On this day…13 May

On 13 May 1910 Father John Conmee died.

Father John Conmee SJ (1847-1910) had been rector at Clongowes Wood College when Joyce was enrolled as a student there in 1888. Conmee was also instrumental in getting Joyce and his brothers into Belvedere College in 1893. He appears as a character under his own name in both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.

Born on Christmas Day 1847 in Glanduff, near Athlone, John Conmee went to school first in Castleknock, and then at Clongowes Wood from 1863 to 1867. He then entered the Jesuit order in Milltown Park, and studied at Roehampton and Stonyhurst in England, and at St Beuno’s, in St Asaph, Wales. He returned to Ireland in 1881 where he was ordained by Archbishop Croke.

After teaching at the Jesuit school at Tullabeg, Conmee was prefect of studies at Clongowes Wood from 1883 to 1887, and rector from 1885 to 1891, during which time he oversaw the amalgamation of the schools at Tullabeg and Clongowes Wood. It was Conmee who greeted the six-and-a-half year old Joyce when he arrived at Clongowes Wood in 1888 and, according to the boys in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he was “the decentest rector that was ever in Clongowes.”

Conmee left Clongowes to become prefect of studies at Belvedere College in 1891. He gave up that position in 1892 because of ill health but remained at Belvedere as a teacher of Latin and as director of the college sodality. Thus he still had a connection to Belvedere when he met by chance with John Joyce in 1893, as a consequence of which Joyce and his brothers were enrolled as students at Belvedere. It has been suggested that Mrs Joyce’s family and Conmee’s family were somehow related but in any case Conmee was certainly a friend of the family.

After a couple of years as prefect of studies at University College Dublin from 1893 to 1895, Conmee was superior at the Jesuit’s house at St Francis Xavier’s Church on Gardiner Street from 1895 to 1905. It is in this position, as ‘superior,’ that he appears in Ulysses at the beginning of the ‘Wandering Rocks’ episode, though the small ‘s’ superior also hints at his superior attitude, not just his title. Continuing his ascent, he was made provincial of the Jesuit order in 1905 and maintained that position until 1909 when he was made rector at Milltown Park, the college where he himself had entered the order. He remained there until his death on 13 May 1910 at a nursing home on Leeson Street.

As well as having a central, humane role in the ‘pandying’ incident in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Conmee is mentioned more than sixty times in Ulysses, and there are references to him also in Finnegans Wake. Conmee was not without his eccentricities: apparently, while he was provincial of the order, he received visitors at Gardiner Street wearing a Turkish smoking hat, and he took his Pomeranian dog with him on visits to other Jesuit houses. He also wrote a pamphlet, Old Times in the Barony, consisting of a series of recollections of the Barony of Athlone in County Roscommon. It was published originally in 1895 under the pseudonym ‘Max Woods,’ a name apparently derived from a piece of land at Clongowes known as ‘Father Mac’s Wood.’


Sources & Further Reading:

Bradley, Bruce, SJ: James Joyce’s Schooldays, with Foreword by Richard Ellmann, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1982.

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

Murray, Patrick: ‘Fr John Conmee: a portrait of the rector,’ in Journal of the Old Athlone Society, vol. II, no. 6, 1985.

O’Mahony, Eoin: ‘Father Conmee and His Associates,’ in A Bash in the Tunnel – James Joyce by the Irish, edited by John Ryan, Brighton: Clifton Books, 1970.