eileen, born in 1889; May (Mary Kathleen), born in 1890; Eva, born in 1891; Florence, born in 1892; Mabel, born in b.1893 and killed by typhoid in 1911, and Freddie, the last, who was born and died in 1894. It is most likely of May Joyce that her son was thinking when he called the long-suffering maternal principle of Finnegans Wake Crippled-with-Children in one of her polymorphic manifestations: Sold him her lease of ninenineninetee [...] Thats what shes done for wee! Woe!
In 1884 the family moved to nearby 23 Castlewood Avenue, and in May 1887 to 1 Martello Tce. in Bray, Co. Wicklow - a rapidly developing seaside resort at the outer rim of the commuter belt connected to Dublin city by the train which Mr. Joyce took to work each day. The growing family now included two older relations in the shape of William OConnell, a widowed uncle of Mr. Joyce who had failed in business in Cork, and Mrs Elizabeth Conway (née Hearn), who had joined teaching order in Pennsylvania but left on inheriting money from two brothers who made fortunes collectively in excess of £45,000 in the colonies before dying of diseases. She married in 1875 but was reduced to family dependence when her husband absconded to South America with all her money. Called Dante in the family - possibly from Auntie but possibly, also, from a resemblance to the linen-capped image of Dante in stained-glass which filled a panel of the front door at Leoville (the other being filled by Beatrice) - she served as governess to the children and taught Joyce his letters. The balconied houses of the terrace, overlooking the Esplanade, were to figure later as the setting of a family idyll in which convivial singing parties with the neighbouring family of James Vance, a chemist and a Protestant, and lively visits from older friends including Alf Bergan, Tom Devin and - a somewhat sensational acquaintance - John Kelly, a Fenian who was incarcerated by the government and under the Crimes Act in 1887-88 and came to recuperate chez the Joyces. A man of forceful character whose dedication to the nationalist cause inspired the writer with a comparable sense of conviction (albeit of a different kind), he was known to Joyces father through Tim Harrington, the originator of the Plan of Campaign that linked Parnell with Land League activism however unsusceptible of court-room demonstration. Friendship with the Vances brought young Joyce into contact with their daughter Eleanor (called Eileen),with whom he attended Miss Raynors infant school. His childish feelings for her triggered the early exhibition of pious cruelty which he later used in the first chapter of A Portrait where Dante scolds the boy for saying he would marry her and tells him that the eagles will come and pull out his eyes. The Vances were Protestants.
In 1888 John Stanislaus Joyce sent his eldest son to Clongowes Wood College, a boarding school for Catholic gentry (those not educated in England) located a car-drive away from Dublin at Clane, Co. Kildare. The newcomer soon acquired the nick-name Half-past Six arising from his answer to a query about his age. As the youngest boy, Joyce at first lodged in the Infirmary rather than the Small Boys Dormitory but was nonetheless subject to homesickness and feelings of insecurity for some time. Harsher forms of schoolboy misery were visited on him when the class bully pushed him in a ditch, causing an episode of fever, and (later perhaps) he was beaten on the hands with a pandy-bat on suspicion of malingering after he had broken his glasses on the cinder track. Fr. James Daly, the Director of Studies who administered the punishment, is credited by school history with placing Clongowes in the first rank for examination results. He appears in Joyces novel under the name of Dolan and is depicted in the first biography - written by Herbert Gorman but closely monitored by Joyce - as an ignorant and brutal man with a washer-womans name. In daring to take his grievance to the Rector of the College, Fr. John Conmee, the young Joyce demonstrated a self-possession and an independence which were to be the salient marks of his character throughout school-days and after. The fact that Conmee, a bland and courtly humanist as Joyce told Gorman, effectually apologised to him reflects the esteem in which he was already held as a gifted student, though showing signs of irreligion as indicated by reports a little later. The educational pabulum of the school was a version of the Jesuits Ratio Studiorum adapted to the needs of the Intermediate Examination. The ethos was Roman Catholic and west-Briton in so far as the boys were prepared for occupations in the higher ranks of the British Imperial administration both in Ireland and beyond. Joyce sat in class with the son of General W. F. Butler, the most distinguished Clongowes old boy of the day. (For his recitation piece the soldiers son chose Charge of the Light Brigade). In addition to ordinary lessons, Joyce received piano instruction from Edward Haughton throughout 1889-91 at additional expense to his father. Though liking cricket, he took little part in school games and avoided contact sport. On 21 April 1889 he received First Holy Communion, and took the name Aloysius at confirmation in the spring of 1891. In early October 1891 he appears to have been in the infirmary again, possibly with amoebic dysentry resulting from his immersion in the ditch. This illness may have actually coincided with the death of Parnell on 6 October 1891 - an event which he conveys through the young boys fevered vision of his own demise in A Portrait of the Artist (Joyce was at pains to count off seventy-six days to the end of term in the school-boys calendar.) The convalescent child was soon taken home but may have gone back to school for some weeks before Christmas, as the return to normality in A Portrait implies. In any event he did not return to Clongowes at all in the new year, his fathers deepening financial straights preventing him from paying the outstanding moiety of his bill.