Echoes of the Flynn family in “The Dead”

Many people have (correctly) heard echoes of the Flynn family in “The Dead” and other short stories in the Dubliners collection, and fleetingly in Ulysses itself. It is perhaps appropriate here to review some newly discovered and some old correspondences between the lives of the Flynns and the characters and events of the associated fiction.

In “The Dead” the action centres around the Misses Morkan’s annual New Year’s dance. It seems safe to read “Flynn” for “Morkan”, and to agree that Joyce found the name “Morkan” in that of a neighbour of the Flynns. The Flynns certainly held annual concerts in the Antient Concert Rooms in the 1880s and early 1890s. It seems that they held annual New Year dances too.

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. Never once had it fallen flat. ('The Dead' 15.13-17)

The Flynn sisters portrayed in “The Dead” are named Julia and Kate Morkan. There were Flynn sisters called Julia and Kate (Catherine), and Julia did live at 15 Usher’s Island. But neither of these two sisters appear to have been particularly musical, and (although throughout two sisters may draw on characteristics of more than two prototypes) it is more realistic to interpret “Julia” and “Kate” in “The Dead” as the original “Misses Flynn” of Dublin choirs and concerts from the 1850s: Elizabeth (or “Eliza”) and Anne (also “Nannie”). The musical types who came to the annual dances were likely to include those who accompanied the Misses Flynn and other family members in performance, and indeed we find Bartle M’Carthy (as “Bartle D’Arcy”) and Mervyn Browne amongst the dance-goers. John Joyce would be there too.

Both of these Flynn sisters sang in or assisted the singing of choirs, and both sang a fine soprano (Aunt Ellen Callanan regularly sang as a contralto). The reference to “Kate’s pupils” reminds us that the “Misses Flynn” (as well as Ellen Callanan) taught singing and playing from their home. “Mary Jane’s pupils”, though younger in general, might attend the dance too. We have already seen the evidence in the Dublin newspapers that Mary Ellen Callanan held concerts for her pupils in the 1890s.

For years and years it had gone off in splendid style as long as anyone could remember; ever since Kate and Julia, after the death of their brother Pat, had left the house in Stoney Batter and take taken Mary Jane, their only niece, to live with them in the dark gaunt house on Usher’s Island, the upper part of which they had rented from Mr Fulham, the corn-factor on the ground floor. That was a good thirty years ago if it was a day. ('The Dead', 15.17-24)

In real life, the Flynn sisters had moved to the house on Usher’s Island in the early 1880s, around the time that Joyce was born. His knowledge of the old house over in Stoneybatter came from family stories. The Flynns did have a brother Pat, but he died in 1892, so realistically only the name (a family name) was useful to Joyce. Their father Patrick had died 1868. Peter Costello refers to the corn factor on the ground floor of the gaunt river-side house on Usher’s Island. Not thirty years, but Joyce does not need to be accurate – it will have seemed to him as if the dances dated from time immemorial.

Mary Jane, who was then a little girl in short clothes, was now the main prop of the household for she had the organ in Haddington Road. She had been through the Academy and gave a pupils’ concert every year in the upper room of the Antient Concert Rooms. Many of her pupils belonged to the better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line. ('The Dead', 15.25-30)

When the Flynns moved to Usher’s Island Mary Ellen (b. 1868) would have been thirteen or fourteen, so not really in “short clothes”. By the time of the annual dance in “The Dead” (mid 1890s?) her mother Ellen regarded herself as the “head” of the household (1901 census), though Mary Ellen would have been instrumental in keeping the household going. As we have seen, she “had been through the Academy” (the Royal Irish Academy of Music) and gave annual pupils’ concerts in the Antient Concert Rooms in Great Brunswick Street.

Old as they were, her aunts also did their share. Julia, though she was quite grey, was still the leading soprano in Adam and Eve’s, and Kate, being too feeble to go about much, gave music lessons to beginners on the old square piano in the back room.

We know that Anne and Elizabeth both regularly sang as sopranos, though neither seem to have been leading singers “in Adam and Eve’s”, the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Merchants’ Quay. Anne was failing in the mid 1890s; Elizabeth survived till 1900.

Gabriel […] was their favourite nephew, the son of their dead elder sister, Ellen, who had married T. J. Conroy of the Port and Docks. ('The Dead', 15.148-50)

Ellen was the name of one of the Flynn sisters (Ellen Callanan). She and Mathew Callanan did not, as far as we know, have a son. As far as we know, only Margaret Theresa Murray and Julia Lyons (both née Flynn) had sons.

A picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet hung there and beside it was a picture of the two murdered princes in the tower which Aunt Julia had worked in red, blue and brown wools when she was a girl. Probably in the school they had gone to as girls that kind of work has been taught ... ('The Dead', 15.366-71)

Earlier it was seen that the Flynn sisters attended one of the free schools in French Street.

Gabriel found himself partnered with Miss Ivors. She was a frankmannered talkative young lady, with a freckled face and prominent brown eyes. ('The Dead', 402-4)

It may be coincidental that one of Julia Lyons’s sons, James Joseph Lyons, married a Miss Eivers in 1888:

Lyons and Eivers – Aug 17, 1888, at the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar, by the Rev C Malone, CC, James J Lyons, 56 Grafton Street, son of the late Martin Lyons, of this city, to Fannie, second daughter of the late James J Eivers, JP, Tristerna Abbey, Mullagar, county Westmeath.

Freeman's Journal (1888), 18 August

- Amen, said Gabriel. So the old gentlemen, as I said, harnessed Johnny and put on his very best tall hat and his very best stock collar and drove in grand style from his ancestral mansion somewhere near Back Lane, I think.

Every one laughed, even Mrs Malins, at Gabriel’s manner and Aunt Kate said:

- O now, Gabriel, he didn't live in Back Lane, really. Only the Mill was there.

- Out from the mansion of this forefathers, continued Gabriel, he drove with Johnny. And everything went on beautifully until Johnny came in sight of King Billy’s statue: and whether he fell in love with the horse King Billy sits on or whether he thought he was back again in the mill, anyhow he began to walk round the statue. ('The Dead', 15.1078-91)

The second section of this article discusses Patrick Flynn of Thomas Street, the father of the Misses Flynn and their siblings. This Patrick Flynn, as we have seen, did live in Back Lane, despite Aunt Kate’s assertion that he did not, and so this could be the site of the “ancestral mansion”. Although there is no doubt that the family ran starch factories until the harshness of business life in Dublin in the 1850s brought that episode in the family saga to a close, the precise detail of Patrick Flynn’s roundabout ride around King Billy’s statue seems only to have been preserved in Dubliners.

The references to Eliza and Anne Flynn in the short story “The Sisters” can, as we have seen, be interpreted as generally applying to the sisters of those names. Little Maria in “Clay”, who finds everything “nice”, is foreshadowed by Maria O’Donohoe, another of Joyce’s relations on his mother’s side of the family.1 The preference for calling the family “Morkan” rather than “Flynn” is preserved in Ulysses itself, where they merit a couple of passing references.

There is not in this wide world a vallee. Great song of Julia Morkan’s. Kept her voice up to the very last. Pupil of Michael Balfe’s wasn’t she? (U 8.417)

This will refer perhaps to Elizabeth or Anne Flynn. But what evidence is there that either of them was a pupil of Michael Balfe – whose music is often alluded to in Joyce’s work? At present no hard evidence seems to exist, and Balfe – though born in Dublin – spent much of his early life on the Continent and subsequently in England. But the Dictionary of Irish Biography notes that:

Towards the end of 1838 Balfe accepted a singing engagement at the Theatre Royal, Dublin. He relished being back in Ireland, as he informed an audience of 100 leading businessmen and politicians at a celebratory dinner held in his honour at Morrison's Hotel on 28 December. While in Dublin he became a founder member of the Royal Irish Academy for Music.2

Balfe returned to London in 1841. The Misses Flynn were probably too young to benefit from Balfe’s tuition at this time, so maybe it is Joyce’s joke? Or maybe we will find that it turns out to be the truth.

Later in Ulysses Stephen remembers his past and the Flynn sisters:

Of others elsewhere in other times who, kneeling on one knee or on two, had kindled fires for him, […] of his godmother Miss Kate Morkan in the house of her dying sister Miss Julia Morkan at 15 Usher’s Island […] (U 17.134-41)

The young Joyce experienced the death of his great aunts Ann, Elizabeth, Julia, and Ellen in the ancestral mansion on Usher’s Island. In the mid 1890s Elizabeth (and Julia and Ellen) watched over the death of their sister Anne, and later on as the 1890s had just closed Julia and Ellen saw Elizabeth herself depart. The sisters leave echoes throughout Dubliners and fleetingly in Ulysses. It is of course not always (or perhaps ever) possible to ascribe particular events in real life to any specific sister in Joyce’s fiction, but for many years they were associated in his mind with the celebration of old Dublin life both in the churches and concert halls of Dublin, and in the family home.

John Simpson

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