Divil is in the de­tail of these three dads

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BOOKS - JONATHAN DEBURCA BUT­LER

AS Colm Toibin guides you through Dublin in the open­ing pages of Mad, Bad and Dan­ger­ous to Know, ev­ery cor­ner drips Colm Toibin, Vik­ing €18.99 with ghostly pres­ences. As Dante saw the bow­els of hell through Vir­gil, we see Dublin through Toibin as he por­trays the “iso­lated in­di­vid­u­als” who lived in a “poor, down at heel” city that was none­the­less in­flu­en­tial as, what Joyce termed, a ‘cen­tre of paral­y­sis’ in which “ev­ery writer had to in­vent a world as though from the very be­gin­ning”.

Like their fa­mous sons, many of the fa­thers who are the fo­cus of this his­tory sim­ply don’t fit well in the city.

Many of them ex­iled them­selves from Dublin or re­main ex­iled within it.

When we first meet the in­tel­lec­tu­ally “om­niv­o­rous” William Wilde, he is on one of his many sci­en­tific voy­ages hav­ing a “dol­phin dragged on board” a ship which he “dis­sected over three days... for a sci­en­tific pa­per”.

A doc­tor by pro­fes­sion, he founded the eye and ear hos­pi­tal but also “gave lec­tures on any sub­ject that in­ter­ested him”. Ev­i­dently, plea­sures of the flesh were of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est to William. He sired three il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren be­fore meet­ing his wife and Os­car’s mother, Jane El­gee — an ec­cen­tric of no small note her­self who is right­fully given due con­sid­er­a­tion in these pages.

Her hus­band’s lack of same led to a scan­dal in­volv­ing a fam­ily friend, Mary Travers. Jane men­tions her “dis­rep­utable con­duct” in a let­ter to Mary’s father which a jury later con­cluded was li­bel­lous. Al­though it seems clear that the dis­rep­utable con­duct was very much William Wilde’s, the case, un­like his son’s, did lit­tle to dam­age his lofty rep­u­ta­tion.

He earned his knight­hood for his work on the Ir­ish cen­sus and was hap­pi­est traips­ing through bog­land look­ing for an­cient ru­ins and mon­u­ments. He would some­times en­list his son on these ex­cur­sions. The young Os­car seemed to en­joy his days out on the far-flung out­posts of rugged beauty and later even courted the idea of study­ing Ar­chae­ol­ogy at Ox­ford.

“This pic­ture of him wan­der­ing on a re­mote is­land in the west of Ire­land with his father... is a new ver­sion of him, far away from the Lon­don he moved to…” writes Toibin. It is a poignant im­age.

John But­ler Yeats, who “of­ten joined his par­ents to dine at the house of Sir William…” could have done with some of his host’s per­sis­tence. John was given to ‘en­ter­tain­ing talk’, ac­cord­ing to the young James Joyce, but seems to have been some­what sloppy.

Ac­cord­ing to Lady Gre­gory, he “left his socks ly­ing about” when he vis­ited Coole and though he was given a de­cent start — an in­her­i­tance and some land — he squan­dered most of it. He was a gifted artist but, his fa­mous son noted, was ‘never sat­is­fied... that any pic­ture is fin­ished’ and thus rarely fin­ished one.

His re­la­tion­ship with Wil­lie was, at times, fraught. There were “threats of mild acts of vi­o­lence”. They moved in the same cir­cles but John viewed his son’s grow­ing fame with a mix­ture of jeal­ousy, pride and the cold eye of the critic.

Wil­lie, him­self, could be damn­ing of his father but he ac­knowl­edged ‘ how fully’ his phi­los­o­phy of life ‘ has been in­her­ited from [him] in all but its de­tails and ap­pli­ca­tions’ — a typ­i­cal back­handed Yeats com­pli­ment.

In his late 60s, the artist moved to New York where he spent much of his time not fin­ish­ing paint­ings, and writ­ing let­ters. The 15 years he spent in New York “saved him” which makes it all the more dis­ap­point­ing that we don’t re­ally find out what he did there.

Let­ters are ex­am­ined in great de­tail and tell us much about his mind­set, and his ap­par­ent fix­a­tion with Rosa Butt, the widow of Home Rule politi­cian, Isaac. But we learn lit­tle of his life in New York.

While John B was some­what care­less, John Stanis­laus Joyce was a sleeveen. His fa­mous son ‘was very fond of him al­ways... and even liked his faults’ which in­cluded ‘an ex­trav­a­gant li­cen­tious dis­po­si­tion... I got from him’. Toibin notes (also quite gen­er­ously) that Joyce’s father was “per­haps un­lucky that he lost his job” and that he had “so many chil­dren to feed” — nine in to­tal.

But John’s sec­ond son and self-ap­pointed fam­i­ly­his­to­rian Stanis­laus is prob­a­bly closer to the truth when he sug­gests that ‘ he was quite un­bur­dened by any sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards them’.

Joyce’s father was more at home away from home, so­cial­is­ing with as­so­ci­ates.

Toibin’s anal­y­sis of Joyce’s The Dead is quite su­perb. In Gabriel, Joyce “merged his own spirit with that of his father... ban­ished his scrupu­lous mean­ness and per­formed an act of gen­eros­ity”. In see­ing the good in his father, Joyce was per­haps min­ing his own soul for some­thing wor­thy.

Joyce stayed away from Dublin, pre­fer­ring to think of both his city and his father as he shaped them in his own mind.

The last time Joyce saw his father was in a por­trait he had com­mis­sioned and sent to him by Pa­trick J Tuohy. In a rather sad irony that un­der­lines Toibin’s idea of merg­ing fact with fic­tion, the por­trait was mist­i­tled Si­mon Joyce.

Though there is at times a lit­tle too much of Toibin him­self, par­tic­u­larly in the first 35 pages, this a thor­oughly ac­ces­si­ble and en­joy­able read — one which fans of Dublin and its lit­er­ary his­tory can glide through at their leisure.

Mad, Bad and Dan­ger­ous to Know — the Fa­thers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

Au­thor Colm Toibin

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