On 4 July 1849 John Joyce was born.
The only son of an only son of an only son, John Joyce was born on 4 July 1849 in Cork. He was educated at St Colman’s College, Fermoy, and later studied medicine at Queen’s College, Cork, from 1867. His studies were not successful, mainly because he had more interest in sports and dramatics than in medicine. He failed his exams and never graduated, leaving university in 1870-1.
He took an interest in the politics of the day and had Fenian sympathies. He even ran away to join the fighting at the time of the Franco-Prussian war, but his mother caught up with him in London and brought him home. In 1870 he also came into his inheritance and became more independent. He found employment for a time as an accountant before he and his mother moved to Dublin in 1873.
From 1873 he was Secretary in a distillery in Chapelizod at a salary of £300 a year, but the distillery was liquidated. He then worked as an accountant and became involved in politics as Secretary of the United Liberal Club. He maintained his interest in theatre and music, and sang in the choir of the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar, where he met his future wife, May Murray. John Joyce’s mother disapproved of the marriage, and returned to Cork. John Joyce and May Murray were married on 5 May 1880.
Their first child was born on 23 November 1880 but died eight days later. Their second child, James, was born on 2 February 1882, and was followed by another three sons and six daughters. John Joyce inherited the family’s Cork properties on his mother’s death in 1881, but quickly started to mortgage them. He got a ‘job for life’ as a collector of rates in 1882, but the job only lasted ten years. He was given a pension, but it was not sufficient for him, and in 1893 he had to sell off the Cork properties. They were so heavily mortgaged that he saw little of the money himself. After that he found work occasionally as an accountant, and assisting at elections.
With little money and the rent often unpaid, the family moved frequently. After the death of a new-born child in 1895, John Joyce attacked his wife and the police were called. Another son, George, died in 1902, and May Joyce died of cancer in 1903. The oldest daughter, Margaret, took over running the household and looking after the younger children, but as John Joyce’s debts increased so did his drinking and his violence.
One by one, his children left to pursue their own lives. Joyce eloped with Nora Barnacle in 1904, and was followed by Stanislaus in 1905. May had already left the family home, and Charles left for Boston after his marriage in 1908. Eileen and Eva joined their brothers in Trieste in 1909 and 1910, and Margaret left for a life as a nun in New Zealand. This left only Florrie and Mabel, and Mabel died of typhoid in 1911, shortly after Eva returned from Trieste.
Despite his drinking and his lack of money, John Joyce enjoyed good health. He continued to survive on what was left of his pension and on gifts from friends, including Michael Healy, Nora Barnacle’s uncle. James Joyce commissioned a portrait of his father from Patrick Tuohy in 1923, and sent him copies of his books as they were published.
In his later years, John Joyce lived with and was cared for by the Medcalf family, and it was Albert Medcalf who wrote to Joyce in December 1931 to say that his father was ill. John Joyce died on Tuesday 29 December and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery on New Year’s Day 1932. Despite his lifelong insolvency, when his debts were paid off there was still £36 that Joyce inherited from him.
But there was much more that Joyce had inherited from his father: John Joyce’s stories and turns of speech, his life and his larger-than-life character were all material for his son’s writing.
Sources & Further Reading:
Jackson, John Wyse, with Peter Costello: John Stanislaus Joyce – The Voluminous Life and Genius of James Joyce’s Father, London: Fourth Estate, 1997.