'You ought to allude to me as a Jesuit,' Joyce once remarked
The Jesuits and - probably their most famous pupil - James Joyce had a "fearful" relationship. Father Bruce Bradley SJ traces its turbulent lines
In the fine programme published to accompany the Department of Foreign Affairs' remarkable Joyce exhibition, currently touring the world, there is a curious omission in the section devoted to the writer's schooling. While naming the schools, there is no mention of Jesuits.
To make this observation is not to indulge some kind of wounded Jesuit amour propre. In view of Joyce's rather uneven relationship with his former teachers, and their's with him, he (and others) might find such a reaction a bit rich. But the facts are clear: between the ages of 6½ and 20, virtually all of his formal education was at the hands of the Jesuits.
He was in Clongowes from 1888-91, in Belvedere from 1893-98, and in the then Jesuit-run University College on St Stephen's Green from 1898 until 1902. The only exception is the very brief period he and his younger brother, Stanislaus, spent in O'Connell's in the early part of 1893, something clearly attested to by CP Curran.
If that was not enough, he himself famously remarked to his Zürich friend, Frank Budgen: "You allude to me as a Catholic. For the sake of precision and to get the correct contour on me, you ought to allude to me as a Jesuit."
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he has his fictional counterpart, Stephen Dedalus, ruminate on the prospect of becoming a Jesuit while at Belvedere, something to which Joyce himself undoubtedly gave serious consideration during his own schooldays and for rather longer than the novel might suggest.
In Ulysses, Buck Mulligan criticises Stephen's refusal to pray at his mother's deathbed, asserting that "you have the cursed jesuit strain in you, only it's injected the wrong way".
Joyce's early school profile as a model student and prize-winning exhibitioner in the Intermediate education system faded about 1896, in the years of his precociously turbulent adolescence, to be replaced by a new identity as dissident and rebel.
This was apparent even before he left Belvedere and he would tell Nora Barnacle later, just before they eloped to the Continent, that it was at that point, in 1898, he "left the Catholic Church, hating it most fervently". In University College, he had attended few lectures and was scarcely amenable to Jesuit discipline at all.
In his early years on the Continent, still angry and resentful, in a letter to Stanislaus, he described the Jesuits as "black lice" (he was something of a personal expert on lice!) In another letter, he spoke of religion as "a very troublesome burden", which his parents had "superimposed" on him. He had refused as a matter of free-thinking principle to marry Nora and would not hear of having either of his children baptised.
Meanwhile, the Jesuits, who had once rewarded his academic and personal potential by promoting him to the position of "virtual head of the school" at Belvedere, and even invited him to join their number, began a process of distancing themselves from their former star pupil.
When he graduated from University College with a mediocre degree in modern languages in 1902, only the Sicilian Father Charles Ghezzi, his Italian tutor, seems to have sent congratulations. In 1907, when The Belvederian published a poem of his through the good offices of his old English teacher, Mr Dempsey, the piece was described discreetly as "verses by a past Belvederian".
In October 1921 Joyce and the then rector of Belvedere, Father Charles Doyle, exchanged impersonal letters about the history of the Belvedere family, although Doyle - referred to by name and remembered as "a plump freshfaced jesuit" in A Portrait - had produced the school play, Vice Versa, in the college in January 1898, when Joyce had played the role of "the farcical pedagogue".
Herbert Gorman, visiting Clongowes in July 1937 at Joyce's suggestion while researching his biography of the writer, was advised by Curran to "breathe not his name" if he wanted to gain admittance. When Joyce died four years later, world-renowned, neither Clongowes nor Belvedere recorded the fact or published obituary tributes in their school magazines.
Joyce's own attitude showed signs of mellowing over time. His language pupil and friend, the Triestine writer, Italo Svevo, told an audience in Milan in 1927: "Joyce still feels admiration and gratitude for the care of his educators; whilst his sinister Dedalus cannot find time to say so."
Earlier, in Zürich, when asked by the sculptor, August Suter, what he had gained from his Jesuit education, Joyce said he had been taught "to arrange things in such a way that they become easy to survey and to judge".
Perhaps even more strikingly, he reflected in a letter at the end of 1923 to Valéry Larbaud, the French writer who supervised the translation of Ulysses, that his ability to persevere in his writing in adverse circumstances might be due to the "influence of ad maiorem dei gloriam, perhaps."
The allusion is to the Jesuit motto - "for the greater glory of God" - which he had been taught to place on his exercises in Clongowes and Belvedere so many years before and which, however interpreted, he had not forgotten.
It may have been a reflection of his more mellow attitude that, when Father Joseph Darlington, somewhat unkindly represented in the university chapter of A Portrait, died in July 1939, Joyce wrote to Curran: "I see [. . .]that our old dean of studies has gone. He was a well- meaning peacemaker and I hope he is blessed."
It may be over-interpretation to see not just a more eirenic attitude to his Jesuit mentors, but even an expression of what looks very like Christian hope in the hidden allusion to the beatitudes which this comment contains. But perhaps it is not.
Since the mid-1950s, Jesuit attitudes have mellowed too. Today, Joyce's portrait hangs in a place of honour in the Clongowes corridor he once traversed as a very small boy to complain to the rector that he had been unjustly punished. And in Belvedere it adorns the wall of the parlour where another rector hopefully invited him to become a Jesuit.
Bruce Bradley SJ is a former headmaster of both Belvedere and Clongowes Wood colleges, and author of James Joyce's Schooldays