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My journey into Joyce

My journey into Joyce

How Michael Peart got into judging Joyce’s genius



This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first publication of James Joyce's Ulysses. Michael Peart shares how he first dipped into that seminal work, with the hope that he will inspire others to investigate Joyce the writer, and Joyce the man.

I am not a ‘Joycean scholar’. I am an enthusiastic amateur, whose interest in things Joycean was sparked serendipitously in the summer of 1966 as I commenced my apprenticeship in my father’s office at 27 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin 7.

My journey into Joyce
Milo O’Shea in Ulysses: “subversive of public morality”

My journey into Joyce
Portrait of John Stanislaus Joyce by Patrick J Touhy

I recall a bright sunny afternoon that year as I gazed out of the second-floor window at a crowd gathered on the other side of the River Liffey outside The Irish House, a licensed premises then situated at the corner of Wood Quay and Winetavern Street.

That pub was a beautiful Victorian hostelry, famed for its remarkable ornate stucco plasterwork on the exterior depicting, among other things, life-size figures of Daniel O’Connell and Henry Grattan addressing parliament.

Unforgivably, it was soon to be demolished as part of a site-clearing exercise on Wood Quay to make way for the Dublin City Council offices, which obliterated over a thousand years of Dublin’s history. It is tempting to wonder what Mr Joyce would have made of that.

My curiosity brought me across the bridge at the Four Courts to see what was happening. I soon discovered that a scene for a film was being shot, which turned out to be Ulysses, directed by Joseph Strick. The scene was part of the ‘Cyclops’ chapter in Ulysses, which is set in and outside Barney Kiernan’s pub on Little Britain Street, close to Green Street Courthouse. That pub was closed by 1966, though the building itself remained. But The Irish House was clearly an excellent substitute.

Rowdy scene

I can clearly recall a rowdy scene being filmed outside the pub. The well-known actor Milo O’Shea (as Leopold Bloom) was to be seen atop a conveyance of some kind, exclaiming at the top of his voice as he was driven off into the distance: “Well his uncle was a Jew ... Your God was a Jew … Christ was a Jew like me.”

Not untypically for a Dublin pub, there had been an earlier exchange of views inside the pub with, among others, ‘The Citizen’, which bore upon the Jewish origins of Mr Bloom. That discussion had led to the landlord ordering everybody out of the premises. Some things do not alter over time!

That scene has remained a memory ever since. My teenage interest in Ulysses increased exponentially with the news, a year later, that the film had been banned in Ireland because it was “subversive of public morality” – a ban not lifted until September 2000. It is now freely available on YouTube and, while somewhat dated, is still well worth a watch. It was nominated for an Oscar for ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’.

Beyond reading Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I did not pursue my interest in Joyce, and in particular Ulysses, until 1988. That year, Dublin celebrated its millennium, and to mark that event I determined to complete a reading of Ulysses.

This turned out to be a challenging but fulfilling undertaking, which, in the years that followed, led to the reading of many books in and around the life and writings of Joyce, including biographies of his wife Nora Barnacle, his daughter Lucia, and of his father John Stanislaus Joyce. Sadly, there is not, so far as I know, a biography of Joyce’s mother, May.

Beyond my powers

I have not succeeded in reading Finnegans Wake. I have decided that it is beyond my powers. I even bought A Readers Guide to Finnegans Wake, and failed to understand much of that either! But who knows – maybe I will devote some of my remaining years to that task.

I would encourage anyone, who has not already done so, to venture into the world of Joyce. An ideal beginning is to read the wonderful short stories in Dubliners, and then Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Thereafter, I would recommend beginning the adventure into Ulysses by confining your reading to the first four chapters, and to take them slowly.

In his writing, Joyce was fearless, provocative, argumentative, raw, savage, angry, honest, vulgar, and courageous. Other adjectives can be added, but those suffice for now. I feel he inherited these qualities from his father John Stanislaus – a larger-than-life, drinking, garrulous and aggressive Corkman whose qualities, I have heard it said, can be found in ‘The Citizen’ character in the ‘Cyclops’ episode.

But Joyce could write with exquisite tenderness too – a quality, I suspect, that was an inheritance from his long-suffering and devoted mother, May. Take, for example, the beauty and tenderness in Eveline – one of my favourite stories in Dubliners, and in particular Eveline’s final agonising, climactic parting from Frank at the dockside, as the boat to England on which they were both to sail is about to leave without her.

Take also the final utterly heartbreaking scene set in the Gresham Hotel in The Dead, where Gretta breaks down at the memory of the delicate young Michael Furey, a lad she had known in Galway years previously, and who she believed had died of a broken heart when she left for Dublin.

Art imitating life

Joyce’s art imitated his life – save perhaps that the perfection of the former was often lacking in the latter. He will not have been an easy man to live with – his wife Nora and his younger brother Stanislaus (“his keeper”) would attest to that, despite his devotion to, and dependence on, both of them.

Joyce was a genius – though, for many years, this would have passed unnoticed by the world he shunned; other than those close to him who breathed the same clear air of the exile (whether in Trieste, Zurich or Paris), or had taught him as a precocious schoolboy in Clongowes Wood College, or later in Belvedere College.

As with many whose prodigious talents bring them beyond the ordinary and into a stratosphere whose air only a chosen few can breathe, Joyce’s life – both literary and domestic – presented challenges, both for him and for those around him.

The intensity of his intellect, and his selfish and selfless pursuit of his life’s work, drove Joyce relentlessly where no writer in any language (except, perhaps, Proust) had ventured before or since, and eventually to his own physical exhausted destruction.

Joyce’s genius was a seedling bestowed upon him at conception. The fertile ground in which that seed first saw light and flourished was the love of his devoted mother.

Cruel and unusual punishment

Her short life was one of cruel and unusual punishment meted out by an oft-drunken husband, some ten years older than her, and whose preference for the pursuit of his own pleasures and entertainment at the expense of his spousal and paternal duties ensured the Joyce family’s gradual descent from a middle-class life of relative comfort to a life of overcrowded and miserable penury in a multiplicity of rented accommodations throughout the county and city of Dublin.

Between her marriage at the age of 21 in 1880 and her death at the age of 44 in 1903, May gave birth to 13 children, the eldest of whom died eight days after his birth, and two more who died at birth. Of the ten children who survived, James was the eldest.

Pretence of affluence

John Stanislaus had inherited a decent portfolio of property in Cork upon his father’s death in 1866. But he borrowed heavily and constantly against these properties after he moved to Dublin, in order to maintain the pretence of comfortable affluence that his salary as a rates collector did not support. Eventually, he lost his job due to the neglect of his duties, and, to put it kindly, some alleged loose accounting.

In due course, all his properties were sold to pay off his creditors, leaving him encumbered only with his wife and ten children. Thereafter, John Stanislaus struggled to provide for his family who endured a life of poverty, and indeed some cruelty, for he was a heavy drinker.

Despite this life of deprivation that the young James Joyce was forced to endure in Dublin prior to his lifelong, self-inflicted exile in Europe, and despite never seeing his father again following his final visit to Dublin in 1912, John Stanislaus remained a seminal influence on his eldest son’s writing. A very strong mutual bond of love endured between them to the end. They never met again, but many letters were sent back and forth.

Pater familias

Joyce fully acknowledged his father’s many faults, but stated in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver (his patron) in January 1932 (a few weeks after his father’s death) that his father had given him “hundreds of pages and scores of characters for his books, as well as his portrait, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition (out of which the greater part of any talent I may have springs); but apart from these, something else I cannot define”.

The aforementioned portrait of John Stanislaus Joyce (above) is magnificent. It is by an artist named Patrick J Touhy, and Joyce kept it at home always. It now hangs at the State University of New York in Buffalo, and graces the cover of the biography of John Stanislaus Joyce, by John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello.

I say it is magnificent, because it was painted in about 1923 when John Stanislaus was 73. The angry, cantankerous aggression of his character is visible in his face, as well as, I think, a certain fear of his parlous state in life, and what the future might hold for him in his old age. There is also a visible sense of sadness and tragedy.

A knowledge of John Stanislaus is important for a complete understanding of Joyce’s writing. So much of his work is inspired by his own childhood experiences growing up within his dysfunctional family that, in order to understand Joyce, one must understand the pater familias who bore responsibility for that dysfunction.

I expect that, for all but a few solicitors, the Joycean labyrinth is a dark and impenetrable place into which few will dare to enter, lest (not having a ball of thread with which, like Theseus in search of the Minotaur, to retrace their steps) they never regain the light.

I have written this short piece as an encouragement to those who, like the young apprentice I was in 1966, need a spark to light the fuse of interest in Joyce the writer, and Joyce the man. It is a journey well worth embarking upon.

Michael Peart is a solicitor and retired judge of the Court of Appeal.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.