Step-down facility – An Irishman’s Diary about the Joycean property ladder

Patrick J Tuohy’s portrait  of John Stanislaus Joyce

Patrick J Tuohy’s portrait of John Stanislaus Joyce

 

On that infamous piece of real-estate-agency furniture, the property ladder, the only direction you ever hear of anyone taking is up. Yes, mortgage defaulters fall off the ladder all the time – just never in those exact words. As for buying a smaller house than before to suit circumstances, the approved cliché for that is “downsizing”.

But people do descend the property ladder, clearly: sometimes via many rungs.  

And the most dramatic example I can think of involved the man who was arguably Ireland’s greatest writer. 

By the time he left Dublin, thanks mainly to his spendthrift father, James Joyce had lived in some 20 different addresses in the city, a majority with his family. Barring one or two, each was a level down, financially and socially, from where they had been before. 

Joyce’s brother Stanislaus actually uses the L-word in his memoirs. Recalling his own childhood in an estimated “nine addresses [...] over a period of at most 11 years”, he suggests that each represented a “descending step in the ladder of our fortunes”.

For the slightly older James, by contrast, the trajectory wasn’t all negative, but only because his father didn’t quite start at the top. The writer’s birthplace, in Brighton Square, Rathgar, was a step below the three-storey house in Rathmines to which the family moved soon afterwards, in 1884.  

That was their best address: immortalised in A Portrait of the Artist as the scene of the Christmas dinner row where Joyce snr, bereft of his beloved Parnell, is brought to tears by the fire-breathing Mrs Riordan, aka “Dante”, who took the church’s side in the great divorce split.

In real-life, old man Joyce seems to have considered Parnell’s downfall a part of his own. Their declines certainly coincided. But having come to Dublin from Cork with a comfortable inheritance including six rental properties, back home, John Joyce had always been more talented at losing money than keeping it.

Although not much more than 40, with a wife and nine children – one of them a genius – to support, he more or less gave up pursuit of a career in favour of socialising and drink

The collapse of Chapelizod Distillery, in which he was deeply involved, was one big blow. So, later, was the loss of an easy, well-paid job as rate collector.  

By the early 1890s, as the political depression that followed Parnell’s death set in, Joyce snr was depressed too.  

Although not much more than 40, with a wife and nine children – one of them a genius – to support, he more or less gave up pursuit of a career in favour of socialising and drink.

I was reminded of all this by Colm Tóibín’s brilliant essay on John Joyce in the latest London Review of Books. Headlined “His Spittin’ Image”, that focuses mainly on the relationship between Joyce snr and his most famous son.  

And it explains why, although the former was in most ways a terrible father and a worse husband (he once made what Stanislaus called a “vague attempt to strangle’’ their mother, although since this involved grabbing her by the throat and threatening to “finish it”, until his sons intervened, modern readers might wonder what was vague about it), James Joyce still somehow loved the old man and credited him with much of his own personality.

One notable result of Joyce Snr’s economic reversals was his son’s withdrawal aged nine from Clongowes Wood College. Thenceforward , the young prodigy had to slum it in Belvedere, an indirect effect of the family’s changing residential profile, which had involved first a retreat to the distant suburbs – Bray – followed by a plunge into the north inner city.

As they moved there from one distressed tenancy to another, old Joyce even devised a form of bridging finance (imaginary) to suit. This involved reverse-leveraging the unpaid rent on his latest address, by warning an exasperated landlord that, without proof of recent payments, a new landlord wouldn’t take him on.  

Thus the (outgoing) landlord, as Stanislaus explained, “to get a bad tenant off his hands, would give him receipts for the unpaid rent of a few months, and with these my father would be able to inveigle some other landlord into letting him a house”.

As for James Joyce, his temporary refuges in Dublin later included the Martello Tower in Sandycove, from which he received an eviction notice at gunpoint.  

Soon after that he left Ireland for the Continent, where he could remember his father affectionately from a safe distance. He remembered Dublin affectionately too, somehow. Having lived in more of it than most people, with ever-decreasing levels of comfort, he went on to immortalise it in an epic book, from the pages of which, he joked, it could be rebuilt brick by brick. 

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