James Joyce’s joust with journalism: The Freeman’s Journal in Ulysses’ Aeolus chapter

All Joyce’s fiction has ‘a journalistic element’ – excavating it enriches our understanding

In one of his weekly columns for the Irish Independent in the 1960s, the veteran Irish journalist, Piaras Béaslaí, recalled the circumstances of visits that James Joyce made to the office of the Freeman’s Journal newspaper in 1909.

Béaslaí was then the drama critic of the Evening Telegraph, a paper published by the Freeman. In that role, he attended the premiere of Bernard Shaw’s The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in August 1909. Joyce happened to be in Dublin and managed to obtain a press pass to attend the premiere with a view to writing about it for the Piccolo della Sera newspaper in Trieste, where he was then living. At the premiere, Joyce fell into conversation with Béaslaí. He passed himself off to Béaslaí as a journalist on the staff of the Piccolo – which he was not – and so Béaslaí invited him to visit the Freeman’s office and meet his colleagues working on the Evening Telegraph. Béaslaí wrote as follows:

Next day he [Joyce] called on us, and the editor [of the Evening Telegraph], Pat Meade, who had evidently already met him, introduced him to the others as a journalist from Trieste. He stayed a long time, and out of that and subsequent visits he derived the material for a large portion of Ulysses.

The “large portion of Ulysses” is the Aeolus episode, and any analysis of it must take account of the fact that Joyce, when writing that episode, drew on his recollection of the Freeman’s office in 1909 – not 1904. The shift in time involves a shift in perspective. The atmosphere in the Freeman’s office in 1909 was radically different from what it would have been in 1904. It was much more downbeat – and this is reflected in Joyce’s tone in Aeolus, compromising the episode as an authentic portrait of the newspaper in the year in which it is supposedly set.


In 1904, the Freeman was still the leading daily newspaper in Dublin; in 1909, it was moribund – the Irish Independent having supplanted it as the most popular daily newspaper in Dublin in the intervening years. Its decline is reflected in the anxious question posed in Aeolus about the Freeman’s editor, WH Brayden: “But can he save the circulation?”

The Freeman did eventually go out of business in 1924, but its fate was sealed by 1909 – and Joyce recognised that. In the Aeolus episode, we can smell putrefaction – and this chimes with the theme of paralysis, or stasis, in Irish life that permeates Ulysses and Joyce’s earlier work, Dubliners. That is the context for Joyce locating the Freeman’s office “in the heart of the Hibernian metropolis”, the opening words of Aeolus.

The Freeman is described in Aeolus as “a great daily organ”, and that is a valid description for 1904. Not only was it then the leading daily newspaper in Dublin, but – founded in 1763 – it was the oldest surviving newspaper in either Great Britain or Ireland with the single exception of the Belfast News Letter. In its early years, it was associated with the “patriot” opposition in the Irish parliament before the Act of Union with Great Britain of 1800 – most notably, with Charles Lucas, Henry Grattan and Henry Flood, all three of whom are mentioned in Aeolus.

From the early 1780s, however, its editorial independence was undermined by Francis Higgins, a thoroughly disreputable figure known as the “sham squire”, who was editor and later proprietor at the end of the 18th century. He was a paid agent of the Dublin Castle authorities. Prof MacHugh makes a passing reference to the “sham squire” in Aeolus, and he is also mentioned in the “Wandering Rocks” episode – “That ruffian, the sham squire, with his violet gloves”.

Higgins died in 1802, and the Freeman then passed through a succession of different owners – gradually recovering its independence from government influence, and becoming an organ for repeal of the Act of Union and the restoration of an Irish parliament.

In 1841, it was sold to Sir John Gray. The Gray family would be associated with the Freeman for the next 50 years and their involvement spanned three generations of the family. At the end of Aeolus, there is a passing reference to the “pavement island” around the base of Sir John Gray’s statue in O’Connell Street, Dublin, close by the Freeman’s office.

Joyce makes no other reference in Ulysses to Sir John Gray and no reference at all to his son, Edmund Dwyer Gray, who succeeded him as owner of the Freeman in 1875. However, he gives us a very harsh assessment of the Grays in Dubliners: when one of the characters in the story Grace recalls Edmund Dwyer Gray “blathering away” at the unveiling of his father’s statue, another comments that “none of the Grays was any good”.

Nevertheless, it was the Grays who made the Freeman’s Journal an important newspaper. The repeal in the 1850s of oppressive government duties opened the way for a great expansion in the newspaper market, and Sir John Gray exploited this opportunity, growing the circulation of the Freeman from as little as 2,000 to 3,000 copies per day to approximately 10,000. Under his son, Edmund Dwyer Gray, the Freeman’s production capacity was further increased, its circulation again grew threefold – to 30,000 copies per day, a market share of about 40 per cent – and it became extremely profitable. So successful was it that in 1887 Edmund converted the Freeman into a public company, while retaining control for himself and his family.

Edmund died in the following year, 1888 – and the Freeman was effectively under the control of his widow, Caroline Agnes Gray, for the following four years. She was a daughter of the English philanthropist Caroline Chisholm, celebrated for her work for female emigrants to Australia but caricatured by Charles Dickens as Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House.

Mrs Gray was proactive in her support of the Irish nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, when in 1890 the infamous “split” occurred in the Irish Party at Westminster as a result of the O’Shea divorce case, in which Parnell was cited as co-respondent. The Freeman, accordingly, came out strongly in favour of the beleaguered leader in the early months of the “split”.

The anti-Parnellites, however, soon launched a rival daily paper, the National Press, and the Freeman began as a result to lose circulation and revenue. This caused Mrs Gray to waver in her support of Parnell. Under the influence of her son – aged 21 and also named Edmund Dwyer Gray – she resolved that the Freeman should abandon Parnell and switch sides, which it did in late September 1891.

Mrs Gray later sold her interest in the Freeman in order to facilitate a merger with the National Press – effected in March 1892. This explains why, in the opening sequence of Aeolus, the newsboards outside the main entrance to the Freeman’s office refer to the Freeman’s Journal and National Press and the Weekly Freeman and National Press.

When the Freeman defected to the anti-Parnell side, the Parnellites launched a newspaper of their own, the Irish Daily Independent. It survived as the organ of the Parnellite wing of the Irish party until the party’s reunification under John Redmond in 1900. The Freeman was thereafter the organ of the reunited party, and the Independent was sold off to a Dublin businessman William Martin Murphy.

In 1905 Murphy transformed the paper into the modern Irish Independent, at half the price of the Freeman – a halfpenny, instead of a penny – and with a more popular format and a less partisan editorial policy. In effect, he copied what Lord Northcliffe (Alfred Harmsworth) had done in London in 1896 when he launched the Daily Mail, the first mass circulation newspaper in these islands. It also cost a halfpenny, and Joyce denigrates Northcliffe’s achievement by referring to him in Aeolus as “Harmsworth of the farthing press”.

Murphy’s new Independent was an immediate success, and its success came at the expense of the Freeman. The Freeman began to incur heavy trading losses and no dividends were paid to shareholders after 1908, just three years after the launch of the new Independent. This is the background to the decline in the fortunes of the newspaper between 1904 and 1909. The Freeman had failed to modernise; and, even by 1909, it was too late to save it. Quite simply, it had not embraced the new economics of newspaper production. It was already an anachronism, not part of the modern world.

Likewise, the journalists and others gathered in the Freeman’s office in the Aeolus episode seem out of touch with the world around them. As noted by Terence Killeen, a Joyce scholar who is himself a former newspaperman:

[Aeolus] gives the impression of people existing in a cut-off world of their own, unaware of anything outside the confines of their own circle – and this despite ostensibly being the people with their fingers on the pulse of public opinion.

The people in question are portrayed as looking backwards, comparing the present unfavourably with the past – and musing on the past glories of their newspaper and on the great lawyers of the past like John Philpot Curran and “like Whiteside, like Isaac Butt, like silvertongued O’Hagan”. It is certainly appropriate that Joyce should have so linked journalism and the law, for many Irish journalists combined those two professions – especially in the early stages of a career at the bar when the briefs that came their way might not be plentiful. One such was Richard (“Dick”) Adams, described in Aeolus as “the besthearted bloody Corkman the Lord ever put the breath of life in”; he was once a leader-writer on the Freeman, and became County Court Judge for Limerick in 1894.

Joyce’s disdain for the Freeman and its staff is perhaps revealed most sharply by his identification of the newspaper with Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds. It conveys not only his view of journalists as windbags, but also – to quote Killeen again – “the inconsistency and changeability of the journalistic profession, its responsiveness to every wind that blows”. Joyce thus characterises journalists as “weathercocks”. The Aeolus motif similarly denotes the ephemeral nature of newspapers – “[O]ne story good till you hear the next” and “Sufficient for the day is the newspaper thereof”. The latter quotation – echoing the Sermon on the Mount from St Matthew’s gospel – reminds us that newspapers have a shelf-life of just one day, hardly ever longer than that.

In depicting the people he met in the Freeman’s office, Joyce gives pseudonyms to those who feature most prominently. Thus, Pat Meade – the editor of the Evening Telegraph – is the model for Myles Crawford. Significantly, Meade was editor in 1909 but not in 1904. John Wyse Nolan is John Wyse Power, formerly of the Freeman staff and later editor of the Evening Herald, the Evening Telegraph’s rival published by the Irish Independent; and Prof MacHugh is Hugo MacNeill, not a journalist at all – but described by Killeen as “a somewhat under-achieving classical scholar” who was a habitual loiterer in the Freeman’s office.

Some who play a lesser part in the episode appear under their own names. One such is WH Brayden, who was editor of the Freeman from 1892 to 1916: his “statelily” arrival in the Freeman’s office is observed by Bloom who, noticing Brayden’s “fat folds of neck”, recalls Simon Dedalus’s gibe that “all his brains are in the nape of his neck”. His successor as editor, Patrick (“Paddy”) Hooper, is also mentioned. In 1909, he was the assistant London correspondent. This explains why it is said of him: “Came over last night” – that is, from London. It is reported that he had “gone round to the Oval for a drink” with Jack Hall, and JB Hall was a long-serving reporter with the Freeman. Patrick Hooper was the son of Alderman John Hooper, himself a former editor of the Evening Telegraph. In Ulysses, Joyce accords the elder Hooper the dubious honour of having been one of Molly Bloom’s many casual lovers.

Another instance of a father and son on the Freeman staff was Joseph Nannetti and his son, also Joseph – both master printers. In Aeolus, Joyce conflates the two. The elder Nannetti had moved on from the Freeman to a highly successful political career at the end of the 19th century. He became a Dublin city councillor in 1898, and an MP in 1900. He was lord mayor of Dublin for two consecutive terms, between 1906 and 1908. He cannot, therefore, be the model for the foreman printer with whom Bloom places an advertisement for his client, Alexander Keyes. His son is more likely the person portrayed in Ulysses – but he was never a member of the city council, and so it is a mistake for Bloom to address him as “councillor”. The error is compounded when Bloom thinks: “Soon be calling him my lord mayor” – thereby, from the vantage point of 1904, anticipating the father’s election as lord mayor two years later. By 1909, when Joyce visited the Freeman’s office, Nanetti had completed his stint as lord mayor.

Joyce’s imaginative re-creation of the Freeman’s office in Aeolus extends even to a cameo of the well-known Dublin newspaper street vendor, Davy Stephens:

The door of Ruttledge’s office creaked again. Davy Stephens, minute in a large capecoat, a small felt hat crowning his ringlets, passed out with a roll of papers under his cape, a king’s courier.

That final phrase – “a king’s courier” – refers to the fact that Stephens’ stand was at Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) harbour and he was reputed to have offered King Edward VII a newspaper when the king disembarked at Kingstown on his visit to Ireland in 1903. The man whose office door creaked was Wilson Ruttledge, the Freeman’s cashier.

The purpose of this paper has been to outline the history of the Freeman’s Journal, and to provide some further background information relevant to the Aeolus episode. While we must be cautious about reading Ulysses as history, it is nevertheless deeply rooted in actuality and suffused with a sense of the past.

As the novelist Brian Moore has pointed out, in an interview conducted in 1973 but first published in the Irish Times earlier this year, there is “a journalistic element in all of Joyce’s fiction” – namely, the inclusion in his books of a myriad of seemingly unimportant facts about Dublin and its denizens – and Moore says that Joyce “needed all that bumph to create that one day, Bloomsday, and give it that absolute feeling of reality”. He adds: “It gives Ulysses a marvellous solidity ... Something very ordinary is happening on a real level even in the midst of the most amazing verbal pyrotechnics”.

Excavating "all that bumph" enriches our understanding of Ulysses and enhances our appreciation of Joyce's achievement – and this is particularly true of the Aeolus episode.
This is an edited version of a paper given to a workshop on Reading Joyce's 'Aeolus' held in the Institute of English Studies, University of London, under the auspices of the Charles Peake Ulysses Seminar on March 2nd