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The reluctant professor MacHugh:2

High-flying undergraduates at UCD

In 1884 Hugh was faced with the challenge of passing the Matriculation Examination for the Royal University of Dublin. At the time the Royal University was only a degree-awarding body, offering degree examinations for various colleges in Dublin, Belfast, Galway, and Cork, where the undergraduate teaching was actually conducted. Hugh achieved a place at University College (then a Jesuit college), on Stephen’s Green, Dublin, where he will have encountered the Classics professor and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Not only did he pass, but he passed well, winning an exhibition again for his excellence in Latin, Greek, and Experimental Physics:

The Royal University of Ireland. Matriculation Examination […]

Honours in Latin – First Class - ..Hugh A M’Neill, University College, Stephen’s green.

Honours in Greek […] Second Class – Hugh A M’Neill, University College, Stephen’s green […]

Honours in Exper. Phys. – First Class – […] Hugh A M’Neill, University College, Stephen’s-green […] Exhibitions: First Class - £21 each – […] Hugh A M’Neill, University College, Stephen’s green.

Freeman’s Journal (1884), 1 November

     His intellectual prowess was serving him well, and at the end of his first full year at University College he achieved broadly similar results, winning a second-class exhibition:1

The Royal University. Conferring of Degrees. The Honors and Prizes won […]. First University Examination in Arts.

Honors in Latin […] M’Neill, Hugh A., University College, Stephen’s green […]

Honors in Experimental Physics […] Second class […]

M’Neill, Hugh Aloysius, Univ Coll, Stephen’s green […] Exhibitions […] Second Class, £15 each […]

M’Neill, Hugh A, University College, Stephen’s green

Freeman’s Journal (1885), 28 October

     At this point we find the first warning note that Hugh would not necessarily proceed smoothly through his university career. Although he had studied so far at University College on Stephen’s Green in the centre of Dublin, the Jesuit Archives’ manuscript List of Students, Courses, Fellows, etc. for the College in 1885 does not list him.2 By 1886 his college affiliation is given as University College, Blackrock, at which he passed his second university examination, with second-class Honours in Latin and Experimental Physics, and where he won an exhibition of £20 (2nd Class).3

     The bare university records give no impression of Hugh McNeill’s character, but we can gradually catch glimpses of his involvement with the intellectual life of the college. As his university career progressed, he became an active organiser of and contributor to university societies. By 1886 he was “Auditor” (or President) of the University College, Blackrock Debating Society, and at their inaugural meeting he read “an interesting and brilliant paper” on “The Ballad Poetry of Ireland”.4

     By 1887 James McNeill had joined Hugh at University College, Blackrock, and all four brothers, including Charles, attended the inaugural address at the College Literary Society.5 Hugh did not complete his degree this (his third) year, and so when he was awarded his B.A. the following year, both John and James had caught up with him. All three brothers received their degrees in 1888, with John (despite his earlier successes) receiving – like Hugh – a Second, and James a Pass. It seems that Charles did not complete his course at University College. Another Magennis outstripped both James and Hugh:

The Royal University. Conferring of degrees […]

B A Degree, with First Class Honours – […] Magennis, Wm, [in Mental and Moral Science] […]

With Second Class Honours – […] M’Neill, H. A. […] in Ancient Classics […]

M’Neill, John (Sch[olar]) […] in History, Political Economy and Jurisprudence.

Freeman’s Journal (1888), 1 November

     The Royal University Calendar gives the affiliation of all three brothers over their final year as “private study”.6

     Hugh’s university career was certainly solid, if not glittering. But his earliest promise was not fully borne out, and there are perhaps questions to be asked about why he changed college and missed a full year, completing his degree by private study.

The Professor teaches

Similar issues bedevil Hugh’s university teaching career. In general his greatest successes come early, and later on he slides backwards. This is a characteristic that is observable throughout his life.

     On completing his degree in 1888 Hugh soon won a place on the teaching staff of University College Dublin. The List of Students, Courses, Fellows, etc. held in the Irish Jesuit Archives is a mine of detailed information. From these archives we learn that in the year 1889-90 “H. MacNeill” was one of the “Tutors” giving “Evening Lectures” to first- and second-year Latin students. It was of course as a classicist that Ellmann knew of him. His second-year Latin class consisted of fourteen students.

     Along with Professor W. J. Brown, he also tutored eighteen Matriculation students and nine Arts students in Latin and Greek. The register lists McNeill immediately below Professor Brown, and precedes his name with a ditto mark, implying that the title “Professor” applies equally to McNeill.

     Conclusive evidence of his title as this early stage of his career comes from a further entry in that year. He is listed explicitly in the University College List (unlike some other staff members) as “Prof. McNeill”, teaching French to first-year Arts students. It seems he was not required to teach second- or third-year students.7 But in no year does McNeill appear listed as one of the professors at the University in Thom’s directory.

     The story continues with little change into Hilary (Easter) term 1890. Professors Healy and McNeill shared the Evening Lecture duties, with Healy taking the Honours students, and Professor McNeill taking eight Pass students (on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings). In Trinity (Summer) term, “Professor McNeill” is, according to these internal University College records, teaching first-year Arts students in Latin.

     But he is not listed here in Michaelmas (Christmas) term 1890, less than a year after the first reference to “Professor McNeill”. For reasons that are not explicit in the University record, he is no longer accorded the title, and it would seem that account had been taken of his suitability or reliability for this high level of work. It is likely that he continued in some capacity as a “tutor” at University College, but holders of this title were not listed at that time in Thom’s Directory.

     It should also be noted that Hugh McNeill was not called “Professor” MacHugh in the early drafts for Ulysses. Philip Herring’s selections from the Buffalo Collection reveal that he was first called “Old MacHugh”:8

Old MacHugh began laughing {& gave him a bear’s hug}

     Perhaps in “Old MacHugh” giving Stephen a “bear’s hug”, we can see Joyce remembering a close relationship between McNeill and the Joyce family. McNeill was clearly involved with Joyce’s circle at University College in the late 1890s, as references to his association with Starkey, Curran, O’Mahony, and Byrne suggest. Gogarty too writes of McNeill, and may have been taught by him when he attempted the Royal University examinations.9 Joyce, it seems, did not meet McNeill for the first time in the Evening Herald newspaper offices in 1909.

     McNeill seems to have had ample time for other activities. In 1891 the Freeman’s Journal catches sight of him speaking at the “Wexford Convention” in New Ross. Like his brothers, he had political interests. At this point he is referred to by the format he used so often in published documents afterwards: “H. A. McNeill, B.A.”10

     In the same year he is still being sought for his competence as a classicist. Whilst presumably maintaining some work as a tutor at University College, the Royal University – responsible for awarding degrees – employed him as an “Assistant Examiner” in Latin.11 Outside the realm of officialdom, however, he is reluctant to abandon the title “Professor”. In February 1892 he is back in New Ross, proposing a resolution at a political meeting, and is referred to as “Professor H. A. M’Neill”.12

     It is as a classicist, and specifically as a Latin specialist, that the characters of Aeolus know McNeill the academic. Joyce studied Latin, but not Greek, for his Intermediate examinations. He may have been tutored in Latin by McNeill at University College, though there seems to be no direct evidence for this. In Aeolus McNeill makes sententious remarks on classical texts and civilization, and at times displays his erudition:

— What is it? Mr Bloom asked.

— A recently discovered fragment of Cicero, professor MacHugh answered with pomp of tone. Our lovely land. (U 7.269-71)

— What was their civilisation? Vast, I allow: but vile. Cloacae: sewers. The jews in the wilderness and on the mountaintop said: It is meet to be here. Let us build an altar to Jehovah. The Roman, like the Englishman who follows in his footsteps, brought to every new shore on which he set his foot (on our shore he never set it) only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: It is meet to be here. Let us construct a watercloset. (U 7.489-95)

I teach the blatant Latin language. I speak the tongue of a race the acme of whose mentality is the maxim: time is money. Material domination. Domine! Lord! Where is the spirituality? Lord Jesus? Lord Salisbury? A sofa in a westend club. But the Greek! (U 7.555-8)

     McNeill had of course taught and examined on Cicero. “The prescribed speeches of Cicero” were referred to in one of his regular reports to the Intermediate Examination Board.13 Joyce has him comment on an aspect of classical scansion:

— A perfect cretic! the professor said. Long, short and long. (U 7.369)

      “In mourning for Sallust, Mulligan says,” in a comment which may indicate some degree of familiarity between McNeill and Gogarty. Sallust again was on McNeill’s list of texts to be taught. The University College students’ magazine, St Stephens, carried advertisements for text-books useful to the students:14

Blackie & Son’s: Text Books for the R.U.I. Examination, 1902

Virgil Aeneid II, III
Georgics I, II
Sallust The Cataline Conspiracy
Horace Odes I, II, III, IV

     To his friends, McNeill was the classicist par excellence. “Seumas O’Sullivan” recollected his days spent translating Catullus for McNeill:15

He was a genuine enthusiast on the subject of Latin poetry, and to him I owe an appreciation of Catullus. From almost our first meeting until the time of his death our friendship was unbroken, and his help in my earliest efforts to translate the Sirmian [= Sirmione] poet were unfailing. I can still see him as he came on some rendering which I had submitted, and in which I seemed to him to have caught the meaning of the Latin phrase, standing back with half-closed eyes and murmuring, "Splendid! Splendid!"

     Robert Smyllie felt much the same, but regarded McNeill not just as a classicist but as a European, perhaps in a way that might have endeared him to Joyce:16

Hugh McNeill […] was a real classicist. I cannot say anything in particular about his Greek, for I know none myself. But his Latin put him almost in a class by himself. He also had a European mind, which is not very common in this country of ours. You would never meet McNeill without half a dozen French newspapers under his arm.

Income as an Examiner

With his employment at University College through the 1890s less secure than it had previously been, Hugh McNeill was always looking about for new sources of income. This search, as we discover later, eventually overwhelmed him. In August 1893 he banded together with two other classics tutors and posted an advertisement in the Freeman’s Journal, offering private tuition to candidates for the Royal University examinations - again using the title "Professor":

Royal University Autumn Examinations; Vacation Classes will be conducted, by permission of the President, at University College, Stephen’s green, by Professors Dowling, M’Neill, and Tydd; Classes begin on August 14th; Private Tuition by arrangement. Further particulars on application to H A M’Neill, BA 6 Charlemont place.

Freeman’s Journal (1893), 14 August

     As well as examining for the Royal University, Hugh McNeill also obtained occasional additional income from the schools’ Intermediate Examination Board. In 1893 he was listed (without title) as one of the academics from which those responsible for conducting that year’s examinations in Greek and Latin would be selected.17 In 1893 he was unsuccessful in his application for this work, but the fact that he was considered is a testament to his academic competence. At the same time, he was clearly interested in the opportunities offered by St Mary’s University College (founded 1893), the new college “for the higher education of ladies” in Merrion Square in Dublin.18 This was one of a series of female Dominican educational foundations operating in Dublin at the time. “Professor H. A. M’Neill, B.A.” is listed amongst those present at their prize-giving ceremony in November 1895, which probably implies that he had collected some additional tutoring here.19

     There is a certain testiness - evidenced in McNeill’s Examiner’s Reports, which is apparent in some of the remarks on literary style put into his mouth by Joyce:

— Ah, listen to this for God’ sake, Ned Lambert pleaded. Or again if we but climb the serried mountain peaks…

— Bombast! the professor broke in testily. Enough of the inflated windbag! (U 7.313-5)

Ned Lambert, laughing, struck the newspaper on his knees, repeating:

The pensive bosom and the overarsing leafage. O boys! O boys!

— And Xenophon looked upon Marathon, Mr Dedalus said, looking again on the fireplace and to the window, and Marathon looked on the sea.

— That will do, professor MacHugh cried from the window. I don’t want to hear any more of the stuff. (U 7.251-7)

     Verbal testiness also alternates with physical roughness in his treatment of the urchin newsboy:

Professor MacHugh strode across the room and seized the cringing urchin by the collar as the others scampered out of the hall and down the steps. (U 7.394-6)

— Out of this with you, professor MacHugh said gruffly.

He hustled the boy out and banged the door to. (U 7.407-8)

     In 1896 McNeill was selected by the Intermediate Board as one of its examiners in Greek and Latin,20 but the year was noteworthy for two other events. On 21 May the Freeman’s Journal reported on the funeral of the Rev. Denis Murphy, S.J., latterly of University College, at the Church of St Francis Saviour near Belvedere School.21 The list of attendees at the funeral includes John Joyce, as well as Charles, James, and Hugh McNeill. Two and a half months later Hugh McNeill was married, at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin, to Abigail (Mary Josephine) Murphy. At the time he lived at 18 Charlemont Place, Dublin, and his brother John was a witness at the wedding. His wife Mary was to spend many years watching the sad events of her husband’s decline:

Marriages […] McNeill and Murphy – August 3, 1896, at the Pro-Cathedral, Marlborough street, Dublin, by the Rev Joseph O’Keeffe assisted by the Rev Thomas Kelly, S J, Hugh A McNeill, third son of the late Archibald McNeill of Glenarm, county Antrim, to Mary Josephine, only daughter of the late James Murphy, of Dublin. No cards.

Freeman’s Journal (1896), 5 August p. 1

     Hugh’s brother Eoin (John) had been active in the Gaelic League since the early days of its foundation in 1893. James soon became Editor of the organisation’s journal, and Hugh – often to be found seconding motions at meetings – attended those of the central Dublin branch of the League:

The Gaelic League. A meeting of the Central Branch of the Gaelic League was held at the Café Royal Lower O’Connell street […] On the motion of the Chairman, seconded by Mr Hugh M’Neill, B.A., the report together with the balance sheet were adopted. On the motion of Mr Hayes, seconded by Mr M’Neill, a vote of condolence to the relatives of the late Mr O’Leary, and deploring the loss which the Irish language had sustained at his death, was carried.

The election of officers then took place. Dr Douglas Hyde was elected president […] Mr James M’Neill, B.A., editor Gaelic Journal [etc.].

Freeman’s Journal (1896), 10 November

      Even though he seems no longer to have had a full-time teaching role at University College, Hugh McNeill is busy and useful in a number of areas. In 1896 he was finally accepted by the Intermediate Board for Ireland as one of its selected Examiners, in Greek and Latin. This was a substantial coup for Hugh, and gave promise of steady if not regular employment for some years to come.22 As a former student of University College, he was also a fairly regular attendee of the College Sodality meetings, a Catholic devotional and discussion group within the University. The Registers of Attendance for the group are held by the Irish Jesuit Archives in Dublin.23 As “Professor H. A. M‘Neill” he was a member of the Executive Committee of the Burke Centenary Commemoration committee, held at 4 College Green.24 The young James enrolled at University College in the following year, 1898. It was a small place in those days: he must have known the regular and more occasional staff.

     Whether through a change in policy, or a change in Hugh McNeill’s status, he began to be listed again in 1899 as a Tutor on the University College Dublin teaching staff.25 His Examiner’s Report to the Intermediate Education Committee may also be read amongst the official papers. He wore two hats as he responded to the Committee’s questions: firstly, as the interlocutor for the Dominican Nuns of Eccles Street, Sion Hill, and St Mary’s University College, and secondly on his own behalf.  He spoke extremely cogently, explaining that the Dominican Nuns felt that girls from the provinces of Ireland arrived too late in Dublin for proper training for the examination, and that they should be allowed a further year or so of teaching to present themselves satisfactorily. On his own behalf he was critical of the standard achieved by many of the boys, and in his response we can perhaps see something of the McNeill and his frustration with mediocrity portrayed by Joyce:26

His experience as an examiner convinced him that many pupils were taught merely to satisfy the examination, especially in Latin. A large number of the answers submitted to the examiners bore no evidence whatever of an intelligent teaching in Latin […] In the case of a large number of the worst boys he had spoken of, the teachers should get credit for teaching them the art of simulating knowledge which did not exist.

     By 1900 he and his family had moved house to Howth – a house called “Aberdelgie”, on the Harbour Road. The Gaelic Journal cites him from this address commenting on a Latin syntactic issue,27 and the 1901 census of Ireland records 9 Howth Demesne as the address of Hugh A McNeill (aged 35, Roman Catholic, “Professor of Classsics”), his wife Mary McNeill (35, Roman Catholic), and their eleven-month-old son Hugh Hyacinth McNeill (subsequently Colonel Commandant of the Free State Army in the 1920s).28 It is noteworthy that Hugh McNeill retains the occupational description “Professor of Classics”, although by now it would appear that this was an honorary title. It is not clear how long Hugh remains the principal householder at Aberdelghie, Howth. In the following year Thom’s Directory lists his mother in that role.

     His Examiner’s Reports to the Intermediate Board in 1901 display his characteristic annoyance with mediocrity, but also his sympathy with good teaching and good scholarship.29 He is likely to become perhaps over-detailed in his commentary on classical subjects, as is also evidenced in his conversation in Ulysses. Of the success of the Middle Grade Girls he says:

The opening sentences for Composition were, in the main, carefully done. Rhodes, however, gave a great deal of trouble in the sentence: "Cæsar, on his voyage to Rhodes, was captured by pirates." The general form adopted was Rhodes as in English. A modern allusion appears to have been suspected, and one girl put in the preposition ad, but safeguarded herself by saying that if Rhodes stood there for the town she would omit ad. Several wrote Rhodes, and only two knew the Latin form. In Composition there is but little knowledge of Latin idiom.

     When he wishes to be curt, he is able to summon up the relevant attitude and tone:

The most prominent defect is reckless answering without information or even commonsense behind it. Next to that comes a routine knowledge of abstract grammar, which has no practical meaning. Syntax is known to answer a question on syntax, not to help in framing a Latin sentence or in interpreting a Latin author.

     After two years when Hugh McNeill’s name does not appear as a Tutor at University College, the situation improves for him in 1902, when both Thom’s Directory and the University College, Dublin Calendar explicitly list him in the role of “Classical Tutor”, and he now continues to be listed as a classical tutor until 1908-9. The Calendar for 1902 reads:30

College Staff […]

Professors  Mental & Moral Philosophy: Rev. J. Darlington M.A. FRUI, William Magennis M.A., FRUI

Greek and Latin Languages: Rev. Henry Browne, M.A. FRUI, Patrick Semple

Classical Tutors: Hugh A. M’Neill, B.A., John D. Colcough


John Simpson


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1 In the same year his brother John achieved even more remarkable results in his matriculation examinations at University College Dublin:

Royal University of Ireland. Matriculation Examination…
Honours in Latin. First Class – M’Neill, John, St. Malachy’s College, Belfast…
Honours in Greek. First Class - …M’Neill, John, Sr. Malachy’s College, Belfast…
Exhibitions… First Class, £24 each - .. M’Neill, John, St. Malachy’s College, Belfast.
Freeman’s Journal (1885), 4 November

After the 1886 examinations, John McNeill had achieved the status of Scholar, rather than Exhibitioner.
2 Irish Jesuit Archives, 36 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin 2: document UNIV/24, List of Students - 20 November.
3 Freeman’s Journal (1886), 30 July.
4 Freeman’s Journal (1886), 12 November, which carried a long account of the paper; Royal University Calendar (1887).
5 Freeman’s Journal (1887), 18 November.
6 Royal University Calendar (1889):

B.A. Examination  

Honours in Ancient Classics… M’Neill, Hugh    Private Study   2nd Class
Honours in History, Political Economy, and Jurisprudence
M’Neill, John (Sch.)  Private Study   2nd Class
Pass  M’Neill, James A.   Private study

7 Irish Jesuit Archives: document UNIV/24, 1889-90.
8 Phillip Herring, Joyce’s Notes & Early Drafts for Ulysses: Selections from the Buffalo Collection (1977), p. 170.
9 Irish Times (1943), 25 September (Starkey); O. St. J. Gogarty Tumbling in the Hay (1939), p. 57, and John Lyons, James Joyce & medicine (1974), p. 66; C. P. Curran, James Joyce Remembered (1968), p. 61 (Curran, O’Mahony);  John F. Byrne, Silent Years (1953), p. 41.
10 Freeman’s Journal (1891), 23 October.
11 Royal University Calendar (1892). McNeill’s name was similarly proposed in 1895, but he was not selected.
12 Freeman’s Journal (1892), 16 February.
13 Report of the Intermediate Education Board for Ireland for the year 1901 (Dublin: 1902) Appendix: Latin, p. 21.
14 St Stephens (1901), 1 June [unnumbered, at end].
15 “Seumas O’Sullivan” in Irish Times (1943), 25 September.
16 Irish Times (1951), 15 September.
17 Report of the Intermediate Board for Ireland for the year 1893 (1894): Appendix One.
18 Freeman’s Journal (1896), 29 August p. 2: “Dominican Convent, Sion Hill, Blackrock, County Dublin… The tram from Kingstown to Dublin […] affords every facility for Day-Pupils attending St Mary’s University College, 29 Merrion square.” The College moved to Muckross Park in September 1900.
19 Freeman’s Journal (1895), 2 November.
20 Report of the Intermediate Board for Ireland for the year 1896 (1897): Appendix 1. He remained an Examiner until at least 1901.
21 For one obituary of Rev. Murphy, see the Irish Monthly (1986), June pp. 328-31.
22 Report of the Intermediate Board for Ireland for the year 1896 (1897): Appendix 1.
23 University College Sodality – Register of Attendance 20 January 1894 – 1 May 1909 (Irish Jesuit Archives: UNIV/32). He also attended a meeting (with Charles Joyce), on 5 February, 1898; on 5 March 900 he (unusually) signed the attendance book in Gaelic script.
24 Freeman’s Journal (1898), 13 January.
25 Royal Commission on University Education in Ireland (1899), Appendix to Third Report p. 558.
26 Freeman’s Journal (1899), 18 February; Final Report to the Commissioners
(Intermediate Education (Ireland) Commission) (1899), p. 576.
27 Irisleabar na Gaedhilge: The Gaelic Journal (1900), vols. 11-12 p. 109.
28 See the entry for Hugh Hyacinth McNeill in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.
29 Report of the Intermediate Education Board for Ireland for the year 1901 (1902), p. 22-3 (Middle Grade, First Paper, Girls), 25-6 (Preparatory Grade, First Paper, Boys).
30 University College, Dublin. Calendar. Session 1902-3 (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers, & Walker, 1903): Jesuit Archives UNIV/34.