The afflicted mother – two letters

U 15.4170: Mulligan meets the afflicted mother.

Richard Ellmann notes that this remark by the phantasmic figure of Buck Mulligan in Nighttown was “based upon a story current in Dublin”. The story recounted that Oliver St John Gogarty, the original of Mulligan, “returning home late one night during his medical course, staggered up the steps of his home on Rutland Square, reciting a station of the Cross at each step until, as he reached the top of the stairs and his worried mother opened the door, he concluded ‘Gogarty meets the afflicted mother’.”(JJII 366). Two unpublished letters from “the afflicted mother” herself, Margaret Gogarty (see the photograph below), are relevant in fleshing out the background to the relationship between Joyce and Gogarty, which, as we know, is mirrored by that between Stephen and Mulligan. They are not, alas, to John Stanislaus Joyce (that would have been worth reading) but of interest nonetheless.

The letters are to Thomas Kettle, one of Joyce’s circle in his college years. They are written over the New Year period of 1903/4 and are among the Constantine Curran papers held in University College Dublin Library Special Collections. (The collection includes quite a few letters to and from Kettle; how they came to be among the Curran papers I am not quite sure – perhaps Curran was Kettle’s literary executor.) Kettle seems to have been regarded by Mrs Gogarty as a reliable young man who might be able to talk some sense into Oliver. I shall give them in reverse order. In the first letter Mrs Gogarty had asked Kettle to come to visit her in order to discuss what can be done about Oliver. In this second letter she expresses her disappointment that Kettle has declared his inability to make this rendezvous. It is dated New Year’s Day 1904 and sent from 5 Rutland Square, which was also Gogarty’s own address at this time:

Dear Mr Kettle,

I am very much disappointed that you cannot join us on Sunday next but I hope you will make up for it on the Sunday following or if that does not suit could you name to me an evening about 6 to join us for tea. You could give me great counsel about Oliver, that erratic being whom I cannot control. He has great respect for you personally and for what he calls your sterling honesty, therefore I hope you will not refuse to help me in my desire for his reformation. If I could only speak to you for a short time you would much better understand the need there is to counteract the influences to which he is subjected. Would you do me the great favour of calling some morning. Tuesday or Friday would be the best as he attends the hospital those days and rarely returns home before one o’c.

I have a horror of Mr George Moore whom he meets at Sir Thornley Stoker’s, whither he has gone this evening. Sometimes I have wished from my heart that he had never won a literary prize but would give his undivided attention to the professional studies he neglects. Trusting you will grant me an interview and with heart-felt prayers that God may bless and guide you during the coming year,

Yours sincerely,

M.M. Gogarty

The previous letter she had sent to Kettle was dated 30 December 1903, just a couple of days previously.

Dear Mr Kettle,

Would you join us at lunch at 2.30 on Sunday next? I hope you will do me this favour as I have been wishing for an opportunity of speaking to you about Oliver for a long time. You can do him an inestimable service by your companionship and advice to counteract the evil effects of others, one, especially, a bad Catholic who spent a great deal of time with Oliver last winter before I discovered he was, or pretended to be, an Agnostic, so I forbade him to call here any more. Please do not tell Oliver I alluded to these matters but now that I have mentioned them I hope you will not refuse to come on Sunday next. Oliver tells me he is going out to you this evening, he knows I am writing this invitation.

Wishing you many happy returns,

Yours sincerely,

M. M. Gogarty

I think we need be in little doubt as to who the “bad Catholic” is. This letter, like the other one apparently overlooked by biographers, may well give some indication of the nature of the “call” that Mulligan says his aunt intends to make on Stephen’s father (U 9.552/3) and it does make the possibility of such a call, or maybe a letter, more plausible. It is not unlikely that when Mrs Gogarty, in the first letter cited, mentions the possibility of Kettle meeting "us", the "us" refers to her and to Gogarty's aunt, given that Gogarty's father, Dr Henry Gogarty, was no longer alive at this time. Mulligan's aunt, of course, herself features strongly in Ulysses. It also, incidentally, indicates that Joyce probably did frequent Gogarty’s house to some extent, making the scene of Mulligan telling his mother that Stephen’s mother is “beastly dead” more plausible as well.

The passage in Proteus where Stephen remembers being scared of Mulligan's dog and being laughed at by Mulligan for his fear (U.3.310-12) may also indicate that Joyce had visited Gogarty at his home, bearing in mind that Gogarty's father bred setters and knew Giltrap, the owner of the immortal Garryowen.

Reading this letter, especially the original, is a rather uncanny experience. It is as if one were stepping into the book; it reminds us again of how infinitely permeable the boundary between “life” and “art” is in a work such as this. And oblique though the angle is, such material can be useful for the study of Joyce’s work as well as of his life.

Terence Killeen

See also: Here's a health to Mulligan's aunt, by Harald Beck

The editors are very grateful to Guy St. John Williams for contributing the hitherto-unpublished picture of his great-grandmother.

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