Margaret Alice (‘Poppie’ – later Sister Mary Gertrude) Joyce

Margaret Alice (‘Poppie’ – later Sister Mary Gertrude) Joyce
(18 January 1884, Dublin – 1 March 1964, New Zealand)

The eldest of Joyce’s sisters, Margaret Alice Joyce (known to the family as ‘Poppie’) was born on 18 January 1884 and baptised at the chapel of ease, St Joseph’s Church, Roundtown (now Terenure), on 27 January. Her godparents were John Murray (her maternal uncle) and Josephine Murray (who was married to another maternal uncle). The Joyce family were then living at 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, but not long after Margaret was born, they made the first of what became numerous relocations as the family’s fortunes declined. She went to school at St Catherine’s Dominican Convent at Sion Hill (after the family moved to Blackrock in 1890) and later at the Dominican School at 18-19 Eccles Street, not far from no. 7, the address made famous in her brother’s book Ulysses. In an interview with Noel Purdon, she claimed the name Poppie came from a red cloak she wore as a girl, which someone said made her look like a poppy.

By all accounts, Poppie was small of stature but she had the wilfulness and tenacity that was a Joyce family trait. In March 1903, while Joyce was in Paris, his mother wrote him a chatty letter including news of all the family members. Mrs Joyce says that the 19-year-old Poppie was already looking to make something of herself, that she was willing to work in any business or to give her time to being trained for some career. Mrs Joyce, who was sending every spare penny she had to support Joyce in Paris, evidently feels sympathy for her daughter’s plight. She says Poppie can’t get herself even a pair of shoes or gloves, but quickly points out that Joyce shouldn’t take this as any kind of reproach.

In August 1903, as her mother lay dying, Poppie promised that she would not desert the younger children, and despite her wish to leave the family home and join a convent, she kept her promise to her mother for the next six years. Mrs Joyce died on 13 August 1903 and many years later Poppie recalled sitting up with Joyce at midnight on the night of the funeral to watch for their mother’s ghost. Poppie said she saw their mother standing at the top of the stairs wearing the brown shroud she had been buried in. (Mrs Joyce had been buried in the brown habit of the Third Order of St Francis. In the ‘Telemachus’ episode of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus is visited in a dream by his dead mother, wearing brown grave-clothes.)

For Poppie, taking care of the younger Joyce children after their mother’s death also meant constant difficulties getting money for household necessities from Pappie (as John Joyce was affectionately called by his children) who preferred to spend the money on drink. She secured places for the two youngest children, Florrie and Baby, at the Sisters of Charity’s school on North William Street, and Joyce (who was earning money for book reviews in the Dublin Express) and his brother Stanislaus also helped out with money when they could, but it was a constant struggle. Margaret objected to Joyce leaving Dublin in 1904, and after Stanislaus left in 1905 things only got worse.

For a month around June 1906 Charlie Joyce, then twenty years old, kept a diary for his brother Stanislaus detailing the Joyce family’s poverty, with Pappie arriving home drunk and the girl’s dresses being pawned to raise money for food. John Joyce regularly sent begging letters to his sons, asking them to send money to Poppie, but he often intercepted their replies and spent the money himself. On one occasion, when Stanislaus sent ten shillings, John Joyce gave five shillings and sixpence to Poppie and spent the rest drinking with a friend that afternoon. However, in one of his begging letters to Joyce in April 1907, it was Pappie who complained about Poppie, saying that she was insolent to him and that she would have to go! Nonetheless, the misery was not unrelenting. Poppie occasionally escaped the drudgery by going to the Gaiety pantomime with her godmother, aunt Josephine, and she also went to the theatre with her brother Charlie.

Poppie was almost certainly the principal model for the character Eveline in Joyce’s short story in Dubliners. Elements such as the promise to the mother, the difficulties with the father, and the desire to get far away from the present situation were shared by Poppie Joyce and the character Eveline. In the story, Frank even calls Eveline ‘Poppens.’ Eveline’s desire to escape is frustrated by her own paralysis at the last moment, just as she is about to leave the country, but that was not to be the case with Poppie Joyce

Poppie repeatedly asked her father’s permission to leave and join a convent but he kept reminding her of her promise to her dying mother. Nonetheless, in 1909, after five and a half years trying to maintain the chaotic Joyce household, she made up her mind to leave. She entered St Brigid’s Missionary School in Callan, Co. Kilkenny, on 15 February 1909. Her home address is given as 44 Fontenoy Street, where John Joyce and his family lived from December 1908.

The Missionary School had been founded in 1884 by the Reverend Dr Patrick Moran who went on to become Cardinal Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, Australia. (There is a reference in the story ‘Eveline’ to a priest who had gone to Australia.) A statement about the School from 1912 gives some idea of what the School was about:

“St Brigid’s Missionary School [is] intended to prepare and qualify girls to enter Convents at home and in foreign lands. Many religious communities abroad are most anxious for Postulants, but they either cannot get them in their own countries, or do not wish to bring them out direct from their homes at the risk of having to send them back again in the event of failure. A kind of Preliminary novitiate at home is needed to meet such cases. This want the Callan Missionary School undertakes to supply. …Girls who believe they have a religious vocation, and are not qualified to enter at once, can, by spending a short time at Callan, be introduced to some suitable Convent.”

After her first term in the Missionary School, it seems that Margaret returned to Dublin, but perhaps not to Fontenoy Street. Another address, 47 Mary Street, is given in the School’s register. 47 Mary Street was the address of Todd Burns, the famous Dublin department store. Margaret’s sister May worked at Todd Burns and, like the other staff, lived in accommodation provided over the store. On 20 August 1909, Joyce (who was home in Dublin on a visit) saw Margaret off on a train to Kilkenny to start her second term at the Missionary School. That second term finished on 11 November and Joyce was back in Dublin again to see Margaret off at Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) harbour, the start of a journey that was to take her to New Zealand for a life as a nun.

Margaret (who took the religious name Sister Mary Gertrude) was joined on her journey by three other women: Miss Annie Henry from Dublin (later Sister Mary Brigid) and Miss Mary Agnes Maguire from Cavan (later Sister Mary Columba), both of whom had relatives in New Zealand, and Miss Mary McCann from Glasgow, Scotland (later Sister Gerard). When they arrived in New Zealand, the four women entered All Saints Convent of Mercy at Greymouth on 30 December 1909. They received the white veil of novices of the Sisters of Mercy at the convent on Wednesday 13 July 1910 in a ceremony that was presided over by the Very Reverend Dean Carew who also presided over the ceremony when all four professed their vows and became Sisters of Mercy on Saturday 13 July 1912.

Sister Mary Gertrude put her knowledge of music into service and she taught piano and singing at Greymouth, and in the nearby mining towns of Runanga and Brunner. Several school inspectors remarked on her skills as a teacher and her success with her students over the years. In addition to her teaching, she engaged in other works in the community, visiting the sick and the poor. She remained at Greymouth until 1949 when she moved to the convent in the Christchurch suburb of Papanui, and began teaching at the Loreto School. She celebrated her Golden Jubilee as a Sister of Mercy in July 1962.

Sister Mary Gertrude never returned to Ireland and never saw any of her family again. Years later, looking back on her decision to leave her impoverished family, she told the Reverend Godfrey Ainsworth: “I thought to myself, ‘Well now, I haven’t much to sacrifice’ and the only thing I had to sacrifice was my love for my own people, and that was my sacrifice.” Yet despite her sacrifice, Sister Mary Gertrude maintained correspondence with members of her family, including Joyce. Joyce only makes one mention of her in a letter to Stanislaus in October 1933 where he mentions that she had been operated on without saying what for.

It may have been from Sister Mary Gertrude that Joyce got the Maori words and New Zealand slang that he uses in Finnegans Wake. Apparently, Joyce also inquired about the words of the hakaafter seeing the All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby team, play in Paris in 1925. The haka is a Maori war cry traditionally chanted by the All Blacks at the start of a rugby match. A modified hakaappears on p. 335 of Finnegans Wake, and the origin of Joyce’shaka was the subject of a recent article in the James Joyce Quarterly. Also, on the morning of 17 June 1929, when the Murchison earthquake brought down chimneys and ruptured water and sewage mains in Greymouth, Joyce sent a telegram to his sister anxious to know that she was all right.

According to the centennial publication of the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Mary Gertrude was pleased when one of her pupils, who turned out to have no aptitude for music, became a priest. According to the publication, “She took that as a sign that not in vain had been her lifetime of penance and prayer for her profligate brother, James Joyce, one of the most renowned – and permissive – of modern authors.”

Sister Mary Gertrude was already eighty when she retired from teaching just three weeks before her death. According to Sister Mary Patricia, Superior of the Loreto Convent: “When Sister Mary Gertrude was told that she had only a few weeks to live, she asked me to see that all letters and photos were burned. I carried out her request.” Thus whatever correspondence existed was destroyed before Sister Mary Gertrude’s death at Calvary Hospital, Christchurch, on Sunday 1 March 1964. The Christchurch Register Book of Deaths records the cause of death as cancer of the stomach, and records her father’s profession as “Revenue Inspector.” One of Sister Mary Gertrude’s past pupils was among the priests who concelebrated her funeral mass and many more past pupils were in the congregation. “A final touching sight,” according to the report in The Tablet, “was that of six boys wearing the blue Loreto uniform carrying the casket of their teacher to her last home.” She is buried at Waimairi Cemetery in Christchurch.

It seems unlikely that Sister Mary Gertrude ever read any of her brother’s books, though she was not unaware of his importance as a literary figure or of the ‘scandalous’ reputation his works acquired. Though she was very reluctant to talk publicly about her brother, Sister Mary Gertrude did consent to be interviewed by the Franciscan priest Reverend Godfrey Ainsworth, and, in August 1962, by Noel Purdon. The latter interview was not published until 4 June 1993 when it appeared in The Independent Monthly under the title ‘Bloomsday with Poppie.’ An Irish priest, Fr James Feehan, who was in New Zealand from 1950 to 1957, also had several conversations with Sister Mary Gertrude, about whom he has written in his book An Hourglass on the Run.

The James Joyce Centre would like to express its gratitude to Sister Angela Murray (also a relative of James Joyce!), to Bernadette Fitzgerald rsm, Archivist of the former Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of the Christchurch Diocese, and to Sister Assumpta Saunders of the Convent of Mercy, Callan, who very kindly provided information about Sister Mary Gertrude.