Once a Catholic, always...

Truly nothing is sacred anymore. Now it seems even James Joyce may have died a Catholic

Truly nothing is sacred anymore. Now it seems even James Joyce may have died a Catholic. All our apostates and their claims, so much dust to dust. Our once unholy Trinity. First there was Oscar Wilde, who, it is claimed, died a Catholic in Paris. Then there was James Connolly, who they say abandoned historical materialism for the last rites in Kilmainham before he was shot in 1916, and now James Joyce. Old fraud who should eat his... words. All, it seems, were like Brendan Behan - just daylight atheists.

Admittedly, the evidence for Joyce's final return to Mother Church is, like Catholicism itself, ultimately a matter of faith. Those with a disposition to believe, do so. While those without it, don't or won't.

Father James Feehan, of Boharlahan parish, near Cashel, Co Tipperary, met Sister Gertrude Mary Joyce when he was a priest in New Zealand between November 1950, and April 1957. Sister Gertrude was James Joyce's sister Margaret. "Poppie" as the family called her.

She was a Mercy nun in New Zealand from her arrival there in 1909 until she died in March, 1964. In that 55-year period, she never returned to Ireland. She was also heavily sheltered by her superiors, from media and academics interested in her infamous brother, at the convent in Greymouth where she spent almost 40 years and later at Papanui, in the suburbs of Christchurch.

But she befriended two priests. Father Feehan, and a Father Godfrey Ainsworth, a Franciscan she was drawn to because her mother was buried in the habit of the Third Order of St Francis. Father Ainsworth taped some interviews with her, transcripts of which were published privately. They contain little more than Father Feehan recalls of his conversations with her about "Jim".

She told him she had intended entering the Sisters of Mercy in 1903, but her mother died that year. She was the eldest girl in a family of six girls and four boys, of which James was the eldest. She said James had asked her to stay on as "acting mother" until the younger ones were grown up. She agreed and did so for six years.

In his Dubliners story, Eveline Joyce gives a different account of what occurred. Eveline, who was also called "Poppens", heard music from a street organ. It reminded her "of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could. She remembered the last night of her mother's illness".

Sister Gertrude recalled: "we were always close and being the eldest, were sometimes in loco parentis." She had a letter he wrote to her from Trieste in 1907, asking whether he could send his son Georgio back to Dublin for a few weeks that the summer. It ended: "Hoping this will find you as it leaves me at present, thank God, I am, dear sister, your most affectionate Brother." It was destroyed on her death along with all the letters she received from him.

She claimed he inspired her vocation. "Jim was the most religious of us all. As a matter of fact, he scared the rest of us with the intensity of his faith and some of his religious practices. He was a daily Mass-goer and he used spend at least one hour in thanksgiving after Holy Communion. He was an avid reader, but never read a book during Lent - outside of his studies, that is. Besides, he was elected president of Our Lady's Sodality at Belvedere College."

When Margaret told Joyce of her intention to become a nun, he suggested: "why not do some thing really heroic and witness at the uttermost ends of the earth?" She asked where he meant. "The Antipodes - and New Zealand, in particular. You can't get much further than there," he said. "And that is how I came to be here," she said.

Joyce left Ireland for the first time in 1902, in revolt against family, nationality and religion. However, six months later he was summoned home by Margaret as their mother was dying. His refusal to kneel as the last rites were being administered deeply angered Margaret, she said. For him it was a test of his rejection of religion. She saw it as a betrayal of their mother.

So too did Joyce himself, it seems. In the opening chapter of Ulysses, Buck Mulligan upbraids Stephen (Joyce).

He turned abruptly his great searching eyes from the sea to Stephen's face.

- The aunt thinks you killed your mother, he said. That's why she won't let me have anything to do with you.

- Someone killed her, Stephen said gloomily.

- You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you, Buck Mulligan said. I'm hyperborean as much as you. But to think of your mother begging you with her last breadth to kneel down and pray for her. And you refused. There is something sinister in you. . .

And Stephen recalls:

Silently, in a dream she had come to him after death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes...A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.

SISTER Gertrude recalled that when she left Ireland for New Zealand in 1909, Joyce saw her off at Kingstown. She told him she was taking with her the surplice he had worn as an altar boy and that she would pray for him everyday, that he would return to the faith.

He just smiled, she said, and assured her he would write regularly and that if she ever wanted to come home, he would send her the fare. He did write regularly and after an earthquake on the south island in 1929 he sent an urgent telegram to the convent at Greymouth from Trieste to find out if she was safe. He again offered her the fare home.

She never read any of his writings, but she prayed incessantly for him. She requested Father Feehan to do so too. It is in that context we should consider the following story. Joyce died on January 13th, 1941. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Zurich.

A few months after his death, Father Leonard, a Jesuit priest, came to Greymouth to see her, she said. He brought her the only news she wanted to hear and that was to fill her remaining days with serenity. The priest was standing outside the hospital room door in Zurich when Joyce died, he told her. He said Joyce had a priest with him when he died. Father Leonard wanted her to know that.

She concluded that Father Leonard must have been the priest who was with Joyce when he died. Otherwise, she surmised, what was he doing outside Joyce's hospital room in the early hours of January 13th, 1941? Whether the story is true or a tale told to bring consolation to an old nun grieving for her beloved brother no one knows.

Ken Monaghan, Joyce's nephew and cultural director of the James Joyce Centre in Dublin, is sceptical. No one has ever unearthed the "Father Leonard" concerned for instance. Nor is he convinced that stories of Joyce's regular attendance at Holy Week services in Paris, mean anything other than Joyce loved the ceremonial.

He also does not believe the "mother's deathbed scene" ever happened, where Joyce was concerned. Father Feehan for his part has concluded, after his conversations with Sister Gertrude, that Joyce never escaped the nets of family, nationality, and religion.

He refers to T.S. Eliot's description of Joyce as a religious writer and quotes the great Trappist mystic Thomas Merton's explanation that he owned his conversion to Catholicism to "the writings of James Joyce." This delighted Sister Gertrude when she was told.

She dismissed notions of Joyce's exile after 1902. "Well, after all, he came home for my mother's passing. He came home again to see me off to New Zealand and he even came home to manage a cinema in Mary Street. On other occasions, he called on his friends Padraig Colum, Eugene Sheedy, and William Fallon. He never left Dublin. He took Dublin with him," she said.

And as for family, there was the affection of his exchanges with his sister, for instance. And that beautiful poem 'Ecce Puer', written in 1932 "with joy and grief" on the death of his father and the birth of his grandson Stephen. Its last four lines resonate of the power family and religion continued to hold over him.

He hadn't seen his father for 19 years before he died.

A child is sleeping; An old man gone.

O, father forsaken, Forgive your son!

The lines reverse inwards those of Christ on the cross "My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?" And the words ecce puer (behold the boy) echo those of Pilate presenting the bloodied Christ, ecce homo (behold the man), to the mob.

With three years to go before we celebrate the centenary of Bloomsday perhaps it is time to re-examine Joyce as a writer who became great because he failed in his ambitions?

A new documentary, James Joyce - The Trials of Ulysses, which traces the birth and eventual success of the classic novel, is on Network 2, tonight at 8.30p.m.

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