James Joyce: 1891-1898

The death of Parnell marked a watershed in Irish cultural as well as political life due to a new impetus given to the national movement by W. B. Yeats, Douglas Hyde, and others. It was also the occasion for a dramatic quarrel in the Joyce household when John Stanislaus Joyce and Dante clashed over their respective loyalties to the Home Rule leader and the Catholic bishops at Christmas dinner in 1891 - one of the most celebrated episodes in modern Irish literature. John Kelly (“Mr. Casey” in the novel) was the catalyst for those violent verbal exchanges, ending with Mr. Joyce’s grief-stricken cry: ‘Poor Parnell! [...] My dead king.” Mrs Conway left the household four days after and died apart in 1896. It is uncertain whether the dinner row took place in Bray or at “Leoville”, the new family home at 23, Carysfort Avenue, Blackrock, to which the Joyces were forced by circumstances to remove between late November 1891 and the beginning of 1892. [1] A Portrait and the evidence of Eileen Vance Harris favour Bray, which biographers since Richard Ellmann have accepted as correct but John Stanislaus Joyce has been shown to be the lease-holder of the Blackrock House as early as October 1891. This significantly complicates not alone our understanding of Joyce’s use of time but the mood at the dinner-table. In addition, we must question whether John Kelly was at the row at all. It is certain that, before the removal (if not as early as July 1891), Joyce wrote an elegy for Parnell which his father printed and circulated under the title “Et Tu, Healy”, thereby imparting to it a note of political acerbity that the sentimental verses hardly possess on their own.

By this time Joyce père was beginning to find himself in increasing trouble at the Rates Office. In spite of courageously defending his collector’s pouch from attackers in the Phoenix Park in 1887, his mismanagement of the sums collected had occasioned his transfer to the less congenial North Dock Ward area in 1888. In 1889 he had been placed on probation for bad behaviour, though within a year the marks against him had been erased. A pretended illness and unauthorised trip to Cork in order to canvas his own tenants on behalf of the Parnellite faction in the General Election of 1891 resulted in a note on his file. 1892 was to prove his annus horribilis: in May the Dublin Corporation resolved to take the Rates Collection Office under its own aegis effective from 1 January 1893, at the same time rationalising the rota of rate-collectors. A series of court actions for settlement of debts culminated in John Joyce’s name appearing in Stubb’s Gazette on 2 November 1892. This, arising from a loan of £130 taken out with John Lawler and secured with the furniture in “Leoville” resulted in Mr. Joyce’s immediate suspension from duties by the Collector-General. That in turn put his pension settlement in jeopardy and (tradition has it) it was only after a personal appeal from his wife that a sum of £132 per annum was assigned. In November, Lawler called in his bill of sale, causing the Joyces to remove at night on yellow cars destined for a less salubrious address in Dublin’s inner city. There, after a brief sojourn at a boarding-house on nearby Hardwicke Street, the family settled at 14 Fitzgibbon Street on the North-East corner of Mountjoy Square. Though still occupied by professional families - some in houses decorated with intaglios laid in the plasterwork (one by Angelica Kaufmann) as tokens of better days - the square was already what Somerville and Ross call it in The Real Charlotte, the epitome of lower-middle class vulgarity. It was also on the brink of the region of the city that Joyce would make world-famous as ‘Nighttown’ in the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses.

Throughout 1892 James Joyce conducted his own education at home in Blackrock, with some assistance from his mother, who quizzed him on the work he set himself. Once settled in the city, he was briefly placed in the Christian Brother School on North Richmond Street - a lowly religious order that was social anathema to Joyce père et fils. Release came through the good offices of Fr. Conmee, who met Mr. Joyce on Mountjoy Square and offered a charitable rescue in his new capacity as Director of Studies at Belvedere College. On 6 April 1893, James and Stanislaus entered the Jesuit day-school at the top of North Great George’s Street, not far from their present home. Established in the former town house of the Rochfort Earls of Belvedere (to which was added the contiguous home of Lord Fingall), the school catered for middle-class and professional Catholic families who more resembled the Joyces than the gentry-oriented milieu at Clongowes Wood. It nevertheless matched the senior Jesuit college in pedagogic essentials barring only cricket and an approximation to the English ‘public school’ régime. Joyce was more than equal to the intellectual challenge of the class-room. On the social front his actual circumstances (in so far as his peers understood them) posed a difficulty that caused him to intensify the air of independence he had gathered round him like a cloak in the previous year. Joyce made an early mark with essay-writing in a weekly challenge orchestrated by his English teacher George Dempsey, with whom he resumed contact in later life. During this period he read Lamb’s The Adventures of Ulysses as part of Intermediate Syllabus along with selections from Ovid and Caesar, the English romantic poets, and poems of Samuel Ferguson chosen for the Irish syllabus by the National Librarian T. W. Lyster. He also studied modern languages along with maths and physic (though never distinguished in the scientific subjects). His attitude to his studies was at once competitive and debonair and when he won a £20 award in the Intermediate Examinations for 1894 he characteristically doled it out in ‘loans’ to his siblings and spent even more on his parents in the form of a dinner at Jammet’s, the most fashionable Dublin restaurant. In the same summer he travelled to Glasgow with his father on a musical skite, also at the expense of the Intermediate Board. In the 1895 sessions, he retained the earlier award for three more years and took an essay prize of £3. All the while, his position of future bread-winner and ultimate saviour when his education would be over entered more and more into the hopes of the family and was more and more resisted by the gifted boy himself.

Those hopes were warranted, at least, by the increasingly desperate condition of the family exchequer. In February 1893 John Joyce was compelled to dispose of the last Cork properties for purposes of repaying Reuben J. Dodd - one of the creditors who had sued him in 1892 and whom he had subsequently infuriated by attempted to repossess his security on the loan by underhand means. (Dodd is a butt of satirical abuse and spurious charges of Judaism in Ulysses.) Joyce travelled with his father to Cork on this occasion and glimpsed the provincial life that had shaped the latter’s character and informed his self-esteem. The trip conferred on him the idea that the ‘slight thread of union’ between father and son was sundering due to the ‘gradual rustinesss [of] the upper station.’ In 1894 the family moved to a newly-built villa at Millbourne Terrace, Drumcondra, remaining there two years before trekking on in 1896 to 13 North Richmond Street (off North Circular Road at a dog's leg to its juncture with Fitzgibbon Street, and also the location of the Christian Brothers School featured in the Dubliners story “An Encounter”. Within a within a twelvemonth they had resettled at settles 29 Windsor Ave., Fairview. The family then migrated to 225 Richmond Road in May 1899, and by autumn of that year they were sharing a delapidated house at 12 Richmond Avenue, also in Fairview, with a Richard Hughes and his young family. A further exodus would be made to 8 Royal Terrace, Fairview, in May 1900 before moving within the year to an artesan dwelling at 32 Glengarriff Parade off the North Circular Road, again in autumn, and thence to 7 St. Peter’s Terrace in Cabra, in autumn 1902 - the last address that Joyce would share with his father. The uniform feature of this series of shifts and flittings was a continually downward spiral in the course of which John Joyce’s preferred method of departure was to agree to quit on condition of a good reference from the last landlord for presentation to the next.

If lack of security was one source of family woe, the drunkenness of the pater familias and his increasingly abusive conduct was another: on one occasion, shortly after the birth and death of Freddie in July 1894, James halted a physical attack upon his mother by jumping on his father’s back. The sequel was a policeman’s visit. Meanwhile at school, Joyce began to enjoy special favour with the incoming Rector Fr. William Henry, who was also director of the Sodality of Blessed Virgin. On 7 December 1895 he was admitted to the Sodality as a member and on 25 September 1896 he was elected Praeces (Prefect) with responsibility for all its functions. His devotion to the Virgin Mother was evidently sincere but a shadow fell across his reputation for devoutness when Fr. Henry winkled out of Stanislaus the information that his brother had engaged in spanking games with a housemaid in his parents home. (He had also experienced an orgasm when she went behind a hedge to urinate, as a much later confidence would reveal.) In the wake of this disclosure, Fr. Henry warned Mr. Joyce that he would have trouble from the boy, yet that did not prevent him summoning Joyce to probe for signs of a vocation for the priesthood - an episode which the writer turned into the linch-pin of his autobiographical narrative in A Portrait. There the priest’s skull, silhouetted against the window, together with a noose he makes from the cord of the ‘cross-blind’ amply prepare the reader for the young man’s realisation that his ‘destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders’ and ‘to learn his own wisdom apart from others [...] wandering among the snares of the world [which] were its ways of sin.’

The young Joyce’s acquaintance with the ways of sin remains a matter of speculation as to times and places. Living in a city quarter with a resident population of prostitutes in the thousands, he was bound to know about the sexual amenities of the area centred on Montgomery Street and known as the Monto (rather that ‘Nighttown’, the name canonically assigned to it in Ulysses). It was not until 1898 when he encountered a ‘gay’ girl in the street as he was returning from a play called Sweet Briar - licenced by the Lord Chamberlain in that year - that he engaged in complete sexual intercourse in the manner suggested at the close of Chapter Two of A Portrait: ‘her softly parting lips [...] pressed upon his brain [...] and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.’ The chronology of the novel would suggest that this occurred in the summer of 1896 when Joyce was stll under fifteen years of age; in reality he was approaching his seventeenth birthday. Besides the suggestion of enhanced precocity, the advantage for the novelist of transposing that event resides in the effective juxtaposition of his sexual offence with the ‘hellfire sermon’ that scarifies young Stephen Dedalus. The annual school retreats at Belvedere revolved around a series of sermons on the agonies inflicted on sinful souls by the fiends of hell and this topic, in the hands of Fr. James A. Cullen in November 1896, seem to have instigated in Joyce a period of strict adherence to the rule of chastity which lasted into spring of 1897. It was during that time that the obsessive round of ‘pious ejaculations’ (that is, short prayers designed to stave off carnal temptation) and decades of the Rosary were part of a spiritual system which he was observed to practice by his siblings. Undoubtedly this behaviour was triggered by guilt but the actual offence was unlikely to have involved a partner at this early stage. (Fornication is a more interesting but certainly a less frequent source of adolescent anxiety than masturbation.) Similarly, Joyce’s resort to the Carmelite Chapel in Church Street for confession probably occurred in the summer he left school rather than his second last year at Belvedere College. There ‘a man’s tale told by a boy’ - in Richard Ellmann’s phrase - may have received a more tolerant hearing than he would have met with in the Jesuits’ Church in Upper Gardiner Street where he would have been instantly recognised by the confessor.

Joyce’s adolescent bout of religious ardour soon gave way to an increasingly well-read enthusiasm for modern literature which he fed with books borrowed from Capel Street Library during 1897, sometimes instructing his brother Stanislaus to take them out in order to avoid censure. [2] (This resulted in the latter’s once being quizzed by the librarian for requesting a copy of ‘Jude the Obscene’.) The works of Thomas Hardy and George Meredith along with the anti-conventional writings of Shaw were part of his self-administered diet, but the transforming influence was to be Henrik Ibsen whose ‘spirit he encounters in a moment of radiant simultaneity’, as Joyce later recalled in the autobiographical draft-novel Stephen Hero (written in 1904-07 and published in 1944). Besides the social realism and ethical heroism for which Ibsen was widely celebrated, Joyce found in him ‘a spirit of wayward boyish beauty’ - a phrase that suggests that his capacity for intellectual discernment was still bound by the reflexes of fin-de-siècle aestheticism. Behind the youth-loving tendency so characteristic of the Symbolist movement, a much sterner form of egoism can be seen flexing its muscles - or as Stephen Dedalus would have it, ‘shaking the wings of their exultant and terrible youth’. When Joyce saw Sudermann’s Magda with his parents in March 1899, he told them that they needn’t have bothered going since they would soon witness ‘genius breaking out’ in their own household. A mind so constructed was unlikely to be mix easily with teenage schoolboys; yet, aside from defending Byron against assinine criticism in a tussle recounted in Chapter Two of A Portrait, Joyce was on good terms with his most able peers. He was a familiar guest in the home of David Sheehy, MP on Sunday evenings. In the company of the Sheehy boys Richard and Eugene, both at Belvedere, and that of their sisters Margaret, Hannah, Kathleen and Mary, he share musical entertainments embracing comic-song and ballads (with much scope for the Irish repertoire) as well as playing charades and mounting burlesque-versions of plays and operas in the drawing-room at 2, Belvedere Place. Joyce was generally more reserved than the others and was not noticed to show any partiality to the girls, though biographers since Ellmann have asserted that he was shyly infatuated with Mary, the youngest and reputedly the prettiest girl. She is, indeed, the generally favoured model for Emma Clery in Stephen Hero and her counterpart, the semi-anonymous E.C., in A Portrait - although Peter Costello has convincingly suggested Mary Elizabeth Cleary as the true original (if there really is one). It is this young woman who inspires in Stephen the verdict that ‘even that warm ample body could hardly compensate him for her distressing pertness and middle-class affectations’ in the draft-novel - though that does not prevent him from inviting her to share a ‘mad night of love’ which she promptly refuses with the rejoinder: ‘You are mad, I think’. His subsequent reflections on the matter have a ring of ironic self-regard: ‘It did not strike him that the attitude of women towards holy things really implied a more genuine emancipation than his own and he condemned them out of a purely suppositious [sic] conscience.’ (In other words, they have none.) An even blunter conclusion lurks in a marginal note by means of which Joyce reminded himself of the thrust of the episode in question: ‘Stephen wishes to avenge himself on Irish women who, he says, are the cause of all the moral suicide in the island.’

Joyce was the educational and social equal of the young men and women in whose society he spent the hours not occupied with his own extremely wilful and determined examination of life and its literary representations, actual and possible. (About this time he began to describe his art as ‘vivisective’.) He was not, however, an entirely eligible member of their society, chiefly because his progenitor cut a horrifying figure as a potential father-in-law but also because the long train of dependents whose presence would be felt as soon as the idea of family responsibility was mooted, thus precluding any suitable union under the practical conditions of contemporary Irish society. Joyce certainly knew this; his friends may have felt it only tacitly - especially the young ladies whose delicate nurture would have prevented them from contemplating the impact of the balder social realities upon their own romantic inclinations. The effect was to underscore a trait that was already well-established in his make-up: Joyce was essentially déclassé and prone to wander deeper into the frankly disreputable side of the Dublin life than any of his peers dared to, or dared admit to doing. To some extent those odysseys precluded his returning to the ordinary fold of middle-class youth. At the same time, it invested him with a frankness of appetite and a desire to meet the same frankness in his sexual partners which he was unlikely to find in among his educational peers. The obsolescent Parnellite opinions and improbable gentry pretensions of his father, both of which he perpetuated in a sublimated form - he wore an ivy leaf on the anniversary of Parnell’s death in 1897 - provided a further barrier. However ‘compact of pleasure’ they might seem, Mary Sheehy and M. E. Cleary were on a clearly-marked trajectory into the highest ranks of the new national élite rather than the embittered remnant of Parnellite Ireland. In time Joyce would refuse to pass the threshold of Gaelic nationalism and became a near-fanatical exponent of the complexity of the Irish colonial experience rather than a propagandist for its resolution through cultural and political activism. He was, in that sense, part of the colonial remainder. Mary Sheehy would marry Thomas Kettle, the preposterously young Economics Professor at the National University who died tragically in the First World War fighting in the British Army at the behest of John Redmond - like some 40,000 other Irishmen of the period. (Those other members of the Irish Volunteers who stayed at home formed the largest rebel contingent in the Easter Rising of 1916 while their successors went on to establish an independent Irish state in 1921.) One of Mary Cleary’s sons would be the next occupant of Kettle’s chair but one. James Joyce would form a relationship with - and eventually marry (if only for testimentary reasons - a semi-literature servant-girl from Galway in Nora Barnacle. In reality he was too good and not good enough for the Sheehy’s and had to content himself with writing of their family home as a ‘compact of liberal patriotism and orthodox study’ with ‘several marriagable daughters’ where it ‘was the custom to call a young visitor by his Christian name a little too soon [...] though Stephen was spared the compliment.’ Besides that, ‘the girls were somewhat colleen.’

Neither Joyce’s agnosticism nor his sexual libertinism were known to his mentors at Belvedere and he remained to the end a Prefect of the Sodality of Mary. (Some of his school contemporaries such as William G. Fallon were disinclined long after to believe that he had every been a schoolboy apostate.) His interest in religious mysticism was still sufficient pronounced in October 1897 to prompt him to buy an edition of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ with his prize money from the Intermediate Examination of that year. Towards the end of his career he fell out with Fr. Henry - already alienated at Joyce’s rejection of the proffered Jesuit soutane - when he refused to sit the Irish Catholic hierarchy’s cathetical examination, considering the Senior Intermediate a more important occasion. But for the pleading of his French teacher Mr. MacErlaine he would have been refused permission to sit for that examination either. In the school play mounted by the senior boys in May 1898, he adapted the mannerisms of Fr. Henry to the role of Dr. Grimstone in Anstey’s Vice Versa. In the event he won £30 for a second year along with £4 for English composition and a book-prize but failed to win a university exhibition. This time, when the Intermediate results were made known in September, he bought a copy of Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence from his essay prize.


Notes

1. In 1969 or 1970, the present writer (then in his early twenties) visited the house called “Leoville” on Carysfort Avenue, having taken the simply step of knocking on the unmarked front door. The then tenants indicated that the property belonged to the Dominican Convent on Cross Avenue. What was immediately striking about it was a pair of stained glass panes set in the front-door - one representing Dante and the other Beatrice, and both so-identified in a stained-glass caption at the bottom of each frame. Given the linen cap that Dante was wearing and his appearance of a somewhat-aged female aunt - in fact, the conventional Victorian image of the Florentine poet as deriving from his monument in Florence - it struck me as possible that the nickname “Dante” bestowed on Mrs. Conway in A Portrait derived from just this source.
 Mrs Elizabeth Conway (née Hearn) was certainly living with the Joyce family until shortly before their departure from Martello Terrace in Bray. History records that she left the family four days after the famous dinner-table quarrel about Charles Stewart Parnell - that is, on January 29th - and those events are normally assigned to the Bray household in biographical accounts of Joyce. Yet Ellmann tells us that the move to Carysfort Avenue took place between November and January 1891/92, there being no more certain information on the matter than that. On this evidence, it is possible that the Joyce’s were already esconced in Blackrock when Christmas-time came round. It is tempting, therefore, to revise the received view that the dinner quarrel took place at Martello terrace, as Ellmann himself also assured us.
 In these circumstances it may be admissible to summons personal memories of the interior of the house on the day I visited it - sadly, without a camera. In the diningroom, located on the ground-floor level at the front - looking out on what would have been the front-garden - there was a vintage mahogany table and, even more imposingly, a round gilt mirror with an eagle surmounting it of the kind known in the antiques trade as an Irish mirror. There was also, as I remember, a solid Victorian sideboard and a decent set of round-backed chairs to match the table. It certainly wasn’t hard to imagine this as the setting of the famous scene earlier in A Portrait where Joyce makes Stephen's mother say, “O Stephen will apologise” - to which Dante adds: “If not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes.” (This episode is taken as an epitome of moral terrorism in the Catholic Ireland of that era as if the Bruno’s bestia trionfans had set up shop to Dublin.)
 But can the same furniture have been in the house in 1891? The occupants informed me that the contents of the room also belonged to the convent - in other words, it was a furnished rental. We know from the novel and from family records that the Joyces flitted from the Blackrock house with their furniture on a dray but there is no indication that they set up another dining-room in Frederick Street. It is worth remembering that rented houses, whether in Bray or Frederick Street were often furnished by their landlords even though long-term rental property was more the norm in Dublin than it is today. In cases where the rented house had belonged to a generation of a given family and was surplus to present needs, it was most likely to be let with its original furniture intact. The Joyces’ removals wagon (or ‘dray’) need not, therefore, have been overcrowded. Moreover, the rooms at Frederick Street, though originally of Georgian mansion-house proportions, had probably been divided to provide a greater number of rooms on each storey - one of which the Joyces occupied. The present writer lived at 20 Mountjoy Square as a post-graduate student in the 1970s and grew familiar with the architectonics of “town-house”-turned-tenement at close quarters. By that time - after my return from an MA degree course in California - both the stained-glass panes and the contents of the house on Carysfort Avenue had disappeared, along with the east end of the terrace.
 In the life of Joyce which I wrote for the New Dictionary of National Biography - and which subsequently came out as a book in the Clarendon Press’s VIP series - I permitted myself to attach the Christmas dinner scene to the Blackrock rather than the Bray address. This was the only such indulgence in that writing, though there are sundry errors in it which I copied faithfully from Ellmann, whose biographical good sense let him down on some occasions - most dramatically, perhaps, in the assertion that Nora gave birth to a second child in the pauper’s ward of a Trieste Hospital while Joyce himself was laid up with Roman fever in another ward of the same institution - a scenario which has been dismantled by later students of the evidence.
  Almost as soon as the little book appeared, I was quizzed on the Carysfort detail by my old friend Bob Isaacson who had shared the grad-classroom with me in Santa Barbara, and who had married my college-friend Sally Malcolmson (Oh happy days!) On reflection, I feel that I lack the necessary evidence to make the case for Carysfort Avenue over Martello Terrace and would certainly revise that detail were I undertaking the same commission today. More ardently, I regret not photographing Carysfort Avenue as it was when I visited it before the blast of Irish modernity had obliterated the evidence. Yet the Dante windows and the ‘eagle’ mirror appear as clearly before my mind’s eye as they did in forty years ago and I cannot help feeling that some Joycean significance is assignable to them , as to all the house furniture - indoors and outdoors which he ‘epiphanised’ so astonishingly in his works. If Ɵstreet furniture’ is a prescient epithet in Stephen Hero in view of the treatment of such objects in Ulysses, then ‘furnit of heupanepi world’ is an equally telling (FW611.18) -
 Those Dante windows were extraordinary objects, but in their aspect as a radiant diptych which must have impressed themselves on the infant mind of James Joyce and as an example of a kind of cultural commonplace which, if actually none-to-common in the Dublin of that time, nevertheless expressed a certain sense of things shared and understood in the Irish urban culture of the day. It is a great pity that we do have have those windows to gaze upon - whether in their original setting or elsewhere. And this raises the question, where are they today? It is hard to believe, for instance, that they were shattered during the roadworks and shovelled aside or sold by occupants of any period into irretrievable anonymity in Ireland or elsewhere. How many people living today could vouch that they were the ‘real thing’ if they saw them today? I hope I am one of these.

2.Resorting again to personal memoir, in about 1976 I visited the Carnegie Library at Charleville Mall - a canalside quay adjacent to Capel Street at a location where Joyce later set the scene for Fr. Conmee’s reflections on turf and the providence of God in Ulysses - and found there a contemporary bound copy of cuttings from the Manchester Guardian (as then named) which included a report of the the speech by J. F. Taylor on ‘the language of the outlaw’, known to all Joyceans from the “Aeolus” chapter. (It happens that Joyce used the lending library here during teenage - as we know from Stanislaus’s My Brother’s Keeper.)

[ close ]
[ top ]
[ next ]