Flynnlandia, or the rise (and fall) of the House of Usher

D 15.13-16 (‘The Dead’): It was always a great affair, the Misses Morkan’s annual dance. Everybody who knew them came to it, members of the family, old friends of the family, the members of Julia’s choir, any of Kate’s pupils that were grown up enough and even some of Mary Jane’s pupils too.


Kate and Julia Morkan are central characters in Joyce’s Dubliners story, ‘The Dead’, written round 1906. They also merit a couple of passing references in Ulysses. As Richard Ellmann notes, they represent aunts of Joyce’s mother, Mary Jane Murray, on her mother’s side.1 The family was musical, and some of the aunts (“the Misses Flynn”) ran a private school teaching piano and singing in Dublin. As Ellmann states:

The school was operated by two of [Mary Jane Murray’s] sisters, Mrs. Callanan and Mrs. Lyons, with the aid later on of Mrs. Callanan’s daughter, Mary Ellen. (p. 19)

Later evidence suggests that Ellmann may have been incorrect in identifying the Misses Morkan with these two Flynn sisters.

Readers of ‘The Dead’ will be familiar with the annual New Year parties given by Kate and Julia Morkan, with their niece Mary Jane – who studied at “the Academy” (Dublin’s Royal Irish Academy of Music). Since Ellmann, the most comprehensive information about the Flynn family may be found in Peter Costello’s excellent James Joyce: the years of growth 1882-1915. Chapter One (“The Dead”) begins with a brief but closely researched history of the Flynn dynasty:

Some time in the years before the Battle of Waterloo a Dublin merchant named Patrick Flynn opened a factory for making starch and blueing at 53 Back Lane, in the parish of St Nicholas-without-the-City-Walls […] He was James Joyce’s maternal great-grandfather. [Etc.] (p. 23)

More recently a considerable amount of new information on the Flynn family has become available through historical databases of Irish newspapers and other nineteenth-century sources. The purpose of this article is to examine what these sources can tell us about the real-life Flynn family, and to determine how much of this information Joyce uses in his delineation of the Flynns in his work. This review calls into question, amongst other things, the simple one-to-one correspondence between Kate Morkan and Mrs Ellen Callanan (née Flynn) and between Julia Morkan and Mrs Julia Lyons (née Flynn) proposed by Ellmann, but also draws what may be a more accurate (though necessarily incomplete) picture of the Flynn family throughout the nineteenth century in Dublin.

John Simpson

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1 Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982) (revised edition).

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