—I will tell you, he said solemnly, what is his proudest boast. I paid my way. … I never borrowed a shilling in my life. Can you feel that? I owe nothing. Can you?
This is a post in a series called Decoding Dedalus where I take a paragraph of Ulysses and break it down line by line.
The passage below comes from “Nestor,” the second episode of Ulysses. It appears on pages 30-31 in my copy (1990 Vintage International).
A guide to pre-decimal currency can be found here.
Mr. Deasy’s quote above is meant to be the pride of the English – being so sensible (or just wealthy, let’s be real) that you live your whole life without debts. It’s worth recalling that in “Telemachus,” Haines the Englishman said to Buck Mulligan, “Have you your bill? We had better pay her, Mulligan, hadn’t we?” just moments before Mulligan underpays the milkwoman for her milk, an underpayment on owed money. Stephen, most unEnglishly, also has his fair share of debts, of which he takes mental stock after Mr. Deasy extolls the virtues of lacking debt. Stephen’s debt mirrors the financial realities of James Joyce himself at a similar age.
Much like Stephen, Joyce had returned from medical school in Paris, his family in disarray following his mother’s death. His father, John Joyce, was selling off their household items to patch holes in the family’s dire financial situation while coping with the strain through alcohol. Though James could have hypothetically worked to support his family, he was dead set on making his mark as an Artist. This sometimes took the form of all-day writing sessions and other times sleeping until four in the afternoon following an all-night drinking session. In Joyce’s mind, one justified the other.
James moved out of the family home in early 1904 and rented a room at 60 Shelbourne Road in Dublin. He dedicated himself full-time to developing his music career and borrowed handsomely (mainly from his friend Oliver St John Gogarty) to take lessons from Dublin’s best voice teacher. This caused him to fall behind in his rent, but the family he stayed with (the McKernans) were sympathetic to his situation. By the 15th of June, a day before the historic Bloomsday, their sympathy had run out, and Joyce was told to come back when he had some of the money he owed them. Joyce’s interest in music faded by the end of spring, but he was encouraged to submit his writing to the journal The Irish Homestead. After publishing three of his stories, the Homestead asked him to stop submitting because they had received too many complaints. Joyce, much like Stephen, did briefly hold a job at a school in the town of Dalkey, south of Dublin, and even considered turning himself into a company. Gogarty recalls:
He had, at first, thought of forming himself into a company, the shareholders in which were to receive all the proceeds from his future writings. The idea was novel. The shareholders would have to keep and humor him…. There were worse investments than in James Joyce, Inc.
Most of Joyce’s cashflow that year came from borrowing from his wealthy friends, many of whom, one by one, cut him off because he never repaid those debts. Stephen is similarly indebted to his social network, which he recalls when Mr. Deasy asks him if he can say he owes nothing. A tricky question, since while Joyce owed much materially to those around him, his ego prevented him from feeling that he owed them anything creatively, leading to clashes of personality, to put it politely. His friend John Francis Byrne wrote to Joyce in 1904: “I can’t give you a pound, because I’m in an extremely impecunious condition. I wonder why you have satirized your friends; was it because they had no money?”
Certainly these debts weighed on Joyce psychically in the years after 1904, enough that he enumerated them in Ulysses. Gogarty has said that the only compliment Joyce ever paid other people was to include them in his writing, so perhaps this was Joyce’s idea of remuneration. Ulysses is full of this sort of unexplained list. This one, appearing in “Nestor,” is short, but let’s decode each of the people included.
Mulligan, nine pounds, three pairs of socks, one pair brogues, ties.
Mulligan, of course, is Buck Mulligan, Stephen’s tower roommate who we met in the previous chapter. Mulligan is a medical student who comes from a well-to-do family and has more money than Stephen. He has not only leant Stephen £9, but also assorted items of clothing (“brogue” [bróg] is Irish for shoes). Joyce borrowed heavily from Gogarty, Mulligan’s real-life counterpart, though as far as I can tell Gogarty often gave freely and never expected to be repaid. Mulligan’s generosity is a bit muddled because we know that Stephen considers him a usurper and that he demands the tower key even though Stephen pays the rent (£12 annually). Due to their contentious relationship, Stephen surely chafed at the idea he owed anything to the likes of Buck Mulligan.
Curran, ten guineas.*
Constantine Curran was a friend of James Joyce’s who in 1904 was the editor of the magazine St. Stephen’s at University College Dublin. Curran made several small loans to Joyce in 1904. In August (about a month before Joyce moved into the tower), Curran rejected a piece of incendiary verse called “The Holy Office” in which Joyce proclaimed his superiority to the literary elite of Ireland. Curran referred to it as an “unholy thing” but gave Joyce a bit of money for his troubles. “The Holy Office” seems to have been inspired in part by his rejection from The Irish Homestead.
McCann, one guinea
MacCann appeared in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as well and is based on Joyce family friend Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. As registrar of University College Dublin, Skeffington offered Joyce a job as a French teacher in 1903, which Joyce turned down. He resented Joyce’s lack of repayment of loans.
Fred Ryan, two shillings
In real life and in Ulysses, Fred Ryan was a writer and editor at Dana, an Irish intellectual journal, which he worked on with John Eglinton. Eglinton appears in “Scylla and Charybdis,” asking Stephen to contribute to Dana, for which Fred Ryan is composing an essay on economics. In 1904, Joyce sent an autobiographical essay to Dana, which was rejected by Ryan. That essay laid the groundwork for Portrait.
Temple, two lunches
Based on Joyce’s friend John Elwood, Temple also appeared in Portrait. Elwood ran in the same social circle as Joyce, Gogarty and Vincent Cosgrave (the model for Lynch in Ulysses).
Russell, one guinea
George (A.E.) Russell was a major figure in the Dublin literary scene, particularly in the Irish Literary Revival. He pops up again as himself in “Scylla and Charybdis” when Stephen explains his Shakespeare theory. Stephen is reminded of his debts to A.E. (“AEIOU”) upon seeing him in the flesh. Russell was a mystic, a leader in the Hermetic Society of Dublin and frequent target of pranks by Gogarty and Joyce. Among other things, they broke into the Hermetic Society on multiple occasions to display items mocking Russell and his supposed asexuality.
Cousins, ten shillings
James and Gretta Cousins housed Joyce on and off during 1904. James Cousins is described by Richard Ellmann in his biography of Joyce as a “Theosophical poetaster.” The Cousins’ were supporters of the arts and Joyce in particular. Their eccentricities got to Joyce over time and in June 1904, he left their “vegetarian house, complaining of stomach trouble induced by a ‘typhoid turnip.’”
Bob Reynolds, half a guinea
This reference is unclear. It may refer to W. B. Reynolds, the music critic for the Belfast Telegraph. Reynolds had set some of Joyce’s poems from Chamber Music to music after its publication in 1907. However, Reynolds was not part of Joyce’s 1904 Dublin circle like every other name on this list. I’m not sure what “W.B.” stands for or if he went by Bob.
Koehler, three guineas
“Koehler” is believed to be T. G. Keller, a literary friend of Joyce’s. After successfully selling his first short story to The Irish Homestead for £1 in 1904, Joyce offered to sell his next six stories to Keller for an investment of £5. Keller turned him down, and The Irish Homestead asked him to stop submitting soon after.
Mrs MacKernan, five weeks’ board. The lump I have is useless.
The McKernans, as mentioned above rented a room to James Joyce at 60 Shelbourne Road in Dublin. He was often behind in rent and moved into the Martello tower with Gogarty in part because the McKernans had gone on holiday, and he could no longer stay there.
*Stephen recalls many of the owed amounts in terms of “guineas,” rather than pounds. A guinea was a coin worth one pound, one shilling. It was considered a more gentlemanly amount than a simple pound. A working man received payments in pounds, whereas a gentleman, especially an Artist, received payment in guineas.
Ellmann, R. (1959). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press.
D’Arcy, A.M. (2014). Dindsenchas, Mr Deasy and the Nightmare of Partition in Ulysses. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 114C, 1-31. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/3524058/Dindsenchas_Mr_Deasy_and_the_Nightmare_of_Partition_in_Ulysses_Proceedings_of_the_Royal_Irish_Academy_114C_2014_1-31
Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gogarty, O. (1948). Mourning became Mrs. Spendlove and other portraits grave and gay. New York: Creative Age Press.