The reluctant professor MacHugh:4
Prison, the second time
The professorship at University College Dublin held by Hugh’s brother, Eoin McNeill, was not renewed when it came up for seven-year review in 1916. Eoin had been involved in political dealings with the Irish Republican Brotherhood on behalf of his Volunteers at the time of the Rising, and was subsequently imprisoned. In mid 1917, Hugh’s mother Rosetta, long-time widow of his father Archibald McNeill, died in Rathfarnham, Dublin.1 The family was unsettled again. When Eoin was released, he received further letters from his brother Hugh – again concerning Hugh’s financial situation. Things were clearly so bad that Hugh and his family were likely to lose their accommodation in Sandford Place.
The family certainly did help out at times. Hugh’s brother James seems the most sympathetic. Tony Gray tells another office tale of generosity and pride:2
Further matters of an obscure nature are discussed in the letters, and it is clear that the rest of the family is temporarily involved in caring for his children, much to Hugh’s concern and dismay.3 By late 1917 Hugh, and presumably his family, are living in his mother’s old house in Rathfarnham, and Hugh’s state of mind seems unsettled.
1918 was no better. Hugh’s son Hugh, now eighteen himself and ultimately set upon a distinguished military career, was arrested by the British and imprisoned in Mountjoy, for participating in drill exercises and wearing military uniform contrary to regulations. As the situation grew more tense in Ireland on the eve of the Republic, Eoin McNeill was again arrested and imprisoned, and many others were apprehended during the “Dublin round-up” of people who might be considered dangerous to the British government. Included in the sixty people apprehended in late November 1920 was Hugh McNeill, apparently by then staying in South King Street, near Stephen’s Green in central Dublin. He was released two weeks later, without trial, but the event must have been profoundly disturbing:
By now Hugh McNeill was almost 55 years old. He was no longer employed in any substantive academic capacity, had a prison record and a history of antagonism to the British authorities. He had been in constant debt for about twenty years or more. But the low ebb that he had reached was not the final indignity he was to suffer.
A pauper’s death
Evidence for any activities by Hugh McNeill in the final decade of his life are, not surprisingly, hard to find. But he was not entirely cast down by circumstances. On 14 September 1927 his brother Eoin was in Fermoy, Co Cork, speaking on the same platform as President Cosgrave. At the same time Hugh McNeill was attending a Finna Fail election rally in Cork City. The Cork Examiner of 15 September 1927 records that he not only attended but spoke at the rally:
But by now references to Hugh McNeill are only nostalgic and retrospective. Despite the successes that his brothers Eoin and James were now enjoying, Hugh was only a memory. The Jesuit history of University College spoke of him in 1930 as if he were already dead:4
When Hugh did die, on 13 October 1935, there were more shocks in store. A story circulated that he was found dead in a telephone kiosk on College Green, central Dublin:5
The official documentation does not support this, but it is not surprising that such a story should arise around the death of a long-forgotten but fondly remembered friend to so many of the students and newspaperman of Joyce’s Dublin.
His death certificate reveals a sadder story. After being taken ill and treated in the Meath Hospital in Dublin, he was conveyed to south Dublin, to the City’s remaining workhouse, where he died.6 He died in obscurity: there were no obituaries and only a passing reference in the Belvederian. Seumas O’Sullivan visited him, dying, in hospital. When most of his friends did hear about his death, weeks later, the newspapers were led by a handsome and lengthy “Tribute” by “A Friend” in the Irish Times, cited here numerous times.7
Hugh McNeill’s life started with great promise. He was born into a talented family, and achieved excellent academic results, leading to a post at University College Dublin. He certainly came into contact with the Joyces and the writer's circle at this time, and there are signs in early Ulysses drafts of a genuine warmness between McNeill and the Joyces. While McNeill was teaching at University College he was at first accorded the title of “Professor”, but soon lost that distinction. However, he continued to use the title in academic contexts, and in due course his journalist friends and others used it familiarly when speaking or writing of him.
Joyce also met McNeill in 1909, after McNeill’s career had turned sour. He was unsuited to the academic life – for reasons that are never made absolutely explicit – and had supplemented his salary as a tutor with examining for the Royal University and the Intermediate Examination Board.
From the very early years of the twentieth century he had fallen into debt, apparently unable to manage his money or (at times) to support his growing family. This had led to a spell in prison for refusal to pay his Income Tax bill. As his brothers Eoin and James became significant players on the political stage of the new Free State, Hugh tended to vanish into obscurity, dying at last almost forgotten in the Dublin workhouse.
Joyce will probably not have known much of the detail of Hugh McNeill’s life, but the facts complement the image of McNeill portrayed by Joyce. We see his idiosyncrasies of thought and dress both in the novel and in his life – the one complementing the other, and some reasons behind with curious relationship with the newspapermen in Ulysses.
I would like to thank the UCD Archives and the Irish Jesuit Archives in Dublin for their courtesy and assistance during my research for this article.
1 Freeman’s Journal (1917), 7 July.
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