On this day…2 February

On 2 February 1882 James Joyce was born.

He was born at 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, at 6 o’clock on the morning of Thursday 2 February 1882. He was baptised on 5 February at St Joseph’s Church, Terenure Road East, when his godparents were his maternal grandmother Ellen McCann, and Philip McCann. His birth wasn’t registered until 20 March, when his name was mis-recorded as James Augusta Joyce.

2 February is Candlemas Day, which Joyce thought gave his birthday some religious significance, and it’s also Ground Hog Day. He claimed to have the same birthday as his friend James Stephens, the Irish author, and was born in the same year as Wyndham Lewis, Frank Budgen and Eamon de Valera.

Joyce considered his birthday to be an auspicious day, and he liked to tie events in his life to his own birthday, or the birthdays of friends and family. He celebrated his coming of age with his twenty-first birthday in Paris in 1903. As he had been expecting to receive a gift of money from his family, he was disappointed to receive only a “budget of cards,” though his aunt Josephine sent him a cigarette case. To celebrate, he travelled from Paris to St Cloud and back, and went to the theatre in the evening.

Back in Dublin for his twenty-second birthday, he stayed in bed most of the day with a bad cold, but he claimed that on this day he started turning his essay ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ into a novel. Ten years later in 1914, the Egoist magazine started serialising his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on his birthday. He later pointed out to his patron Harriet Weaver, editor of the Egoist, that the serialisation had ended in 1915 on 1 September, Weaver’s birthday.

A somewhat unusual birthday celebration took place in Zurich in 1919, during the period of Joyce’s infatuation with Marthe Fleischmann. He brought a borrowed Hanukah candlestick to Frank Budgen’s studio where, despite Budgen’s scruples, he planned to celebrate Candlemas with Marthe Fleischmann. Budgen drew a charcoal nude with ample buttocks, after Joyce’s instructions, and when Marthe arrived the candles were lit to illuminate the nude. After Joyce had taken her home, he met with Budgen and told him: “I have explored the coldest and hottest parts of a woman’s body.”

With Ulysses, Sylvia Beach’s original intention was that it would appear in the autumn of 1921. But Joyce didn’t like the way the numbers added up (1 + 9 + 2 + 1 = 13), especially since his forthcoming fortieth birthday seemed a more auspicious date: 2.2.22! In November 1921 he wrote to Harriet Weaver that he had started writing Ulysses in 1914 on 1 March, Frank Budgen’s birthday, and finished writing it in 1921 on 30 October, Ezra Pound’s birthday. However, Joyce had already announced the completion of the book on 29 October in letters to Robert McAlmon and Valery Larbaud, so it seems he was stretching the birthday coincidences a little.

As late as 27 January 1922, four days before his birthday, Joyce was arranging the exact colour blue he wanted for the cover of Ulysses, and his final corrections only reached the printers on 31 January.  The printer, Maurice Darantiere, planned to post three copies to Paris from his print works at Dijon but Sylvia Beach, worried that they wouldn’t arrive in time for 2 February, had him send two copies by express train instead. These two copies, numbered 901 and 902, were printed on 1 February and arrived in Paris in the early hours of 2 February. Sylvia Beach took them by taxi to Joyce’s apartment where she presented him with one copy as his birthday present. The other copy she placed on display in the window of her bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, to announce its publication.

Joyce celebrated that evening with his friends at an Italian restaurant, sporting a new ring he had promised himself years before. He ate nothing and kept the package with the copy of Ulysses under his chair until after dessert when he finally untied it and placed the book on the table. His friends gave a toast to him and to the new book.

On the occasion of his forty-ninth birthday in 1931, Joyce received a birthday letter from his father in which John Joyce reminded him of “the old days in Brighton Square, when you were Babie [sic] Tuckoo, and I used to take you out in the Square and tell you about the moo-cow that used to come down from the mountain and take little boys across.” Joyce and Nora Barnacle finally married in 1931, on 4 July, John Joyce’s birthday. By the end of that year, John Joyce was hospitalised and shortly before he died he told his daughter May to tell Joyce that he was born at six in the morning. It turned out that Joyce, who did not visit his dying father or attend his funeral, had recently written to him asking his what time he’d been born as he wanted to get a horoscope cast.

On his fiftieth birthday in 1932 Joyce received a letter from his patron Harriet Weaver in which she cancelled all his debts to her, but the celebrations that year were muted after Lucia, showing early signs of mental distress, threw a chair at Nora and had to be hospitalised at a maison de santé. A similar incident occurred on his fifty-second birthday in 1934, when Lucia struck Nora. That year, Joyce asked Léon if he could secure a copy of the newly published Random House edition of Ulysses in time to celebrate Ulysses’ twelfth birthday and Joyce’s fifty-second.

In honour of his birthday in 1935, Stuart Gilbert lectured on Joyce at the Sorbonne. Joyce didn’t attend, but Nora, Lucia and Eileen Joyce did. The celebrations that evening were at Fouquet’s attended by the Joyces, the Jolases, the Gilberts and the Léons. In 1938 Radio Éireann broadcast a tribute to Joyce which he listened to in his apartment with Samuel Beckett and other friends before attending a party hosted by the Jolases.

Joyce hoped that Finnegans Wake would also be published on his birthday. At first, he thought it would appear in 1938 for his fifty-sixth birthday. When that didn’t happen, he hoped that it would appear on 4 July 1938, his late father’s birthday. However, even by the beginning of 1939, the book was still not finished. But, on 30 January 1939, Faber & Faber sent a copy of the book (actually bound page proofs) to Joyce for his fifty-seventh birthday. On that occasion, Joyce’s daughter-in-law Helen had a cake baked on top of which were replicas of his seven books in icing. The dining table was laid out to represent Paris and Dublin, and Nora wore an aquamarine ring that Joyce had given her as a symbol of the Liffey.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. III, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.