More people start reading Ulysses than will ever finish it. It is a difficult novel to read, crafted as such by the author, who himself declared ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality’. Yet despite all this complexity tackling the greatest modernist novel of all is a rewarding experience. Some commentators note that this ‘Selective secrecy’ on the part of Joyce was in fact ‘a brilliant marketing strategy’ ensuring that ‘scholars still debate the mysteries of this obscure and difficult text’ ad infinitum[i].
I was intrigued to find out a few years back that the creator of the enigmatic modern hero, Leopold Bloom, had strong Leitrim connections and in particular with the parish of Gortlettragh. Joyce’s maternal ancestors were the Murrays, tenant farmers on the shores of Lough Rynn, about 3 miles south of the town of Mohill in the townland of Tulcon. Well-known local historian Michael Whelan wrote an excellent article some years back about the family. Joyce’s grandfather was a John Murray who was born in Tulcon in 1829. The infamous Lord Leitrim, William Sydney Clements acquired the Tulcon lands in or about 1862. He immediately set about reducing the number of tenants on the lakeside and took the best of the Tulcon lands into the Lough Rynn home farm. In 1866 Hugh Murray (granduncle of James Joyce) and family had been moved to the other side of the lake. They took up residence in the townland of Gortlettragh from which the parish bears its name. Hugh’s brother, Patrick Murray was the Parish priest in Carrick-Finea parish on the Cavan-Longford border and became well known in the area for helping to found the United Land League in Mullahoran in 1879.
By the time the Murrays had left Tulcon, John Murray had already established himself in Dublin. In 1854 he married Margaret Theresa Flynn whose family owned the iconic ‘Eagles Nest’ public house in Terenure. Margaret herself was the licence holder in 1860. The Flynn family were well known in business circles in Dublin where Patrick Flynn was master of a spirit store and later a starch & blueing factory, at 53 Back Lane. Margaret Theresa Flynn had two sisters Elizabeth and Anne Flynn who ran schools for piano and singing. It is believed the Miss Morkans of the famous short story “The Dead” is based on them. It was also said that Elizabeth Flynn may at some point have been a governess at the court of Louis Napoleon of France. “The Dead” was subsequently made into a feature film by John Huston in 1987.
In 1859 Mary “May” Murray, the future mother of James Joyce was born. May was an accomplished pianist, no doubt influenced by her talented Aunts. At this time the family had moved to 7 Clanbrassil St. It was on this very street that John Stanislaus Joyce, a charming, failed medical student, amateur tenor and incompetent business man met and fell in love with 20 year old May Murray. Joyce had moved to Dublin from Fermoy in Cork where his family were modest landlords and business people and firmly part of the rising Catholic middle classes.
According to Michael Whelan[ii], John Stanislaus Joyce was secretary at a distillery in Chapelizod where John Murray also transacted business. It is also known that May Murray and John S Joyce both sang in the choir at the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar. The young couple married in Rathmines Church on the 5th May, 1880 to the disapproval of both the Murrays and Mrs Joyce; the latter who returned to Cork after the nupitals and never reconciled with her son. On return from honeymoon in London the newly-weds settled at 47 Northumberland Ave., Kingstown. A first child John Augustine Joyce died in 1881 and their second, James Augustine Joyce was born on the 2nd February 1882, at their next home in 41 Brighton Sq. W., Rathgar.
John S. Joyce spent most of his life dodging creditors. After James the couple had three more boys and six girls. The youngest, Freddie, died in infancy in 1894. There is evidence that John S Joyce may have been violent towards his wife when drunk and at least on one occasion the police became involved. Joyce moved from job to job, selling off assets, taking out mortgages, moving house. Through all this May Murray-Joyce’s health began a long spiral of decline. Another son George died in 1902 and this was a huge blow to her as was James’ rejection of his Catholic religion.
James visited her from Paris over Christmas 1902 and she appeared to rally. Within a few months however she was confined to bed. She does not seem to have confided in James on how ill she really was. On Good Friday morning 1903, Joyce sent her a postcard asking her to tell him what was wrong, but when he returned to his hotel that evening he found his father’s telegram informing him that his mother was dying. May Joyce was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver but it is now believed this was a misdiagnosis and that she was dying of cancer. Joyce returned from Paris to be with his mother who lingered on throughout the summer in great discomfort until her death on 13 August. It is said that Joyce and his brother Stanislaus refused to kneel and pray at the bedside of their dying mother, despite being ordered to do so by his uncle John Murray. Mrs Joyce was laid out in a brown habit at their house at St Peter’s Terrace before being buried in a plot in Glasnevin Cemetery. A year later Joyce writing to Nora Barnacle said that when he looked upon his mother’s grey and wasted face as she lay in her coffin, he knew that he was looking on the face of a victim, and he cursed the system that had made her a victim.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Stephen Dedalus describes his father Simon – for whom John Stanislaus Joyce was the model – as having been a ‘medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.’
When he died James remembered his father to his friend Harriet Shaw Weaver in the following terms:-
“My father had an extraordinary affection for me. He was the silliest man I ever knew and yet cruelly shrewd. He thought and talked of me up to his last breath. I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults. Hundreds of pages and scores of characters in my books came from him. His dry (or rather wet) wit and his expression of face convulsed me often with laughter. When he got the copy I sent him of Tales Told &c (so they write me) he looked a long time at Brancusi’s Portrait of J.J. and finally remarked: Jim has changed more than I thought. I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition (out of which, however, the greater part of any talent I may have springs) but, apart from these, something else I cannot define. But if an observer thought of my father and myself and my son too physically, though we are all very different, he could perhaps define it. It is a great consolation to me to have such a good son. His grandfather was very fond of him and kept his photograph beside mine on the mantelpiece.
I knew he was old. But I thought he would live longer. It is not his death that crushed me so much but self-accusation …”
Whilst Joyce had a very dysfunctional upbringing his parents ensured he did receive a classical Jesuit education.
His extended family contributed many characters that appear in his works and he in turn gave the modern world its greatest novel. He may not have been over-enamoured with his Murray ancestors who had made their money purveying ‘grog’ to the city. In the cyclops chapter Bloom muses,
“Where do they get the money? Coming up redheaded curates from the county Leitrim, rinsing empties and old man in the cellar. Then, lo and behold, they blossom out as Adam Findlaters or Dan Tallons. Then think of the competition. General thirst. Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub”.
In the age of constantly changing fashions and almost a century since publication, it is remarkable that Ulysses still occupies such an exalted position in literature. My favourite story about the often cantankerous Joyce is the one in where he is confronted by a former British Officer shortly after the end of the Great War. It was the era of men recounting what military campaigns they had fought in and how they had helped shape history. Not been a part of the ‘action’ was frowned upon in much the same way as a draft dodger is in an American election campaign today. The seasoned British officer seeking to embarrass the Dublin exile in front of a gathering asked, ‘and what did you do during the War, Mr. Joyce?’ to which the prompt reply was ‘Why I wrote Ulysses, what did you do?’ I’m sure his Leitrim cousins would have approved.
“What’s in a name? That is what we ask ourselves in childhood when we write the name that we are told is ours.”
[i] Dr Sarah Davison, University of Nottingham
[ii] Michael Whelan ‘James Joyce Leitrim Conncection’ – Leitrim Guardian 2004 ed