James Joyce and Belvedere College (ISI Blog Post “I”):
Did you know that James Joyce was educated at Belvedere College, the prestigious private school that hosts our English Summer Camp for Teenagers, for no less than five of what were arguably the most formative years of his life? Joyce — who would go on to become a world-famous novelist of the modernist avant-garde, making Belvedere College renowned worldwide through his autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) — entered Belvedere in 1893 at the tender age of 11 and proved himself to be a very bright pupil there right up until his departure upon graduation in 1898 at the hardy age of 16. In a previous blog post, we shed partial light on ISI’s unique relationship — as an English school in Dublin — to this stalwart literary figure; universally acclaimed as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. In this blog post, part “I” of a very enlightening series of “V”, we want to enlighten you further by focusing on the rich religious heritage of Belvedere College — the base of our English Summer Camp in Dublin — as well as Joyce’s place, as but one of many famous alumni, within and beyond it.
Writing to his lifelong partner, Nora Barnacle, on August 29 1904, James Joyce tersely confessed that he had left the Catholic church — “hating it most fervently” — six years before. “I found it impossible for me to remain [within] it,” he ventures in this letter, “on account of the impulses of my nature. I made secret war upon it when I was a student and declined to accept the positions it offered me. By doing this I made myself a beggar but retained my pride. Now I make open war upon it by what I write and say and do.” The Miltonic atmosphere that would pervade all of Joyce’s writing, from Chamber Music (1907) to Finnegans Wake (1939), is perhaps nowhere better betokened than in this very letter which far from blithely betrays the Satanic sense of estrangement he maintained; cultivating it in exile and communicating it in his fiction: “I cannot enter the social order [now],” Joyce opined, “except as a vagabond.”
1898, the year in which Joyce states he lost his faith, was when the young Dubliner left Belvedere College — a private, inner-city Catholic boys school under the trusteeship of the Society of Jesus. He had been a student there for five years. Prior to this, notwithstanding a brief hiatus with the Christian Brothers, which he chose never to remember in his writings, Joyce was educated at the Society’ prestigious sister College, Clongowes Wood, in Salins, Co. Kildare. He entered there as a boarder on September 1 1888. When asked his age, the young Joyce replied that he was “half past six” — a beguilingly innocent response that would for some time to come constitute his nickname at the College.
In total, James Joyce was educated by the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits as they are less formally known, for the best part of fourteen years. For even when he left Belvedere in 1898, he went on to study at University College, Dublin: a Catholic institution which had been taken over by the Jesuits in 1883. There, Joyce would undertake a Bachelor of Arts degree, graduating in 1902. If Joyce retained anything from this lengthy education, it was, as his most esteemed “biografiend,” Richard Ellmann, relays:
[A] conviction of the skill of his Jesuit masters, the more remarkable because he rejected their teaching. “I don’t think you will easily find anyone to equal them,” he said long afterwards to the composer Philip Jarnach, and he corrected his friend Frank Budgen’s book on him by remarking, “You allude to me as a Catholic. Now for the sake of precision and to get the correct contour on me, you ought to allude to me as a Jesuit.” To the sculptor August Suter, who asked him what he retained from his Jesuit education, Joyce replied [in the manner of the 17th century French playwright Pierre Corneille, who had also received a rigorous education by the Jesuits], “I have learnt to arrange things in such a way that they become easy to survey and to judge.”
Joyce entered Belvedere College on April 6 1893, to become its most famous “OB” (Old Boy or Old Belvederian, as its alumni are known). Due to his father’s dwindling finances, he had been withdrawn from the more illustrious Clongowes Wood — “with its elms, large grounds, and storied (…) medieval castle” — in June 1891 and, in the interim, was sent, though not immediately, to the Christian Brothers in Dublin’s inner-city North Richmond Street: a fact that Joyce is reticent to remember in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916); preferring instead to have his alter-ego, Stephen, pass this period in a “long spell of leisure and liberty.” This was Joyce’s only break with Jesuit education, for like his father he was ultimately of the view “that the Jesuits were the gentlemen of Catholic education and the Christian Brothers . . . its drones.” Having denounced the latter as “Paddy Stink and Micky Mud” in A Portrait, Simon Dedalus, aka “John Stanislaus Joyce,” says to his wife in front of young Stephen:
—No, let him stick to the Jesuits in God’s name since he began with them. They’ll be of service to him in after years. Those are the fellows that can get you a position.
—And they’re a very rich order, aren’t they, Simon?
—Rather. They live well, I tell you. You saw their table at Clongowes. Fed up, by God, like gamecocks.
This conversation, which takes place over the dinner table, recounts the very real occasion upon which a rather pleased John Joyce returned home to relay his fortunate encounter with one Father John Conmee, SJ, whilst walking along Mountjoy Street that day. Father Conmee had become Prefect of Studies at Belvedere College, having left the position of Rector of Clongowes two years before. Although not yet Provincial superior of the Jesuit Order in Ireland, which he would become in 1906, he was already very powerful. On learning that his former pupil was impelled to attend the Christian Brothers, and mindful of his academic ability, Father Conmee’s benevolence was such that he immediately “offered to arrange for James, and his brothers too, to attend the fine Jesuit day-school, Belvedere College, without fees.”
There is another instance relayed by Richard Ellmann which, though it did not make it into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, surely complements this one. It took place in 1895, two years into Joyce’s education at Belvedere, when, having applied himself with great deliberation, he won a national academic prize for his performance in the national Intermediate Examinations. A direct result of this — his second such — victory, was that his father was called on one day by two Dominican priests who offered to provide James with free board, room, and tuition if he attended their school near Dublin. Leaving the decision to his son, John brought James into the room, whereupon, without hesitation — and echoing his father’s prior proclamation — the young Joyce announced: “I began with the Jesuits and I want to end with them.”
When Joyce entered Belvedere in 1893 he found himself amidst luxurious surroundings and he revelled in the history of the House and its environs. If Clongowes Wood, with its subversive associations with rebellion had “roused its pupils to thoughts of grand action and great suffering,” Belvedere, with its conspiratorial affiliations with crime and carnal passion, roused Joyce’s thoughts to sovereignty and literary immortality. In Ulysses (1922), in the opening section of “Wandering Rocks,” he would draw upon some of his early research on the College — which Ellmannn notes, was “to such good effect that a few years later he contemplated writing a small book about it” — when he has Father Conmee walking along Malahide Road thinking “of his little book Old Times in the Barony and of the book that might be written about jesuit houses and of Mary Rochfort, daughter of lord Molesworth, first countess of Belvedere.” In his stream of consciousness, we learn of “[a] listless lady, no more young, walk[ing] along the shore of Lough Ennel, Mary, first countess of Belvedere, listlessly walking in the evening, not startled when an otter plunged. Who could know the truth? Not the jealous lord Belvedere and not her confessor if she had not committed adultery fully, . . . with her husband’s brother?” The history gradually de-veiled through this process of random thoughts and reminiscences, of “half confess[ions]” and “tyrannous incontinence,” reveals a murky moment in the Belvedere family annals.
Built in 1775 for the second Earl of Belvedere, George Rochfort, Belvedere House is allegedly one of the finest eighteenth-century houses in Dublin. Situated on Great Denmark Street in the north inner city, its design and decoration have alternately been attributed to Robert West and Michael Stapleton, both leading stucco craftsmen of the time. Its principal rooms were named Venus, Diana, and Apollo after deities whose presence was superseded but not effaced when the Jesuits acquired the building in 1841. At the time, one Father Bracken, SJ, wrote to the Father General in Rome: “We have acquired a large, beautiful house on a splendid site, such as may be worthy eventually to deserve the title of College, provided we can find the men for it.” Find them they did, and to this impressive building the Jesuits added the adjoining house of Lord Fingall, which they purchased in 1884.
So impressed was the young Joyce by the College buildings that — perhaps amidst the opulence, detecting an air of decadence — he set about investigating the history of the Belvedere family right away. The young Joyce was quite alone in his sleuthing, but then again, he did always maintain a lifelong interest in, and passion for, miscarriages of justice — as evinced quite comprehensively in Adrian Hardiman’s 2017 book Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law. What the young Joyce discovered about the Belvedere family was that Mary, wife of the first Earl of Belvedere, Robert Rochfort, was accused of having an affair with her husband’s brother, Arthur, in 1743. As Ellmann notes, “[t]the letters which were produced at the time were probably forged, but Lady Belvedere was induced to say she was guilty so as to be divorced from her debauched husband.” However, such was the shame and stigma of a divorce in Ireland at the time, that it was too great for Robert to bear. Thus, instead of divorcing her, he cruelly set about imprisoning her at the family’s property in Gaulstown, Co. Westmeath, where she continued to proclaim her innocence for the next thirty years.
Though Mary repeatedly pleaded for release, Robert refused. He had his brother imprisoned too and, amidst his Gothic follies, lived a life of luxury and decadence right up until his death at the age of 66 — the cause of which is not clear; though spectacular accounts abound involving a midnight murder, a savage attack by wild dogs, and a less malicious rendition involving a lethal fall whilst on a “moonlit” walk. In any case, the year, 1764, was when Mary was finally released — a frail, old, and scared woman who had lost everything (some say even her sanity). It is said that when she was freed she asked only “is the tyrant dead?” and spent the few remaining days she had at her daughter’s home avowing her innocence on her death bed.