The reluctant professor MacHugh
- the man - From the Glens of
Antrim to Belvedere - High-flying undergraduates
at UCD - The Professor teaches - An Examiner for the
Royal and Intermediate - Storm clouds of debt - Tutor and
journalist - Prison, the first
the second time - A pauper’s death - Conclusion
U 15.927-8: PROFESSOR MACHUGH
(From the presstable, coughs and calls.)
Cough it up, man. Get it out in bits.
Introduction: MacHugh - the man
“Professor” MacHugh enjoys an enigmatic position in Ulysses. He appears in the Aeolus episode, in the newspaper office of the Evening Telegraph, but also occasionally elsewhere in the novel. For Joyce he is something of an awkward character, a classicist who clutters a newspaper office, nibbling at biscuits, flossing his teeth in public, responding to conversations between the newspapermen but initiating little conversation himself. His acquaintances tolerate his idiosyncrasies, but it is hard to determine whether they are genuinely fond of him.
Newspaper cutting from the Irish Times (28 October, 1935: p. 4), with photograph
of a portrait of Hugh MacNeill, by Aaron (Harry) Kernoff: UCD Digital Collection
Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (cropped)
We know from Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce, as well as from other sources, that Professor MacHugh is based to some extent on the real-life character Hugh Aloysius McNeill. Joyce had encountered McNeill when he visited the offices of the Evening Telegraph – part of the Freeman’s Journal complex of buildings running between Prince’s Street and Middle Abbey Street in central Dublin – during his “last days in Dublin” in 1909. Joyce had returned to Ireland for a short while, purportedly as a journalist for the Trieste paper, the Piccolo della Sera.1 Ellmann sets the scene:
Joyce’s portrait of MacHugh/McNeill is not particularly warm. But to others, Hugh McNeill was mainly remembered after his death with great affection. He was also remembered for being sometimes rather difficult, as this anonymous tribute relates:2
Through his interests, conversation, and associations he was an engaging link between the Dublin of the twentieth century and the City a hundred years earlier:
For “Seumas O’Sullivan” (Starkey in Ulysses), McNeill was the only teacher he remembered from his University College days:3
Robert Smyllie (“Nichevo”), long-time Editor of the Irish Times felt similarly:4
Joyce’s friend John Byrne called McNeill “erratic”;5 to Michael Tierney, he was “temperamentally unsuited for the academic life”.6 There was an aspect of his character – as we shall see - which made it hard for McNeill to hold down a job, despite his scholarly brilliance.
Harry Kernoff’s sketch of him (above) does not show all of the distinctive physical features that Joyce attributes to McNeill, such as his thick black spectacles and his “long lips”. It does, however, show McNeill’s long beard:
Tony Gray remembers McNeill’s “big, dangling red beard” in his biography of the Irish Times editor Robert Smyllie,7 and “Seumas O'Sullivan” (James Starkey) affectionately recalls his beard, his smile, his “splendid forehead”, and more:
Joyce alludes to his ink-stained cuffs:
and as Joyce describes his hands we feel his “thin fingers twitch[ing] nervously as he gathers his papers – the Echo de Paris among them – to step out into the night”.8
Although much of Ellmann’s description of MacHugh (McNeill) the person is accurate, it contains some factual errors and misses some important details, especially because it does not tie assertions to discoverable facts. The issue of whether McNeill was right to assume the title of “Professor” is a vexed one which has not been investigated in detail, and Ellmann’s description of him as “clever and lazy” has passed into folklore without being tested. This article attempts to uncover what facts can be known about Hugh McNeill, and in assessing them seeks to provide a corrective version of his life.
From the Glens of Antrim to Belvedere
Hugh Aloysius McNeill was the third son of the Antrim sailor and merchant Archibald McNeill and his wife Rosetta (née Macauley). He was born on 27 January 1866, at Glenarm, in the Glens of Antrim, and so was approximately fifteen years Joyce’s senior.
Much of what we know for certain about Hugh McNeill derives from solid scholarship on the life and achievements of his brothers Eoin and James, both of whom have extensive entries in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. There is no doubt that the McNeills were a talented family, both academically and professionally. Eoin (John, born in 1867) McNeill was one of the founders of the Gaelic League in 1893 and of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 (of which he served as Chief of Staff).9 He was Professor of Early Irish History at University College Dublin from 1909 until 1941 – a tenure broken temporarily by his conviction and imprisonment by the British at the time of the Rising in 1916 - and he became a Minister in the Free State Government in the early 1920s. James’s early career was spent in the Indian Civil Service, and when he returned to Ireland he assumed political office, eventually becoming the second Governor-General of the Free State (1928-32).10 A fourth brother, Charles, was a noted antiquarian and also an employee of the Collector-General of the Rates, through which connection he is likely to have known Joyce’s father, John Joyce, who worked for the Collector-General until 1893.11
Hugh, along with his brothers John, James, and Charles, received his first education at home, at the hands of the family’s governesses.12 John must have shown substantial promise because, unlike his brothers, he was sent as a boarder to St Malachy’s College in Belfast from 1881-7. The other brothers were placed under the supervision of their mother’s uncle Charles Macauley, Professor of Sacred Scripture and Hebrew in Maynooth, twenty-five kilometres west of Dublin. At first Hugh, and perhaps also James and Charles, was educated in Mrs Fagan’s school in Maynooth, where we find Hugh passing the Boys’ Junior grade of the national Intermediate Examination at the age of eleven.13
Perhaps Mrs Fagan was not thought to
stretch him sufficiently, and in the following year he was sent as a day-pupil
from Maynooth over to Dublin to attend Belvedere College, which Joyce of course
later attended. McNeill passed both years of his Boys’ Grade at Belvedere in
1880 and 1881,14 and in
the next year he was one of three pupils at Belvedere to be awarded an
Exhibition at the Boys’ Middle Grade of the Intermediate. This is the first
indication of his intellectual ability.15
He proceeded to pass the Boys’ Senior Grade in 1883, though by now his brother
James in Belfast was proving to be something of an academic star, winning the national
Boys’ Middle and subsequently the Senior Grade Gold Medals, and amassing substantial
financial prizes as he progressed.16
1 See “The
Prince and the Freeman” on this website.
12 Michael Tierney Eoin MacNeill: Scholar and Man of Action 1867-1945 (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 5.
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