On 18 January 1884, Margaret Alice (‘Poppie’) Joyce is born.
The eldest of Joyce’s siblings, Margaret went to school at St Catherine’s Dominican Convent at Sion Hill, and later at the Dominican School at Eccles Street. In an interview with Noel Purdon, she claimed the nickname Poppie came from a red cloak she wore as a girl, which someone said made her look like a poppy.
In August 1903, as May Joyce lay dying, Margaret promised that she would not desert the younger children, a promise she kept for the next six years. Taking care of the younger children also meant trying to get money for household necessities from John Joyce who preferred to spend the money on drink. Things got worse after Joyce (in 1904) and Stanislaus (in 1905) left Dublin for Trieste. They helped by sending money to Margaret, but John Joyce often intercepted the post and spent the money on drink. Yet in one of his begging letters to Joyce in April 1907, it was John Joyce who complained about Margaret, saying that she was insolent to him and that she would have to go!
Finally, Margaret made up her mind to leave home and she went to St Brigid’s Missionary School in Callan, Co. Kilkenny, on 15 February 1909. The school was intended to prepare girls to enter convents and on 11 November 1909 Margaret set off from Dun Laoghaire at the start of a journey that was to take her to New Zealand.
Margaret entered All Saints Convent of Mercy at Greymouth on 30 December 1909, and professed her vows and became Sister Mary Gertrude on Saturday 13 July 1912. She put her knowledge of music into service and taught piano and singing at Greymouth until 1949 when she moved to a convent in the Christchurch suburb of Papanui, where she taught at the Loreto School. She celebrated her Golden Jubilee as a Sister of Mercy in July 1962.
Sister Mary Gertrude never saw any of her family again, but she corresponded with her siblings, including Joyce, and it may have been from Sister Mary Gertrude that Joyce got the Maori words, the New Zealand slang, and the haka that he uses in Finnegans Wake.
Sister Mary Gertrude was already eighty when she retired from teaching just three weeks before her death. Whatever correspondence existed was destroyed on her instructions before Sister Mary Gertrude died at Calvary Hospital, Christchurch, on Sunday 1 March 1964 of stomach cancer. She was buried at Waimairi Cemetery in Christchurch.
Though reluctant to talk publicly about her brother, Sister Mary Gertrude was interviewed by the Reverend Godfrey Ainsworth, and by Noel Purdon. An Irish priest, Fr James Feehan, also had several conversations with Sister Mary Gertrude, about whom he has written in his book An Hourglass on the Run.
Corballis, Richard: ‘The Provenance of Joyce’s Haka,’ in James Joyce Quarterly vol. 44, no. 1, Fall 2006, pp. 127-32.
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Feehan, James A: An Hourglass on the Run: The Story of a Preacher, Cork: Mercier Press, 2000.
For a longer account of Margaret Joyce’s life click here.