The reluctant professor MacHugh:3
Storm clouds of debt
McNeill’s tutoring and examining may appear to represent a period of stability in his life, but such an impression would be false. There were storm clouds brewing, and the McNeill whom Joyce doubtless knew at University College around 1900 found himself dogged by financial worries – or by his inability to manage his finances. On the one hand, his family was expanding and we read that he enjoyed the cut and thrust of society debate:
and he joins in a general meeting of students of University College on whether the students’ magazine, St Stephens, should change its profile,1 but on the other, the University College Archives (Eoin MacNeill Collection) reveal a much blacker picture of Hugh McNeill and his financial stability.2
In the summer of 1903 Hugh writes to his brother Eoin that he has not yet been paid the money he is owed (presumably from the University), and desperately needs funds to travel to Galway. In the summer of 1906 he begs his brother for money to cover his hotel and transport costs to Cork, Clonakility, and Waterford. He is clearly in a state of financial embarrassment, and relates how he had to give his name and address to every ticket collector he encountered on a journey to Waterford. It is not clear why he is travelling to the west of Ireland: perhaps he was teaching in Galway and Cork, or maybe even following race meetings. But perhaps a different hint suggesting a drink problem is dropped by Lenehan in Ulysses, who wonders in a limerick why McNeill wears glasses:
The situation was severe enough for another clutch of correspondence between his brothers Eoin and James in 1904 and 1906 (doubtless other similar correspondence has not survived) discussing how they can resolve the problem of Hugh and his money difficulties. Substantial payments are mentioned which might resolve the problem, but Eoin in particular is dubious. The issue seems to extend way beyond travel money. The brothers wonder if they can lease Hugh a house, so that he does not need to worry about the rent.
For a while the problem seems to ease, but it remains a worry for Hugh and for his family, who had hoped that work as an Examiner for the Royal University and the Intermediate Education Board might provide at least some respite from debt. It is perhaps typical of Hugh that, despite his own troubles, he was generous enough to subscribe one guinea to the fund for the distressed wife and children of the brilliant Dublin lawyer John O’Mahony, who died in November 1904.3 The friendship between McNeill and O’Mahony is something that we can now see Joyce pick up in Ulysses. O’Mahony has been identified as a model for “J. J. O’Molloy”, with whom McNeill chats casually in the Aeolus episode:
The newspapers identify Hugh McNeill in his familiar university guise over the next few years, in contexts distant from his debts. In December 1907 he proposed a motion that the University College Classical Society was “deserving of support”, and in December 1908 he chaired a debate of the University College Literary and Historical Society “That a love of science is antagonistic to a love of poetry”.4
Tutor and journalist
In 1908 the old Royal University was replaced by the National University of Ireland, with three constituent colleges, in Dublin, Galway, and Cork. This tidied up the previous situation and gave University College Dublin a new charter. This was a time in which a staff review was clearly held, and it would appear that Hugh McNeill lost his formal position as “Tutor” with University College, and was retained only at the level of an Assistant.5 His difficulties had seen him fall from the level of Professor in 1890 to lowly Assistant (comparable to a Scientific “Demonstrator”) in 1909. He remained listed as an Assistant until 1917-18, aged just over 50, when he faded from the University College Calendar.
With this reduction in his pay, he needed to look around for extra work, and – like many others – he found it in the colleges surrounding Dublin. Thom’s Directory for 1909 records a return for Hugh to Maynooth, where he had lived with his uncle when commuting to Belvedere College in his youth. He was appointed Lecturer in Ancient Classics, along with his old colleague at University College, Patrick Semple (Semple was also a Professor at University College Dublin). Hugh’s brother Eoin MacNeill (also still a Professor at UCD) is also appointed a Lecturer in Maynooth:
This appointment confirms the comment of Richard Ellmann, cited above, that McNeill was a teacher in Maynooth when Joyce met him in 1909 (Ellmann incorrectly calls McNeill a “teacher of romance languages”). Piaras Béaslaí, drama critic of the Evening Telegraph, who was interviewed several times by Ellmann about this episode, additionally remarks that Joyce:
Hugh McNeill’s appointment at Maynooth continued through 1910, but he seems to have lost the post by 1911, when he is not listed by Thom’s. If he could see beyond his present troubles, it must have been galling for him that his brother Eoin and colleagues William Magennis and Patrick Semple continued as full Professors at University College Dublin.
Joyce presents McNeill in Ulysses as a hanger-on in the newspaper office. He may have written a leader, and badgers the editor for information about whether it would be published:
There is ample third-party evidence that McNeill was often to be found in newspaper offices. Piaras Béaslaí introduced him to the Evening Telegraph in 1909, and Tony Gray’s biography of the Irish Times editor, Mr Smyllie, Sir reports on McNeill as a “supporting player” in the offices of the Irish Times around 1910:6
McNeill was spotted on his way to the Evening Telegraph offices in 1916, when the Proclamation of Pearse was being read on the steps of the GPO building in Sackville [O’Connor] Street:
Tony Gray recalls that once in the Irish Times editorial offices, McNeill would often be nibbling away at buns and cups of tea; Joyce remembers him nibbling a biscuit:
At the time of the 1911 Ireland census “Hugh Mac Neill” lived at No 6 Sandford Parade, Pembroke West, in southern Dublin, quite near to his brother Eoin in Herbert Park Road. The family consisted of Hugh, his wife Mary, and their four children Hugh, Dermot, Roisin, and Olaf. Hugh was by then aged 45, and persisted in maintaining his occupation as “Professor of Classics B.A.”, perhaps applying “Professor” in the loose meaning of “teacher”. That he had come to be associated familiarly with the title within the newspaper fraternity, as Joyce and others imply, may explain references as late as this to “Professor McNeill”:7
One of McNeill’s specialities is not alluded to in Ulysses: his prowess at chess. According to Byrne, Joyce himself had no time for chess, so this is hardly surprising. At some point in his later career, McNeill was Chess Correspondent for the Irish Times, and he was a keen setter of newspaper chess posers, but his association with the game goes much further back. John Byrne recalls chess at UCD in the mid 1890s:8
As newspaper columns were rewritten anonymously, it is not possible to track down McNeill’s chess contributions, but they were clearly significant. But in 1905 he was Adjudicator in a Chess Competition held in connection with the Oireachtas, the festival of national competitions. His report was published in the Freeman’s Journal for 31 August. As with his examination reports, he is seldom happy with performances, but is willing to give praise when it is due:
Hugh McNeill and his brother Eoin were fixtures for a time at the chess tables of the Dublin Bread Company, referred to in Ulysses as a Dublin chess centre:
But this is not an aspect of McNeill that Joyce addresses.
Prison, the first time
The Calendar of National Archives of Ireland contains an unsettling entry with respect to Hugh McNeill. The index notes on Document GPB/SFRG/1/42 reads:
Further investigations in the Mountjoy Prison register for 1913 show the following entry:
There is no doubt that this is Hugh McNeill, the brother of Eoin and James McNeill. He was convicted at the Four Courts and imprisoned on 3 July 1913 for non-payment of a debt amounting to £46 14. 0. owed to the Inland Revenue and which he refused or was unable to pay. Bailiffs had been instructed to seize goods and property to the amount of the debt on 26 June, before McNeill’s conviction, but presumably they had not been able to find enough to satisfy themselves. Thom’s Directory for 1913 shows that McNeill was then renting the reasonably expensive property Annaville House in Upper Annaville, Ranelagh, southern Dublin, but of course this was not his property to sell. It was also the address given by his wife, Mary, when she visited him in prison.
Despite his desperate plight – it seems his brothers were not ready to pay his debts for him – he made himself rather a nuisance to the Prison Governor. From the prison records it is clear that a handful of Mountjoy prisoners at any one time were problematic for the Prison Governor: at this period of suffragette activity in Dublin the Governor was required to force-feed prisoners who refused nourishment. Hugh McNeill did not refuse his food, but he wished to exercise his right to be treated as a “passive resister” to the British authorities. He demanded recognition in this role in a test case, and to be accorded the additional privileges allowed to “passive resisters”. From a list of fifteen possible concessions available to this category of prisoner, these were the ones Hugh McNeill requested:9
The authorities agreed with his demands, after a case made by the Deputy Prison Governor to the Chairman of the Prisons Board, on 7 July 1913:10
Once released from prison, Hugh McNeill
appears to have slipped back into his previous life. His employment by
University College as an Assistant in teaching Latin seems to have continued over
this unfortunate spell, but he had not been offered examining work for some
years now. He writes a letter to the Freeman’s
Journal in September 1913, and a few months later attends the funeral of
his old colleague at University College, Professor Cadic, along with his
brothers Charles and Eoin.11
It is likely that he was helped out by his family, as in 1915 Thom’s Directory records him living back
in Charlemont Place, at No 13. The house had a reasonably high rateable value
of 21 shillings.
1 St Stephens (1903), February 23. Joyce and his friend Byrne heard a speech by John F. Taylor at UCD in December 1901 (St Stephens December p. 45) and it is possible that Joyce and McNeill both heard the speech by Taylor to which MacHugh alludes in Ulysses at the Trinity College Law Debating Society two months earlier (Joyce's presence at least is confirmed by Stuart Gilbert).
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