Our Founder

John Bayley

  • John Stanislaus Joyce: The Voluminous Life and Genius of James Joyce’s Father by John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello
    Fourth Estate, 493 pp, £20.00, October 1997, ISBN 1 85702 417 6

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.

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