John Stanislaus Joyce: The Voluminous Life and Genius of James Joyce’s Father 
by John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello.
Fourth Estate, 493 pp., £20, October 1997, 1 85702 417 6
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Joyce’s prose is ‘beautifully written’, as they used to say. Written, like his poems, in the old style of the Nineties. Paradoxically, it is not composed but spoken. The voice that echoes through it, the voices rather, and the tones, are those of the old artificer, the father of the tribe, Simon Dedalus, John Stanislaus Joyce. Like the violins of Cremona, Dubliners, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake are the products of a joint concern, a family undertaking. Joyce himself was frank about this. As long as he had escaped he could still be in the bosom of the family. As long as he remained in Trieste or Zurich or Paris he was able to take the part of maestro, conducting the chorus of voices in the parlour of the grandest house they had once lived in – 23 Castlewood Avenue, off Belgrave Square, Rathmines – or in the back kitchen of some much more modest establishment. As Richard Ellmann emphasised in his biography, Joyce employed his father till the very end, requiring the particulars of the ‘Star of the Sea’ church when Pappie was at death’s door. In his last remembered words the old man replied to another of his son’s queries: ‘Tell Jim he was born at six in the morning.’ Unknowing, John Stanislaus died the begetter of what was to become the greatest of all enterprises in modern Irish mythology.

And not entirely unknowing either. John Stanislaus not only loved his son passionately but believed in him, and in his mission. To some extent he even understood it. He was certainly at home in most of the languages in which it was spoken. He was in his own characteristic way a great man. His son acknowledged this in the wry admiration with which Stephen Dedalus, asked by a friend to define him, speaks of his father in A Portrait of the Artist: ‘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 taxgatherer, a bankrupt, and at present a praiser of his own past.’ No wonder that two veteran Joyceans, John Wyse Jackson of the Chelsea Press, editor of Flann O’Brien and Oscar Wilde, and the Dublin social historian Peter Costello, should have been inspired to produce a full-length biography of, so to speak, Our Founder. It is in its way a unique undertaking. Hard to think of any other father in the history of literature, more particularly of literature in English, who made a comparable contribution to a son’s achievement. Many fathers, like Sir Timothy Shelley Bt, inspired their sons by disliking them, and having that dislike returned in full force as a lofty hatred. John Shakespeare – what about him? All we know is that his eldest seems to have treated him with a proper filial respect and managed to get him a coat of arms, which aroused the mirth and derision of Ben Jonson.

It would be tempting to see the case of Shakespeare as of some significance here. Had Shakespeare been an Irishman, which James Joyce in some of his most felicitous moments liked to imagine him, he would not be the Shakespeare we know. For one thing he would have been the founder not of a worldwide empire but of a potent personal mythology. As Coleridge long ago pointed out, it was Shakespeare’s genius to be in everything else while being in nothing himself. Historically, the English could be said to have been good at that. An Englishman who goes to Ireland is apt to become an Irishman overnight, but the same does not happen in reverse. Many, if not most Englishmen can and do claim to be partly Irish or Scottish or Welsh, but the claim is seldom made the other way round.

Joycean mythology was all-important. For one thing, as John Stanislaus was fond of claiming, ‘for generations no true-born Joyce has been female.’ The female element was supplied by his wife May, the unwitting instigator of her husband’s intense dislike for his wife’s relations, especially the females – ‘the sink of the Murrays’, as he referred to them – who must on no account be allowed to pollute the hallowed ground of the Joyce legend, or even the Joyce family plot in Glasnevin graveyard. John Stanislaus, ‘the only son of an only son of an only son’, was extremely proud of his coat of arms (as presumably was Shakespeare’s father: the Joyces and the Bard may at least have had that in common), which was based on that of the Joyces of Corgary, one of the ‘Tribes of Galway’ which had flourished in that area since the Middle Ages. The Joyces in fact were of ‘ancient and honourable English descent’, according to Hardiman’s History of Galway: a family of Norman-Welsh origin who had come to Connaught in the 1200s, intermarried with the O’Flahertys, and become, in the words of Jackson and Costello, ‘as the saying was, more Irish than the Irish themselves’. The first-known of the name was Thomas Joyce, one of whose brothers was Archbishop of Armagh, a seat he resigned to another brother, Roland, who was confessor to Edward II of England – no doubt an interesting job to hold where gossip was concerned. And no wonder that JS’s son James not only owned a copy of the coat of arms, framed as a decoration, but had it stamped on the cover of a volume of his poems he had specially made for Nora Barnacle, as a peace offering after a difficult period in their domestic affairs.

The ancestors of John Stanislaus moved from Galway to Munster and settled not far from Cork. The authors have dug out an immense quantity of Irish family history and present it in fascinating detail. James Joyce was gratified to hear his great-grandfather James extolled by one of the elder generation of Corkonians as a ‘fierce old fire-eater’. He had been a Whiteboy, one of the many bands of agrarian rebels who lurked in the mountains of north Cork and came down to raid the towns. There was a story that on one occasion in his youth he was taken and nearly ition carried on by his descendants; and a keen rider to hounds, which did not mean the family were considered to be of the gentry class: in Ireland as in England possession of a horse was all that was needed to follow the local hunt. He bequeathed to later Joyces a hunting waistcoat embroidered with hounds and foxes, which James Joyce received from his father and wore with great pride on birthdays and ceremonial family occasions. (Another of his prized possessions, as I recall, although Jackson and Costello do not mention it, was the view of Cork which hung on his study wall, and for which he had caused to be made a frame of the only obviously appropriate substance – cork.)

In a quiet way the family prospered, and John Stanislaus considered himself to be very much ‘the son of a gentleman’. Although nominally Catholic – John Stanislaus made a first communion in 1856 – the family had inherited the good old Georgian tradition not so much of freethinking as of religious indifference, a tradition rudely disturbed by the regime of ‘Papal aggression’ initiated by Dr Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland in the 1850s. Henceforth the battle lines were drawn, among Catholics as between Catholic and Protestant, and no one could have accused John Stanislaus or his son of religious in-differentism. Like the Parnellite celebrated in Portrait of the Artist, James’s father considered that women had become altogether too militant as a result of the dread Archbishop’s influence, and had much to answer for in the downfall of Parnell. As well as anti-religious this made John Stanislaus anti-feminist. Nonetheless, he and his wife sang in the choir of their Dublin parish church, for, as his biographers observe, ‘music and especially song became at an early age the central and determining feature of his imaginative life.’ He had stories about the great Lablache, a fellow citizen from Cork and the possessor of a wonderful bass voice, who had sung as a child at Haydn’s memorial service, and had been a torch-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral. He had also for a time been Queen Victoria’s singing master. John Stanislaus was proud of the fact that the Queen herself visited his native city in 1849, at a time when Cork, thanks to its export trade, was a more prosperous town than Dublin.

In Dublin he had soon become involved not only in singing circles – the Italian lady who taught him believed she had ‘found a successor to Campanini’, the celebrated Italian tenor – but also in the business of politics and electioneering. He had natural skills for both. For the rest of his life he would tell stories of the great election of 5 April 1880, when Maurice Brooks, the Home Rule candidate, was returned and Sir Arthur Guinness, the Conservative, defeated. John Stanislaus had nothing against the Guinnesses as such, although he personally ‘had the pleasure of telling Sir Arthur he was no longer a member’. As he was to remark on his deathbed, ‘I know this much, they make damn good porter – I wish I had a pint of it now.’

In the midst of triumphant electioneering, taking the credit for the Home Rule candidate’s victory and drinking ‘God’s quantity of champagne’, he found time to pay court to May Murray, the ‘delicately pretty’ young daughter of a Dublin businessman. Her father objected, and so did John Stanislaus’s own formidable old mother, Ellen, who showed her disgust by abandoning her son in Dublin and returning to spend her widowhood in her native city. She appears in ‘The Dead’ as the mother of Gabriel Conroy, who remembers her ‘sullen opposition’ to his marriage and ‘the slighting phrases she had used’. Old Mrs Joyce had indeed been a mistress of the slighting phrase, a talent inherited and also long remembered by her son, who passed on the words she had employed to the author of Ulysses and Dubliners. (Does anyone remember the skit Bernard Shaw once wrote on the way Shakespeare may be presumed to have borrowed phrases heard from his patrons, or at court?) James Joyce’s genius was plentifully nourished and supplied by a host of relatives whose language was channelled to him in his father’s memories – to the writer, that is what relatives are for.

And not language only. Farrington of ‘Counterparts’ in Dubliners was a disguised portrait of the father’s less attractive side, his hard drinking and the drunken rages in which he could be a terror to his family. Stanislaus Joyce, youngest son and namesake, and long-suffering author of My Brother’s Keeper, was grimly aware of how closely his brother Jim resembled their father, and of how adept both of them were in living at the expense of others. He also knew how little chance he had of winning any of his father’s sympathy where the behaviour of the adored favourite Jim was concerned. The saddest of John Stanislaus’s sons was tubercular Charlie, who became a telephone operator. Despised by his father, he seems to have inherited none of the paternal colourfulness, but he had the curious distinction of keeping open the British Army’s lines of communication during the Easter Rising by continuing to help operate the telephone exchange, uncaptured by the rebels. Neither he nor his father and famous brother seem to have been concerned about Sinn Fein patriotics, and one suspects that Home Rule had been for John Stanislaus an excuse for doing what he liked best. Charlie’s sister Eva was employed by father and favourite son as a messenger-drudge, but she drew the line at having to walk through the Dublin streets carrying the dilapidated suit Oliver St John Gogarty was lending to Jim. Gogarty, incidentally, tried to get his own back on the Joyces by doing a mocking reprise of their home life in his play Blight, in which a labourer named Stanislaus and his crippled son Jimmy feature as comic characters. The play is otherwise a serious piece with a self-conscious social message.

Jim was in Zurich, and the play was probably not seen by his father: neither had any interest in social messages. The son was too absorbed by his kith and kin, and by a vanished day in distant Dublin, to care about such matters. There must be few novels on the scale of Ulysses which have less concern with society or with the state of the nation. Like the artists of the Book of Kells, its author was doing his own thing, as penman of the family, in much the same sense that his brother Charlie carried on doing his job at the telephone exchange that fateful Easter.

The nameless guilt in Finnegans Wake was that of an ‘only son’ who inherited his father’s extravagance and his feckless ways, and didn’t do much to support him in old age, sending him only a little money and at long intervals. But the bond remained unbroken. The father shook his head when he tried to have a look at Finnegans Wake and murmured that the boy had gone off his head. ‘Why did he not go to the Bar? He speaks better than he writes.’ It was not only a shrewd insight but, in a sense, the old man’s tribute to himself, and to all those voices that had come from within the family. Just as the old artificer taught the son what he knew, so he also became a part of all his son’s characters, a Leopold Bloom of his native Cork.

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