On 15 May 1859 Mary Jane Murray was born.
Joyce’s mother, Mary Jane Murray, known as May, was born in the Eagle House tavern in Terenure on 15 May 1859. Her father, John Murray, came from Longford and was an agent for wine and spirits, while her mother came from a long line of Dublin businessmen.
May Murray’s brothers William and John were well known to Joyce who based characters in his fiction on them. William Murray, on whom Joyce based the character Richie Goulding, married Josephine Giltrap who became an important figure in Joyce’s life. May Murray’s aunts (Mrs Lyons and Mrs Ellen Callanan) ran the Misses Flynn’s school at 15 Usher’s Island where May received lessons in piano, voice and dancing. Joyce based the characters of the Morkan sisters on his great aunts and used the house at Usher’s Island as the location for the party in the story ‘The Dead.’
May Murray’s father’s business brought him into contact with the Dublin and Chapelizod Distillery Company, the Secretary of which was John Joyce who took to visiting Murray at his home at 7 Clanbrassil Street. May Murray and John Joyce also sang together in the choir at the Church of the Three Patrons in Rathmines. Despite being ten years older and having two broken engagements behind him, John Joyce was smitten.
However, both May Murray’s father and John Joyce’s mother objected to the match. John Murray may well have recognised the budding drinker in John Joyce and refused to give his consent. On one occasion he caused a fuss when he discovered his daughter with John Joyce on Grafton Street, and he sent her home in a cab. Mrs Murray approved of the match and when John Joyce moved into a house at 15 Clanbrassil Street, a short distance from the Murrays’ home, John Murray capitulated and gave his consent. Mrs Joyce, however, continued to object and around the time John Joyce married May Murray, Mrs Joyce went back to Cork where she died without being reconciled with her son.
May Murray was ten days short of her twenty-first birthday when she and John Joyce were married in the Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners, in Rathmines on 5 May 1880. Fr Patrick Gorman officiated and the wedding was witnessed by Margaretta Lyons (May Murray’s first cousin) and John George Lee. The newlyweds honeymooned in London, and after their return to Dublin they lived briefly at Ontario Terrace and Emorville Avenue before moving to Northumberland Avenue, Dun Laoghaire.
A first child, christened John, died in infancy, and John Joyce had already started mortgaging his property by the time James Joyce was born on 2 February 1882. Another three boys followed along with six girls until a last boy, Freddie, died in infancy in 1894. Shortly after, May Joyce was attacked by her husband and fled the house with the younger children. The incident seems to have been serious enough for the police to become involved, and it marked another stage in the slow decline of the family.
Given her husband’s drinking and lack of employment, May Joyce seems to have had great patience and staying power, but his behaviour seems to have gradually worn her down. Her decline wasn’t helped by Joyce’s rejection of his Catholic religion, and an even greater blow came with the death of George Joyce in May 1902. George had been suffering from typhoid and died of peritonitis after she had started feeding him again.
Despite the fact that Joyce thought she had never looked so well as she looked when he was home from Paris in winter 1902-03, his mother’s decline was well underway. She blamed it at first on her teeth and on her eyesight, but by April 1903 she was already confined to bed. From the extant letters, she seems to have given Joyce no hint of her illness except towards the middle of April. On Good Friday morning, Joyce sent her a postcard asking her to tell him what was wrong, but when he returned to his hotel that evening he found his father’s telegram informing him that his mother was dying.
May Joyce had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, though it seems she actually had cancer of the liver. John Joyce took out yet another mortgage on 24 April to cover his wife’s medical expenses, and May Joyce lingered in increasing sickness and pain until her death on 13 August. She lapsed into a coma in her final hours with her family about her. Joyce and his brother Stanislaus refused to kneel and pray at the bedside of their dying mother, despite being ordered to do so by John Murray. Mrs Joyce was laid out in a brown habit at the house at St Peter’s Terrace before being buried in the plot in Glasnevin Cemetery. The death certificate said she died of cirrhosis.
After her death, Joyce found among her paltry possessions a bundle of love letters written to her by John Joyce. He read them and told his brother Stanislaus there was nothing in them. Stanislaus burned them without reading them.
A year later, Joyce’s first story, ‘The Sisters,’ was published in the Irish Homestead magazine on the first anniversary of May Joyce’s death. A couple of weeks later, Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle to say that he believed his mother was killed by his father’s behaviour and by his own frank and cynical conduct. But he added that when he looked upon her grey and wasted face as she lay in her coffin, he knew that he was looking on the face of a victim, and he cursed the system that had made her a victim.
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.