On this day…13 August

On 13 August 1903 May Joyce died.

Four months after being diagnosed with cancer of the liver, May Joyce died on Thursday 13 August 1903. She was just forty-four years old.

May Joyce had been incapacitated by her illness since the middle of April. She had made a small recovery after Joyce’s return from Paris at Easter, and was even able to get out of bed for a few hours each day. But she soon relapsed and was confined to bed. John Joyce took out another mortgage on the house to cover the costs of her illness, and engaged Professor Little of Trinity College as a consultant. Despite his suggestions of treatment, however, there was no hope of recovery.

In the face of his wife’s illness, John Joyce was well-behaved initially, but he soon returned to his drinking and gradually lost patience with his wife’s drawn-out death. On one occasion he arrived home drunk and told her ‘If you can’t get well, die. Die and be damned to you!’ Stanislaus, who was also in the room at the time, went for his father, but stopped when he saw his mother struggling to get out of bed. Joyce quickly removed his father from the room.

On the day of her death, May Joyce lapsed into a coma, and her brother John Murray and the others present knelt and started praying. When Murray noticed that Joyce and Stanislaus were not praying, he gestured at them to kneel, but neither of them paid any attention to him.

After her death, some of the younger children went to live with Aunt Josephine who had nursed May Joyce through her illness. Margaret Joyce took over the running of the household for the next six years, despite John Joyce’s continued drinking and violence.

For Joyce, his mother’s death was not simply the result of his father’s behaviour. Exactly a year later, Joyce’s first story, ‘The Sisters,’ was published in the Irish Homestead and Joyce sent a copy of the magazine to Nora Barnacle. In a letter to Nora a fortnight later, Joyce wrote that his mother’s death was the result of his father’s drinking and of his own behaviour. But he added that, looking at her wasted face in the coffin, he felt he was looking on the face of a victim, and that he had cursed the system that had made her a victim.

May Joyce was buried at Glasnevin cemetery. Joyce organised a headstone for the grave after his father’s burial in the same plot in 1932.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

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

Joyce, Stanislaus: My Brother’s Keeper, edited, with an Introduction by Richard Ellmann, & Preface by TS Eliot, London: Faber & Faber, 1958.