I hate thee, Djaun Bool

Denis Donoghue

On 15 February 1902, James Joyce, aged 20, read a paper on James Clarence Mangan to the Literary and Historical Society of what is now University College, Dublin. It was a brash performance. Joyce spoke as if he were introducing an unknown poet, and chose to ignore the facts that there were several collections of Mangan’s poems at large and that his life and work had been extensively written about. ‘Mangan has been a stranger in his country,’ Joyce claimed, ‘a rare and unsympathetic figure in the streets, where he is seen going forward alone like one who does penance for some ancient sin.’ Joyce was evidently more interested in Mangan’s temperament than in his poems and essays: Mangan’s ‘purely defensive reserve’, he said, ‘is not without dangers for him, and in the end it is only his excesses that save him from indifference’. Joyce recalled the passage, then already famous, in which Walter Pater completed his ‘imaginary portrait’ of Watteau: ‘He has been a sick man all his life. He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all.’ Swaying to Pater’s cadences, Joyce said of Mangan that he was

weaker than Leopardi, for he has not the courage of his own despair but forgets all ills and forgoes his scorn at the showing of some favour. He has, perhaps for this reason, the memorial he would have had – a constant presence with those that love him – and bears witness, as the more heroic pessimist bears witness against his will to the calm fortitude of humanity, to a subtle sympathy with health and joyousness which is seldom found in one whose health is safe.

Joyce’s portrait is entirely sympathetic, as if he saw in Mangan’s life a companionable image of his own wretchedness in Dublin, falling from domestic comfort into a state close to destitution.

James Mangan – ‘Clarence’ was a later addition – was born in Dublin on 1 May 1803, ‘amid scenes of blasphemy and riot’, if we are to credit a fragment of autobiography he wrote in the last months of his life. As epigraph to that bizarre document, Mangan quoted two lines he claimed to have found in Philip Massinger, though no one else has found them there: ‘A heavy shadow lay/On that boy’s spirit: he was not of his fathers.’ Mangan was the second son of James Mangan and his wife, Catherine. His father, for a time a teacher in a hedge school, married into a fairly successful grocery and spirits business and soon put an end to its prosperity. In 1810 the boy started school at Saul’s Court, a Jesuit establishment, but before long he was moved to another school and then another, probably because his parents thought he was eccentric, if not demented. In 1818, to support them, he was apprenticed as a scrivener to the first of several law firms. In his autobiography he blamed his father for his woes:

He was of an ardent and forward-bounding disposition, and, though deeply religious by nature, he hated the restraints of social life, and seemed to think that all feelings with regard to family connections, and the obligations imposed by them, were totally beneath his notice. Me, my two brothers and my sister, he treated habitually as a huntsman would treat refractory hounds. It was his boast, uttered in pure glee of heart, that we ‘would run into a mouse-hole’ to shun him … To him I owe all my misfortunes.

‘And in the lowest deep a lower deep’, to quote one of Mangan’s favourite lines from Paradise Lost.

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