May’s band of brothers

U 4.525-6: Morning after the bazaar dance when May's band played Ponchielli's dance of the hours.

Technically Don Gifford (Ulysses Annotated, p. 81) is right to say that May’s band was a band ‘maintained and supplied by May & Co., music sellers and professors of music and piano, 130 St. Stephen’s Green West in the southeast quadrant of Dublin’. Well, almost. It was ‘May and Sons’, not ‘May and Co.’, and that leads us into the talented May family.

Molly met Boylan at the dance on 29 May 1904, and the bazaar referred to is likely to be the Mirus bazaar, Dublin's big fundraiser of June 1904 (see Gifford, p. 187). Joyce shifts the date on which this bazaar opened from 31 May to 16 June, but there were plenty of related fundraising events before and after the official period of the bazaar.

By reviewing the history of the various bands supplied by May’s of Stephen’s Green we can follow the history of a firm the Joyces would have known well. As the contemporary newspapers over the years linked the bands closely with the brother who led it at the time, perhaps we will be able to determine who was leading the band on that evening on May 1904.

May’s was established by Theodore Charles May in 1860 (according to later advertisements), and in the 1860s it traded from 79 Marlborough Street in Dublin. Theodore’s wife Agnes ran an employment agency for the household staff of the ‘nobility and gentry of the town and country’ from the same address, and rooms were let out to bring in additional revenue. Theodore was supplying bands for evening parties in the 1860s. Here are two typical advertisements for the May businesses at the time:

Mrs May’s Registry Office for Governesses and Domestic Servants, 79 Marlborough street, Dublin – Mrs May can supply families in town and country with the following – Governesses (resident, visiting or nursery); Housekeepers, Professed Cooks, Plain Cooks, or Thorough Servants, Nurses, Children’s Maids, coachmen, Indoor Men, and Grooms, &c. Governesses or domestic servants wishing to take situations should apply to Mrs May.

Irish Times (1865) 27 September, p. 1

Important Notice. Music. Mr. May has the honour to announce to the Nobility and Gentry of the town and country that he supplies Balls and Evening Parties with Pianoforte and String Bands, together or separately. The most popular dance music played. Early notice is requested. All commands addressed to Theodore C. May, 79 Marlborough street, Dublin.

Irish Times (1869) 27 December p. 1

Their eldest son (Theodore) Oscar May was born in 1863/4; Alfred Victor May on 8 May 1865; and Ernest Lindehl May on 15 August 1867.

All three sons shared their father’s love of music: Oscar was the most proficient player, it would seem, being an accomplished pianist and double-bass player often in demand as a young man for public performances; Alfred was the commercial brother, who took over the business in the late 1890s when the boys’ father died; Ernest performed on and taught the violin.

Theodore May paraded them in support of his business:

Mr Theodore Charles May, Pianist and Composer, begs to inform the nobility and gentry that he supplies Balls, Parties, and Afternoons, with Pianists or String Bands, together or separately, comprising the following first-class musicians: - Violinists, Messrs Hutchinson and E. May; cornet, Mr Geo. Kennedy; Basso, A. May; Pianists, Messrs Oscar and Theodore C. May. For terms apply at 130 Stephen’s green.

Irish Times (1882) 3 April p. 1

If Joyce’s reference to the band had dated from the early 1880s, then there is little doubt that he would have been referring to Theodore May’s band. As Theodore took a back seat, Oscar came to the fore. He is reported giving many performances (public and private) from the late 1880s until the early years of the twentieth century. Typical examples are:

Great Success, Crowded House. Concert Room, Rotundo… Mr Oscar May, Solo Pianoforte and Accompanist.

Freeman’s Journal (1887) 26 April

Balls, Parties, At Homes, Bazaars,&c. Oscar May’s String Band. Moderate Terms. 39 South Frederick St. Please note change of address.

Freeman’s Journal (1894) 17 October

As the last quotation says, Oscar’s band was available for bazaars. In the closing years of the nineteenth century he and his band were in great demand – at the Ierne bazaar in 1895, the Mi-Careme Carnival and the Cyclopia Fete and Bazaar in 1896, at the Lucina Fete of 1898, the Tektonian bazaar and Calaroga ‘grand bazaar’ of 1899, for sports clubs, quadrille clubs, and almost as a fixture at the Pillar Room of the Rotunda.

Like Oscar, Albert attended the Royal Irish Academy of Music (R.I.A.M.) in Dublin. He starts to make an appearance under his own name on the public stage around 1897. There was clearly trouble in the family after the death of Theodore in January 1895. Albert took over the company at 130 Stephen’s Green, and Oscar and Ernest seem to have been edged out (forming ‘May Bros.’ for a while at a different address). There follows a period of detente between the brothers, with barbed advertisements appearing in the press. Albert leads, and Oscar and Ernest respond:

May and Sons – Caution – This old-established firm of Pianoforte and Music Sellers, 130 Stephen’s green, Dublin, begs to notify their customers and the public that they have no connection whatsoever with any other house in the same business in Dublin; established 1860, and since 1870 carried on continuously at the above address.

Irish Times (1898) 7 November, p. 2

Dance Band. – May Bros. (Ernest and Oscar) have resumed for the season. – 31 Lincoln place.

[Same page.] Caution.- Pianists and Dance Bands.- May and Sons warn customers their sole address is 130 Stephen’s green. Patronised by nobility and gentry.

Irish Times (1898) 7 December, p. 7

By now Ernest is concentrating on his teaching, at the Loretto Academy in Rathfarnham – where he has been putting pupils up for the official examinations alongside his fellow teachers and performers Signor Esposito, Signor Papini, and Herr Bast. By 1902 Oscar’s pre-eminence is on the wane. Albert begins slowly, in less prestigious venues, but his talent for advertising both his business and himself wins through:

The “Moy Mell” Ball at Rathmines... The programme of music, carried out by Mr Albert May’s band, was most sparkling.

Freeman’s Journal (1899) 5 January

Waterford Hunt Ball, February 7th. Special engagement – Albert V. May’s famous String Band. Sole address, 130 Stephen’s green.

Irish Times (1902) 28 January, p. 7

Special Notice. Dance Season, 1902. Albert V. May has the honour to announce the Special Engagements of his Famous String Bands for Horticultural Society Show, Royal University Buildings, 8th April… Established 1860. Caution – The original ‘May’s Band’. No connection whatsoever with any other Band of the same name in Dublin.

“Mirus” Chinese Ball. Last night a “Chinese” ball, in connection with “Mirus” Bazaar, was given in the Pillar Room of the Rotunda… Mr. Albert May’s band played excellent music.

Irish Times (1903) 19 November, p. 6

By early 1904 Albert May’s band is the dominant one, though Oscar’s was still to be seen from time to time. The balance of probability, though, would make Albert’s band the one referred to in passing by Joyce. Ernest does not seem to have led his own band.

After 1904 Albert appears very frequently in the papers, advertising the shop and his band. It is noticeable, though, that while Oscar received plaudits on his own account, Albert mostly supplies the newspapers with copy in the form of advertisements and notes of his engagements. Oscar plays occasionally, but the standard of venue drops – it is more likely to be an out-of-Dublin sports club than a central location. While Albert’s family thrives, Oscar is shown in the 1911 census separated from his wife. A sad notice appears in the Irish Independent two years before his death (four years after Albert’s):

Pianist – Oscar May communicate; something to advantage. E. Myers, Post Office, Rathdowney.

Irish Independent (1917) 10 July, p. 1

His playing, his composing, his fishing, his youthful athletics – all came to an end. His brother’s family carried on the old music business in St. Stephen’s Green until the early 1970s and the death of Albert’s son Cedric. By then it was selling records as well as sheet music and instruments, and probably no longer supplying string bands for the entertainment of the people of Dublin.

A closing sidelight on the Mays: Ulysses pinball

The Dublin of Joyce’s era was a small place. In much the same way as we can follow Bloom around the streets of Dublin in 1904, meeting his friends and acquaintances and going about his business, we can track Oscar May’s intersection with the some of the characters of Ulysses through chance mentions in the newspapers.

Oscar May was a young man in his early twenties on the day of the Irish Artisans’ Exhibition in Dublin of 14 September 1885. He was taking part in a ‘Grand Miscellaneous Concert’ starting at 8 p.m. in the evening. On the same bill, but at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, there was a piano recital by the talented Miss Callanan. This is Mary Ellen Callanan, daughter of Ellen Flynn (a relative of Joyce’s) and Matthew Callanan, who appears as the only niece of Aunts Julia and Kate in ‘The Dead’.

Oscar and his brothers were not only talented musicians. They were also talented athletes. They ran for the Dublin Metropolitan Harriers. Oscar was the most successful. Here they are in July 1884 at the Abercorn Athletic Sports:

Abercorn Athletic Club Sports… [Lansdowne road] 100 Yards Flat (Open) – First Heat.. Oscar May, scratch, 2… Third heat – E L May, DMH, 3 yds, 1… A V May, D M H, 4 ½ yds, 0… Final heat – E L May, D M H, 3 yds, 1… May and Dolan dead heated for first place. Time, 10 3.5 sec. Deciding heat – May beat Dolan by half a yard. Time, 10 3.5 sec.

Freeman’s Journal (1884) 22 July

On this occasion Oscar came second in his heat, Ernest won his, and Albert was unplaced. But Oscar improved, and in 1886 he and Ernest were running in the Irish Athletic Championships. And here he comes up against someone who was to become one of Ireland’s greatest sprinters of the day, Tommy Conneff (U 12.181). Conneff was born in Clane, Kildare and by 1887 was going to make his mark in England and America. In 1888 the Birmingham Post was saying of him:

Thomas Conneff, the champion four-mile runner of the world, will leave England for America to-morrow. He will permanently take up his residence in New York, where he has received a very remunerative appointment.

Birmingham Post (1888) 6 January

The Irish Times sports journalist was astounded by Conneff’s performance. For us it is more surprising to see the music-seller’s son keep pace with him for a while:

880 Yards Flat Race... As the last lap was signalled [May] held a decided lead from Conneff and Beatty, while Aderin and Regan were out of it. As they went along the back stretch, Conneff and Beatty began to overhaul May’.

Irish Times (1886) 19 July, p. 7

Dr Collisson’s concert of early March 1891 brings Oscar on to the same stage as another name from Ulysses, Miss Du Bedat:

Dublin Popular Concerts, 7th Season, 1890-91. Next Saturday, at 8.15. Dr. Collisson’s Concert. The following distinguished Artists and Amateurs have kindly given their valuable assistance: - Mrs. Hutchinson, Miss Du Bedat,.. Mr. Oscar May, [etc.].

Irish Times (1891) 4 March, p. 4

And in the following year Oscar and Ernest are performing with Thomas Goodwin Keohler, mentioned in Ulysses (2.258). Although he was later a published poet, and company secretary to Hely’s in Dame Street, Keohler’s first love was music:

Concert by Herr Werner’s the Molesworth Hall, Molesworth street… The following ladies and gentlemen constituted the orchestra which played last evening – First violins - ..Chapman, Kellett, and Koehler [sic]; Messrs Ernest May.. Violoncello and bass – Messrs Oscar May, [etc.].

Freeman’s Journal (1892) 24 March

And just two years later Oscar appears at the Arcadia bazaar with Madame Noir (Jessie Noir: U 17.426: see Freeman’s Journal, 15 August 1894 ). 1895 sees Oscar alongside Vincent O’Brien (U 15.1953):

Grand Concert..In the Father Mathew Hall, To-night. Best Musical Talent in the City… Accompanists Mr Oscar May, Mr Vincent O’Brien.

Freeman’s Journal (1895) 18 October

Oscar was continually in contact with the Leggett Byrnes (Mrs. Legget Byrne: U 15.4043) – who were also in the business of promoting (children’s dance, for the most part). The Leggett Byrnes were involved with most big bazaars, including Mirus:

Calaroga. Children’s Dances and Ballroom, Under the Direction of Mr. and Mrs. Leggett Byrne… Ballroom. Every Evening, at 8.15, the Pillar Room will be Beautifully Decorated, and Patrons of Calaroga will have the advantage of the new floor which has just been specially laid for Dancing. Mr. Oscar May’s String Band.

Freeman’s Journal (1899) 27 April

There are connections from end to end in Dublin. It was probably Albert Victor May who led the band that played the evening Molly met Blazes. But it was Oscar May’s talent that brought him into contact with a number of the theatrical characters of Ulysses.

John Simpson

Search by keyword (within this site): Music Entertainment Athletics Sport Bazaar Advertising RIAM Conneff