• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

Mary Jane Who?

Writing.ie | Magazine | News for Writers | Our Literary Heritage

By Brendan Lynch

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Mary Jane Joyce died of cancer at 7 St Peter’s Terrace, Phibsborough, on August 13, 1903 at the age of 44.  Mary Jane who?

As neglected in death as she was in her short life with her profligate husband, John Stanislaus, Mary Jane was the mother of James Joyce.
Hagiographies galore have been penned of James and family members, including John Stanislaus. But the woman who had a key influence on one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers – and bequeathed the love of music which infuses his work – still awaits her biographer.
Ken Monaghan, son of Joyce’s younger sister, May, recalled; ‘My mother was thirteen when Mary Jane died. She said that her mother had spent her life bearing children. She had eleven, one of whom died in infancy. When John Stanislaus was at home and not drinking he just created trouble. Even at tea, he often beat my mother and her sisters. Poor Mary Jane had a terrible life.’
The only monument to James Joyce’s mother  is a plaque in Terenure’s Eagle House pub, where she was born Mary Jane Murray on 15 May 1859. Fair-haired and pretty, she studied music and dancing from the age of five and became an accomplished piano player and singer. She met John Stanislaus Joyce at Rathgar’s Church of the Three Patrons, where both were choristers.
Mary Jane’s Longford father, John Murray, disapproved of her friendship with Joyce, whom he knew to be a heavy drinker. But the relationship developed and the couple married in Rathmines in 1880, ten days before Mary Jane’s twenty first birthday. Their first child was born prematurely in November and lived for only a few days. James Joyce was born in February 1882 at 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar.
John Joyce was Secretary of the Dublin and Chapelizod Distillery Company, he also earned rents from property in his native Cork. A popular raconteur, he spent more time in city pubs and with political cronies than at home.  His 1882 appointment as Collector of Rates enabled even more extravagent socialising. Though there were occasionally shared family experiences, such as the 1888 Bray concert, where he sang with Mary Jane and six-year old James.
John’s drinking eventually cost him his Cork properties. When he was released from his Collector’s position in 1892, his financial position became even more critical. The grand suburbs soon became a distant memory. The family retreated to a succession of inner-city addresses, until they settled at the end of 1902 in what is now 5 St Peter’s Road.
By this time, Mary Jane had given birth to four boys and six girls and endured several miscarriages. Freddie Joyce died in infancy in 1894. Mary Jane nursed 5-year old George for several weeks, before he succumbed to typhoid and peritonitis in March, 1902. Grief-stricken at his death, she bore the burden of keeping the family together and shielding them from her husband’s frequent outbursts. She saved their home by quenching a chimney fire. Sustained by her strong Catholic faith, Mary Jane’s problems were compounded when both James and his brother Stanislaus rejected the church. One of her few treats were visits to the Sheehy household  at 2 Belvedere Place, where she played the piano, while James sang.
James Joyce left for Paris in December 1902 to study medicine.  He was soon broke, hungry and suffering from the cold. ‘Do not despair’, Mary Jane wrote and pawned a family heirloom to help him.  He promised to buy her a set of false teeth from his first earnings and exhorted her to walk more and to have her eyes tested. Her teeth and eye problems proved to be symptoms of something more serious, cancer of the liver. In March 1903, Joyce received a telegram from Dublin; MOTHER DYING COME HOME FATHER.                                                     
Mary Jane enjoyed a partial recovery after James’s return, before she was confined to bed for good. As she lay dying, she vainly encouraged her eldest son to make his confession and receive communion. He tried to comfort her by playing the piano and singing her favourite songs. She slipped into a coma and died on August 13.
James consoled his tearful young sister Mabel, soon to die prematurely herself; ‘Mother is in heaven. She is far happier now than she has ever been on earth, but if she sees you crying, it will spoil her happiness.’ He later confided to Nora Barnacle; ‘My mother was slowly killed, I think, by my father’s ill-treatment, by years of trouble, and by my own cynical frankness.’
In 1932, James Joyce paid for a tombstone for Mary Jane and John Stanislaus, who had died the previous year.  Mary Jane had encouraged James’s learning and, at his request, regularly examined him on his homework. She read Ibsen’s plays at his behest. She supported his artistic aspirations, though hardly understanding them. James Joyce’s sorrow at his mother’s death is documented in both Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, books she never lived to read.
James Joyce’s grandson, Stephen Joyce, is understandably apprehensive of further invasion of family privacy. But Peter Costello, co-author of John Stanislaus Joyce and author of  James Joyce. The Years of Growth,  insisted; “Mary Jane’s role in James Joyce’s life was immense. Hopefully, another lady will join the ranks of Joyce biographers and record Mary Jane’s life and literature’s debt to her.’
(c) Brendan Lynch
Brendan Lynch’s book CITY OF WRITERS. The Lives and Homes of Dublin Authors, profiles  forty writers from Dean Swift and James Clarence Mangan to Brendan Behan and Maeve Binchy. It also includes lists of Suggested Walks and Recommended Reading of the authors’ works. Liffey Press publisher David Givens said: “With 300 pages and 140 photographs, CITY OF WRITERS  is one of our best productions.  It owes a lot to Johnny Bambury’s stunning photographs, which illuminate the haunts of the book’s many writers.”

Find out more about Brendan at www.brendanlynch.ie

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