An Irishman's Diary
I’m not sure if it was the sort of the thing the promoters of the Gathering had in mind. But either way, I spent a couple of hours on Monday night in the company of two English women who were in Dublin to trace the footsteps of a male ancestor, best-known as one of James Joyce’s fictional characters.
Clare Collins and Sheelagh Moran are his granddaughter and great-granddaughter, respectively. And I hasten to add that the man they descend from was a work of non-fiction: Bartholomew (or “Bartle”) McCarthy, a hatter and well-known singer in late 19th- century Dublin.
His more lasting claim to fame, however, is that he is now generally considered the model for Bartell D’Arcy, the tenor whose song provides the pivotal moment in Joyce’s masterpiece, The Dead.
Thus Monday’s gathering – with a small “g” – took place in No 15 Usher’s Island, once home to Joyce’s music-teaching great-aunts, the Misses Flynn, whose annual Christmas party he immortalised in literature.
The latest soiree in their house was an event that, if nothing else, demonstrated the power of a story. We don’t know for certain that Bartle McCarthy was ever a guest at the Flynns’ parties, although he was a regular at their concerts, so it seems likely.
We do know, thanks to Joycean detectives, that his singing career reached a high-point in New York in 1890 when he played one of the boatmen in a production of Gilbert Sullivan’s The Gondoliers.
Sadly, his gondola was sunk by the critics. And although he sang again in the US three years later – representing Ireland at the World’s Fair in Chicago – he was there this time as an emigrant, forced abroad by the collapse of the Dublin hatting trade.
He later recrossed the Atlantic to the dark satanic millineries of Lancashire, where his family lived for a time at a place whose name Joyce would have enjoyed: Hooley Hill. But his singing days were over then. There is no evidence of him performing after 1893, when the future writer of The Dead was only 11.
Even so, the story has worked its magic on posterity. As guests climbed the stairs of 15 Usher’s Island on Monday, they passed a picture of Anjelica Huston – from her father’s film version of the story – in the moment when she is captivated by D’Arcy’s singing of The Lass of Aughrim.
Then they sat down to a recreation of the Christmas dinner. After which, just as the fictional D’Arcy opened a flood of memories, so the descendants of the real-life McCarthy shared their family lore.
The event was hosted by the indefatigable Brendan Kilty, who saved the house from ruin and has since been making heroic efforts to restore it: a project as complex and long-running as another famous work-in-progress, Finnegans Wake.
And in fact, Monday’s occasion had nothing to do with Joyce. It was, instead, the 225th birthday of Robert Emmet, who had a tangential relationship with the house; his doomed rebellion having begun just behind it.
So the night’s entertainment included an abridged speech from the dock (excerpted from a show now previewing at Arthur’s Pub on Thomas Street). Bold Robert Emmet was given an outing too. Then Joyce reasserted himself via acclaimed singer Noel O’Grady, who performed The Lass of Aughrim to haunting effect.
That Emmet should be also commemorated in No 15 was no whim. As Kilty sees it, the house is a repository not just of Joyceana but of Irish history in general. A point he made during the evening’s slightly-spooky denouement: a candelabra-led tour of the basement.
There, stepping carefully amid the debris removed from them, we peered up chimneys whose stonework may date from the middle ages. And we also noted in passing, amid the shadows of a side-room, a coffin.
The coffin was empty (we think). Nor did it have a body on the occasion for which it was brought to the house. It’s just that, a few years ago, No 15 hosted an exhibition of Ned Kelly’s armour. And although a habeas corpus order was not possible, Kilty insisted on giving the guest of honour an Irish wake, in absentia.
He still has big plans for the Kellys, centring on the ancestral home in Tipperary. Those too may or may not fit the remit of the Gathering. But for good or bad, Ned Kelly was a famous product of the Irish diaspora. So Kilty is determined to bring him home, metaphorically if not in person.