On 17 January 1932 Joyce wrote about the impact of his father’s death.
In a letter to Harriet Weaver on 17 January 1932, Joyce thanks her for her message of sympathy at the time of his father’s death on 29 December 1931. Joyce had been alerted to his father’s illness on 23 December and was kept in touch with what was happening in Dublin, mainly by his friend Constantine Curran. John Joyce’s funeral took place on 1 January 1932, but Joyce did not attend. Instead he sent a wreath of ivy inscribed “With Sorrow and Love from Jim.”
Writing to TS Eliot on the day of the funeral Joyce accuses himself of keeping his father under the illusion that he was coming to Dublin. He claims, however, that some instinct prevented him from going to Dublin even though he wanted to go. As justification, he added that Nora and Giorgio didn’t want him to go, and he tells Eliot that Dubliners was banned in Dublin and that when Giorgio and Nora visited Ireland in 1922, the train they were travelling in came under fire.
By the time he writes to Harriet Weaver on 17 January, what bothers Joyce is no longer simply that he did not go to Dublin when his father was ill or for his funeral. Now, he wonders how he can continue to write about a city that he did not dare visit, even at such a significant moment. He tells Weaver: “I’m thinking of abandoning work altogether and leaving the thing unfinished with blanks.”
Though Joyce had not visited Dublin since the summer of 1912, he had written about almost nothing but Dublin life in the meantime and, as he realised now, much of that life was associated with his father. Elements of John Joyce’s life and stories can be traced in the stories in Dubliners; notes on his phrases and mannerisms are included in the Trieste Notebook that Joyce kept from 1907 to 1909. John Joyce was characterised as Simon Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and again in Ulysses, and Joyce, now working on what became Finnegans Wake, was again using his father’s life and his larger-than-life stories as material for his book.
Two of the main stories in Finnegans Wake associated with John Joyce are the story of the Norwegian captain and the tailor (which Joyce started writing in 1935), and the story of how Buckley shot the Russian general. This story was a favourite of Joyce’s godfather, Phil McCann, but John Joyce also added it to his repertoire. Joyce didn’t only have to rely on his memory: friends who visited Dublin were often asked to call and see John Joyce and report back to Joyce, and he even sent people to interview his father.
If the death of his father made him so despondent, the birth of his grandson in February 1932 gave Joyce great pleasure, and the poem, ‘Ecce Puer,’ written at that times conveys some of his feelings about the father he felt he’d forsaken.
A memorial bench, with a plaque commemorating Joyce and his father is located on St Stephen’s Green.
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Jackson, John Wyse, and Peter Costello: John Stanislaus Joyce – The Voluminous Life and Genius of James Joyce’s Father, London: Fourth Estate, 1997.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957.