James Joyce and Matthew Kane

U 17.1253: Matthew F. Kane (accidental drowning, Dublin Bay).

My father, Francis Joseph Kane, was born into a Catholic family in Dublin in 1895, the fourth child of Matthew Francis and Mary Theresa (née Kavanagh) Kane. My grandfather, Matthew Francis Kane, died tragically in 1904 at the age of 39, and found posthumous fame in the works of James Joyce:

1) In the Ithaca episode of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom refers to “Matthew F. Kane (accidental drowning, Dublin Bay)”.

2) It is widely believed that the funeral of Paddy Dignam in Ulysses, which Bloom attends, was based on Matthew’s funeral.

3) The character ‘Martin Cunningham’, who appears in the story ‘Grace’ (Dubliners), in Ulysses, and (as "Andrew Martin Cunningham") in Finnegans Wake, is based on Matthew.

Matthew Francis Kane

“Martin Cunningham, first, poked his silkhatted head into the creaking carriage and, entering deftly, seated himself.”

(U 6.1-2)

“Mr Bloom glanced from his angry moustache to Mr Power’s mild face and Martin Cunningham’s eyes and beard, gravely shaking.” (U 6.72-4)

Matthew Francis Kane (Kane Family collection)

The life and death of Matthew (“Mat”) Francis Kane

Matthew was born in Dublin on 5 March 1865, the first child of John Kane, a railway servant, and Elizabeth Doyle. At the time the family was living at 13 Anne Street, just north of the river in central Dublin.1 He had two younger brothers, John Joseph and Peter, and a sister Mary Catherine.

Matthew and Mary were married at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Berkeley Street, North Dublin in August 1887 and they set up home at 75 Drumcondra Road, next door to the Archbishop’s Palace. Mary was the daughter of John Kavanagh, a commission agent and Jane Quigley. She had a number of brothers and sisters.

Kane and Kavanagh – August 24, 1887, at Saint Joseph’s R C Church, Berkeley road, by the Rev J Byrne, CC, Mathew F Kane to Mary, eldest daughter [of John] Kavanagh, Elm Lodge, [Whitworth Road], Drumcondra, Dublin.

Freeman’s Journal (1887) 27 August

Matthew and Mary had five children: Elizabeth Jane born 1889, John Francis 1891, Matthew Francis 1893, Francis Joseph 1895 and Peter Paul 1897.

Matthew passed his examinations to become a solicitor, but he was never sworn in.2 From 1886 he worked in the office of Sir Patrick Coll, the Crown Solicitor, at Dublin Castle, where by 1894 he had become Chief Assistant. He was popular and well thought of by his colleagues and members of the public alike. In Ulysses the character of Martin Cunningham is similarly friendly and accommodating.

He regularly represented his office at the funerals of significant Dublin figures and in the law courts:

Funeral of Mr. Edward Ennis... Amongst those who attended the funeral were – J P Coffey, M F Kane, Chief Crown Solicitor’s office […]

Freeman’s Journal (1889) 4 November

The County Dublin Licensing Sessions [...] Mr. Towers and Mr. M. Kane, assistants to Mr. Coll, Crown Solicitor, attended on the part of the police.

Freeman’s Journal (1892) 12 October

The City Sessions [...] Mr. Mathew Kane, Crown Solicitor’s Office, prosecuted in a number of cases on behalf of the Crown.

Freeman’s Journal (1894) 30 March

At some point between 1897 and 1901 (the time of the 1901 census) the family moved to No 73, South Circular Road in the Portobello district of south-central Dublin and business carried on much as before until the fateful afternoon of Sunday 10 July, 1904.

In was on that day that Matthew decided to go sailing with five friends round Dublin Bay. After lunch they went for a swim from the boat. Whilst in the water Matthew suffered a heart attack and died. The Irish Times of 12 July reports on the inquest held after the “Death of a Dublin Castle Official”:

William Rice, skipper of the smack Annie, was sworn, and stated that he went out with the gentlemen on Sunday for a yachting cruise round Dublin Bay. There was a light breeze, in fact hardly any wind, and when they got as far as the Baily Lighthouse he reached back until they were about two miles off Kingstown, when the party decided to bathe before dinner, and went to swim at 4 p.m.

Deceased plunged into the water, and after a little bit he noticed deceased, and did not like the look of him. Witness leaped into the punt and pulled towards Mr. Kane; on the way he made another man catch hold of the stern so that he could assist in holding up the deceased. This man held up Kane’s head and helped to get him into the yacht.

There they did the best they could to restore Mr. Kane, while witness set sail to get into Kingstown, but as he saw the wind dropping he got into his punt and rowed in for a doctor, who made no delay in coming on board.

But it was too late, and the doctor pronounced Matthew dead at the scene. The identity of his five friends has not yet been uncovered; they seem not to be named in the extensive newspaper reports of the tragedy.

The funeral Mass was held at St Michael’s Church, Kingstown on 14 July and Matthew’s remains were taken to Glasnevin Cemetery in the north of Dublin for burial. The newspaper reports show that a great many people attended the funeral (in contrast to the poorly attended funeral of Paddy Dignam in Ulysses), including many of the great and the good of Dublin, particularly from Dublin Castle, the legal profession, and the Dublin Police Department. Also present were James Joyce and his father John Stanislaus Joyce. Matthew and John Stanislaus were old friends and also neighbours in Drumcondra.

Immediately after the funeral, a public meeting was held to inaugurate the Kane Family Fund, intended to raise money for Matthew’s widow Mary and the education her five children. The committee included the Lord Mayor, John Irwin and the Recorder of Dublin, Sir Frederick Falkiner. There is a family story that the proceeds of the fund never reached the family, but this cannot be confirmed. In 1988 a group of Joyce scholars arranged for a modern headstone to be erected on Matthew Kane's grave. It was unveiled on Bloomsday.

Mrs Cunningham’s profession

Matthew Kane married Mary Kavanagh in 1887. The spouses of Joyce’s minor characters are not normally significant to the action of his novels, but he did find a spot for my grandmother Mary. Joyce portrays her as an alcoholic who caused Matthew untold trouble:

And that awful drunkard of a wife of his. Setting up house for her time after time and then pawning the furniture on him every Saturday almost. Leading him the life of the damned. Wear the heart out of a stone, that. Monday morning start afresh. Shoulder to the wheel. Lord, she must have looked a sight that night, Dedalus told me he was in there. Drunk about the place and capering with Martin’s umbrella:

And they call me the jewel of Asia,

Of Asia,

The geisha.3

This has always confused the family. My father told us that his mother, whom he always referred to as “the Mater”, was a strict disciplinarian. There are no stories of any alcoholism in the family lore, and she trained soon after Matthew’s death for the eminently respectable work of a midwife. It seems to me more likely that Joyce (or his father) disliked her for some reason and used his novel to demonstrate this.

Mary Kavanagh’s midwifery certificate, signed by (amongst others) Andrew J. Horne, a Master of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin (see U 8.282, etc.) Kane Family collection

Mary Kane née Kavanagh

Kane Family collection

Mary trained as a midwife at the National Maternity Hospital Dublin, qualifying in 1908, and at the time of the 1911 census, a widow, she was living with her family (sons John and Francis) at No 66 Florinda Place in North Dublin, and working as a “Hospital Nurse”. In 1916 she lived at No 13 Avondale Road, Phibsborough, Dublin, according to my father’s military record (see Note 4 below). In later life Mary moved to England, where she worked as a School Matron and later ran old people’s nursing homes in the Home Counties. She died in Maidenhead, Berkshire in 1937, aged 71.

Some notes on Matthew and Mary’s five children

1) Initially Elizabeth stayed with her maternal grandparents, and later she went to England to train as a nurse. In 1911 she was working as a nurse at the Whittington Hospital in Highgate, London. She married Vincent Kinsella, a customs officer, in about 1912 and had two children (a boy and a girl). Her husband was killed in the First World War. Her son Patrick became an actor and joined the RAF early in 1942. He was killed in action in 1944. Elizabeth, like her mother, spent her life in the nursing profession, first as a hospital nurse and during the Second World War as an army nurse. In her later years she found employment as a companion to titled ladies. She died in Brighton in 1972, aged 82.

2) Francis and his brothers were sent to England to be educated by the Salesians at Chertsey and Battersea. John returned to Ireland and considered a vocation with the Cistercians, but did not pursue this and spent the rest of his life in service. In 1926 he married Elizabeth Evans and his marriage certificate describes him as a hotel waiter. He and Elizabeth continued in service, eventually running a guesthouse in Pwllheli, North Wales, where he died in 1962 at the age of 71.

3) Matthew also returned home after he left school and worked for the railway as a young man and later went to live in Italy where he worked as the British Pro Consul in Naples. He married Eleanor, a Turkish lady. She went to live with her sister in Istanbul during the war and he came to stay with his brother Francis in London, returning to Italy after the war, where he died in the 1960s.

4) On completion of his education with the Salesians, my father Francis returned to Ireland, living in Kerry for a while before travelling to Londonderry, where he joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Following basic training his unit was posted to Ypres in Belgium and was quickly sent to the front, where they fought in what became known as Passchendaele. He had an eventful war, being wounded in battle twice, gassed, buried alive, reported dead, captured by German forces, and sent to a POW camp near Dusseldorf, where he was held prisoner until repatriation in 1918.4 He was discharged from the army 1919 and returned to Ireland.

Once again he was unable to settle in Ireland and came to England to find work. While he was working in a public house in London he met Sam Boughey. Sam invited him home, where he was introduced to my mother Alice Gibbs Boughey. They married in St Pancras, London, in 1927. Over the next eleven years they had four children, two girls and two boys. Neither Francis nor his siblings returned to settle in Ireland. He spent most of his working life in clerical positions for major building and civil engineering contractors, dying in Barnet, London, in 1986 just a few months short of his 91st birthday.

5) Peter served with the Royal Navy in the Great War and reportedly suffered from shell shock. He lived with his mother at various times between the wars and ended up working in the hotel trade in the Bray and Maidenhead area. He aspired to be a writer and often brought us the manuscripts of his unpublished works for us to read. He died in an old people’s home in Woodley, Berkshire in 1967.

As my father was only nine when his father, Matthew, died he hardly knew him and as he was sent away to boarding school for the next five years he had little contact with his mother or the wider family. This was compounded by the fact that Francis and his siblings all came to live in England and communication was not as easy then as it is now. As a consequence my generation had little knowledge of our grandfather Matthew’s relationship with the Joyce family. Neither did we have any idea until much later that he was the inspiration for the number of characters in Joyce’s works.

Chris Kane


1 See details at http://churchrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords.

2 Freeman’s Journal (1904), 12 July.

3 U 6.349-57.

4 Casualty Return for 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, 16th July 1916 (Royal Irish Fusiliers Regimental Museum, Armagh) contains the information “Kane F, Pte, [No] 26834, Missing.” [Kane Family Papers.]

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