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James Joyce and the Jesuits: a sort of homecoming

30 November, 1999

Jesuit priest Bruce Bradley looks at the complicated relationship between James Joyce and his educational mentors.

The year 1904 was pivotal in James Joyce’s life. On 16 June 1904, aged 22, he had his first date with a hotel chamber-maid from Galway called Nora Barnacle. She was two years his junior and he had met her by chance in a Dublin street a few days earlier. They quickly fell in love and, less than four months later, eloped to the continent. When he wrote his most famous novel, Ulysses, begun in 1916 and published in 1922, he set the entire action on that special date as a tribute to Nora.

Writing in his diary on the twentieth anniversary of what had already, even in 1924, become known as ‘Bloomsday’ (after Leopold Bloom, the principal character and central consciousness of Ulysses), Joyce wondered whether anyone would remember the date in the future. He needn’t have worried. Few centenaries, this one partly fictional, partly real, will ever be more exuberantly celebrated.

Among the plethora of scholarly symposia, readings, discussions, performances and social gatherings, all focused on Joyce and his great literary work, one series of events last spring had particular historical resonance. This was a programme of lectures on Ulysses in Belvedere College, in the heart of north inner Dublin, the scene of so much of Joyce’s writing. Organised by the school’s head of English, Joe Dunne, an enthusiastic board member of the nearby James Joyce Centre, the lectures were a tribute to Belvedere’s most famous past pupil. Joyce was there from 1893, when he was eleven, until the end of his secondary schooling in 1898, and he made it the setting of the three central chapters of his autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916.

It was in Belvedere in 1893-94, under the tutelage of Joe Dunne’s famous predecessor, George Dempsey (‘Mr Tate’ in A Portrait), that he first read Lamb’s Adventures of Ulysses, the story which would become inseparable from his own legend. When Dempsey set his pupils an essay on ‘my favourite hero’ from the epic, as retold by Lamb, Joyce wrote on Ulysses. Years later,in1920, he told his Italian translator Carlo Linati: ‘The figure of Ulysses has always fascinated me since I was a boy.’

The special poignancy of these Belvedere celebrations is in the fact that Joyce was certainly not always so highly regarded in his old school. For years, the Jesuits, his educators also in Clongowes, which he attended from 1888 until 1891, and in University College, where he spent four years and took his degree in 1902, had wanted nothing to do with him. From early in the century, when rumours of his attitudes and opinions and news of his elopement with a woman who was not his wife began to circulate, the process of distancing had begun.

Publication of his works, so apparently disrespectful of religion in general and of the Jesuits in particular, ending in the appearance of the notorious Ulysses in 1922, would have reinforced the decisions made earlier in both Clongowes and Belvedere to expunge any reference to him in school magazines and elsewhere. By 1907, when The Belvederian published a poem of his through the good offices of his old English teacher, George Dempsey, he could no longer be named and the piece was described anonymously as ‘verses by a past Belvederian’.

Despite his gathering fame in the years that followed, this blanket of silence remained firmly in place. In the summer of 1937, shortly before the publication of Finnegans Wake, the American writer Herbert Gorman came to Ireland in search of material for his biography of Joyce. Constantine Curran, Joyce’s university contemporary and lifelong friend, was Gorman’s guide. Joyce had suggested that Gorman should visit Clongowes, but Curran wisely briefed him beforehand about what he should and shouldn’t say, if he hoped to be admitted. We can gather what the instructions were from Joyce’s letter to Curran, after Gorman had got back to Paris: “He said he had a great time in Éire but at Clongowes it seems the password was ‘O breathe not his name.'”

Even after Joyce’s death a few years later on 13 January 1941, by then acknowledged worldwide as one of the great writers of the century, the Belvedere Jesuits felt unable to acknowledge their errant past pupil.  In May, the rector consulted with his advisers about the desirability of an obituary notice in The Belvederian and decided against it.

Only one Jesuit seems to have broken the otherwise universal silence in those years. In faraway Australia, Fr George O’Neill, who had been professor of english at the university in Dublin during Joyce’s time. (in fact Joyce rarely attended lectures), remembered their first encounter, forty years before. This was in Clongowes when he had been a young scholastic. In the forward to a collection of his own writings, published in 1946, he wrote with what seems like wistful regret: ‘I have introduced to college life a very small boy destined to regretable celebrity as the author of Ulysses, and put a Catholic choir-book into his little hand’ (Witness to the Stars.) ‘Regrettable celebrity’ probably sums up well what – understandably enough – most Jesuits thought about Joyce’s achievement at the time.

Some years after Ulysses was published, when he was living in Paris, Joyce spoke to Arthur Power, a young Irishman who came to know him there, about what he called his ‘tormented youth (Conversations with James Joyce).   His moral struggles during his precocious, sexually turbulent adolescence and his subsequent rejection of religious faith, about the time he was leaving Belvedere, are a familiar theme. His anger at the Church, in part the projection of his personal difficulties, was expressed as anger at the representatives of the Church whom he had come to know best, the Jesuits, and this is reflected in his writing. But his attitude to his old mentors – and even to religion itself – was in reality, much more complex than might appear from his mocking satire and the bitter letters he wrote to his brother Stanislaus during the early years of his European exile.

His Trieste friend, Italo Svevo, remarked in 1927 that ‘Joyce still feels admiration and gratitude for the care of his educators; whilst his sinister Dedalus (his fictional counterpart in the novels) cannot find time to say so’ (quoted in William Noon S.J., Joyce and Aquinas.) Joyce himself told the sculptor August Suter, that from his Jesuit education, he had ‘learnt to arrange things in such a way that they become easy to survey and to judge.’ In view of the vast array of materials and his genius for ordering them in prose of astonishing accomplishment, this was no small tribute. Other friends Stuart Gilbert, Frank Budgen and Philipp Jarnach – have recorded comparable testimonies.

In some ways more strikingly, he once reflected in a letter to Valery Larbaud, the French writer who did so much to introduce him to literary circles in Paris, that his own ability to persevere in his adverse circumstances might be due to the ‘influence of ad maiorem dei gloriam, perhaps.’ This was an allusion to the Jesuit motto – ‘for the greater glory of God’ – which he had been taught to place on his exercises in Clongowes and Belvedere so many years before and which he had never forgotten.

There was much mutual incomprehension and even intolerance in the relationship between James Joyce and the Jesuits during his lifetime and in the decades following his death.  Today, when his portrait hangs in a prominent position on the walls of both his old schools and his books are in their libraries, his true worth as a literary genius of remarkable stature is well understood. If he himself is watching this year’s Bloomsday centenary celebrations in Dublin, he is likely to permit himself a slight smile at the honour paid to him in those Belvedere lectures, a kind of homecoming at last for the Irish Jesuits’ most famous pupil.


This article first appeared in The Word (June 2004), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.