Mulrennan from the west of Ireland

P V. 2745-50: 14 April. John Alphonsus Mulrennan has just returned from the west of Ireland. (European and Asiatic papers please copy). He told us he met an old man there in a mountain cabin. Old man had red eyes and short pipe. Old man spoke Irish. Then old man and Mulrennan spoke English. Mulrennan spoke to him about universe and stars.

John Alphonsus Mulrennan: real or fictional?

Stephen Dedalus notes in his diary that John Alphonsus Mulrennan had just returned from the west of Ireland. Don Gifford’s Joyce Annotated states that Mulrennan’s identity is ‘unknown’ and no one called ‘John Alphonsus Mulrennan’ seems to occur in the available records. Is there anyone who fits the bill, or did Joyce invent the name?

There are at least two people who have a claim to representing aspects of John Alphonsus Mulrennan, one perhaps slightly stronger than the other. The first was an active member of the Gaelic Union and then the Gaelic League in Dublin in the 1880s and 1890s, and the second was a fellow student of Joyce’s father John Joyce from Cork days.

Stephen Dedalus seems to be writing about someone with a public profile: an Irish speaker with attachments to the west of Ireland who is familiar with Irish myths and legends. Curiously the ‘Asiatic papers’ might be interested in news of him.

A professor of languages

Richard Joseph O’Mulrenin (sometimes spelt Mulrennan) was born in County Roscommon in 1832.1 He began his career as an agricultural student at the Albert Model Farm, Glasnevin, under Thomas Baldwin. In due course he went to live in the Netherlands and Belgium, becoming ‘professor’ of languages at Louvain (Leuven) in Belgium in the early 1870s:

In the College of Louvain he found a congenial field, where he pursued his linguistic studies, and it was his great boast that he knew no less than eight languages thoroughly, and could read sixteen.

Freeman’s Journal (1906), 29 October

Life was not always straightforward. As a result of what he regarded as the work of “some silly practical joker”, his death notice appeared in the Freeman’s Journal on 29 November 1872:

O’Mulrenin – Nov. 27, at Phibsborough, suddenly, Mr. R. J. O’Mulrenin, formerly professor of languages, aged 36 years.

Mulrenin was notified, and immediately wrote to correct the paper:

A Correction […]

Dear Sir – My attention has been drawn to the following notice of death in your issue of last Friday […] Now, as I am evidently the person mentioned, though the age given is not quite correct and the word "formerly" might have been left out, may I request that you will have the goodness to insert this contradiction to the above notice […] I am alive and well, thank God, and remain your obedient servant,

R. J. O’Mulrenin

Back in Dublin

He finally returned from Belgium in 1876, settling in Dublin and taking a post as Agricultural Editor for the Freeman’s Weekly, a post which he held until his death in 1906 “with great credit to himself and with the greatest satisfaction to Irish agriculturalists”.

But his preoccupation from at least 1880 onwards was Ireland and the Irish language. He was a founding or early member of the Gaelic Union, established in Dublin in 1880, and joined its Committee in 1882:

A meeting of the council of the Gaelic Union for the Preservation and Cultivation of the Irish Language was held on Saturday, 28th January […] The Rev. James Laverty, [...] and Richard Joseph O’Mulrenin, Esq., were added to the council.

Nation (1882) 4 February, p. 13

By 1884 he was Honorary Secretary, and was actively involved in its periodical, the Gaelic Journal. He wrote for this under his regular pen-name of “Clann Conchobhair” (see here for an example of his work). Amongst his other works, he wrote a report for the Union on the state of the Irish language on the Isles of Aran, Galway, off the west coast of Ireland:

Mr. O’Mulrenin gave in a report on the state of the Irish language in the middle island of Arran [sic], where in consequence of the isolated state of the inhabitants it still retains many peculiarities obsolete elsewhere.

Freeman's Journal (1884), 14 October

O’Mulrenin was clearly a talented and extremely energetic man. As well as his work for the Freeman’s Weekly, he re-established a university career in languages. In 1886 he was elected sizar (a student receiving a college allowance towards his study) at Trinity College, Dublin, and next year – as a member of the senior class - was awarded a prize for Irish worth £3, and first prize in Spanish (amount unspecified),and also a prize for Italian. Balancing his various interests, he was in the late 1880s elected a member of the Association of Irish Journalists, and was by now moving in circles with which Joyce (and his father) flirted and were sometimes themselves actively involved.

It was probably O’Mulrenin’s work on the Freeman’s Weekly that brought him closest to Joyce. They had many mutual acquaintances, for instance, at the funeral of M.P. Edward Dwyer Grey, reported by the Freeman’s Journal on 2 April 1888, and at that of Joe Gallaher (Freeman’s Journal 23 October 1893): Pat Meade, J. J. McCarthy, J. B. Hall, John Wyse Power, and Vincent O’Brien, amongst others. O’Mulrenin was also a talented musician and dancer: he played the violin in a programme of Irish Music laid on by the Gaelic League in 1895 (Freeman’s Journal, 5 July) and judged the dancers at the Oireachtas (the annual festival of the Gaelic League). He told of his experiences as a student of dance:

A dancing academy was kept at that time by Professor Latelle quite close to the present League rooms, and Mr O'Mulrenin, who had always a love of things Irish, went to Professor Latelle's Academy to perfect himself in jigs, reels, &c, and with such good results that he mastered no less than thirty-two steps. On one occasion, after having gone through the thirty-two steps three times, he struck with his hand a beam which supported the room, and as the house at that time was none of the firmest, the Professor remonstrated with him. On the following day, however, there was no dancing academy, but a heap of debris to mark its site, the house having fallen about 12 o'clock the night before just after the owner had left.

Freeman's Journal (1897), 11 October

He was keen on Irish myth and literature, as well as the language – lecturing on all of them:

The Gaelic League […] Mr R J O'Mulrenin, MA, read and explained an Ossianic story – a dialogue between Fionn MacCumbal and Conan Maol.

Freeman's Journal (1897) 9 March

Later that year he “presided over ‘interesting lecture’ by Mr Charles Dawson" (of Ulysses fame) "on the Catholic University Question” (Freeman’s Journal, 26 November), and his name appears incorrectly in the form ‘Mulrennan’ when he switched between Irish and English in thanking his friend Dr Cox for the lecture he had just given:

Mr Mulrennan proposed a vote of thanks to the lecturer. Having spoken first in Irish he then, speaking in English, said they had reason to be very thankful to Dr Cox for the eloquent lecture he had just delivered [to the Gaelic League].

Freeman's Journal (1898), 3 September

In 1901 the census finds him living alone at home at No 6 Carlisle Street, Wood Quay, Dublin (he never married), aged 68. His census return was of course completed in Gaelic.

He died five and a half years later, on 28 October 1906, at home in Carlisle Street, “a very notable figure in Irish life” (Freeman’s Journal, 29 October). The Journal gave him – as an old staffer – a long obituary, making up for the hoax death notice they had published thirty-four years earlier.

O’Mulrenin’ as Mulrennan?

So we might realistically ask how closely Richard Joseph O’Mulrenin fits the character of John Alphonsus Mulrennan. With no hint from Joycean commentary we can’t be certain, but he does look a strong contender. He was a prominent member of the Gaelic League and spoke Irish fluently; he lectured about the legends of Ireland; and he had a particular interest in the Isles of Aran, in the “west of Ireland”, in fact almost due west of Dublin. He was a journalist with the Freeman papers, and we know that Joyce and his father were on friendly terms with many of the sporting and other journalists from that stable. It’s not conclusive, but it is probably more than just suggestive.

Another possibility

There are some aspects of Richard O’Mulrenin’s biography that do not seem to fit closely with Joyce’s description – particularly the reference to the ‘Asiatic papers’. Perhaps Joyce was remembering some aspects of one of his father’s fellow students at Cork. Even if this proves to be a false lead, it remains of some interest to follow briefly the career of one of John Joyce’s fellow students from the Medical Faculty at the Queen’s College in Cork.

John Joyce at Queen’s College, Cork

Joyce’s father John Joyce took (and passed) his matriculation exams for the Queen’s College, Cork in October 1865, at the age of 16:

Students Matriculated since October 1, 1865 […]

Jones, Robert W. W,..Cork.

Joyce, John S.,..Cork.

Kane, Roderick W.,..Cork.

Keegan, Peter,…Belfast.


Maziere Brady Report on the Condition and Progress of the Queen's University in Ireland, for the Year 1865-66 (Dublin, 1866), App. II, p. 16

Queen’s College, Cork was one of the three constituent colleges of the Queen’s University in Ireland, the others being at Belfast and Galway. John Jackson and Peter Costello write that “John Stanislaus’s first academic year was 1867-8” (John Stanislaus Joyce, p. 52). Having taken and passed the matriculation examination in October 1865 he was eligible to start his course in the Faculty of Medicine on 2 November of that year, but clearly he took the route (followed each year by a proportion of students) of deferring his entry.

In 1865 the College was small: it had 223 matriculated students across all year groups. Students were aged from 15 upwards, but most were 16 or 17 years old. Medicine was the largest faculty, with 114 students in 1865-6. Fuller details of the course, including the schedule of lectures which John Joyce would have been able to attend, are included in the Report of the President of Queen’s College, Cork, for the Year Ending 31st March, 1866 (Dublin, 1866).

John Mulrennan at Queen’s College, Cork

In 1868, three years after John Joyce’s matriculation and during his first academic year, a John Mulrennan passed his matriculation exams for Queen’s College, Cork:

Students Matriculated since October, 1867 […]

Mulle, Douglas,..Galway.

Mulrennan, John,..Cork.

Munro, Joseph Edwin C.,. Belfast.


Reports from Commissioners: 1868-9 (Volume 11: Education (Ireland); National Education (Ireland); Queen’s University (Ireland)) (1868), App. II, p. 18

Aspects of John Mulrennan’s life are echoed in the bare details given by Joyce in the cited quotation from A Portrait. Once we have reviewed Mulrennan’s life we will be in a better position to judge how strong the links are.

John’s elder brother Bernard had matriculated at Queen’s College, Cork (Faculty of Engineering) in 1867, the year before John Mulrennan’s matriculation:

Mulloy, Edward. J.,..Galway.

Mulrennan, Bernard F.,..Cork.

Munro, Michael Thomas,. Belfast.


Reports from Commissioners: 1867-8 (Volume 11: Education (Ireland); National Education (Ireland); Queen’s University (Ireland)) (1867), App. II, p. 16

John Mulrennan entered the Faculty of Arts as a Scholarship-winner, in his first year (1868-9) coming first equal in Latin and Greek. He had a long career as a student. In due course he switched to the Faculty of Medicine, passing his second-year medical exams in 1873, gaining his M.D. in 1876 and his M.Ch. [Master of Surgery] in 1877. In a small collegiate community it seems very likely that the sociable John Joyce knew the brothers.

John Joyce didn’t complete his medical studies at Cork, and is not listed as having passed any of the examinations in the 1867-8 and 1868-9 reports cited above. As Jackson and Costello describe, he was more interested in extra-curricular activity such as acting and singing, and is said to have remained at the university until 1870, overlapping for several years with the Mulrennans.

Growing up in Limerick

The Mulrennan boys came from Limerick. Their father, Bernard Mulrennan, ran a tobacconist’s shop (see Slater’s National Commercial Directory of 1846) and was a Town Councillor for the William Street ward of the city. He and his wife Mary (née Fitzgerald) had at least seven children (Thomas b. 1840, Bernard and Elizabeth 1843, Bridget 1845, Mary, 1846, Ellen 1848, and John – born on 6 April 1851).

The family had military links. John himself attended the Limerick Collegiate, Civil and Military Academy. The Academy’s recruitment advertisement for 1871 read:

Within the last three years the undermentioned young gentlemen, pupils of the school, obtained Queen’s Scholarships […] In Q C, Cork; - William Weir (1st), John Ahern, John Mulrenan, James Moran.

Irish Times (1871), 2 August p. 7

Note the slight change of spelling of Mulrennan’s surname: John tended to prefer the form “Mulrenan” in his later career. His eldest brother Thomas is likely to be the Thomas Mulrenan whose promotion from Gentleman Cadet to Lieutenant in the Royal Regiment of Artillery was gazetted on 3 January 1860 and to Captain on 24 September 1872 (London Gazette).

Army life

John Mulrennan himself chose a military career, joining the Army Medical Staff on 28 July 1877 and being gazetted Surgeon on 12 March 1878:

Medical Department, To be Surgeons under the Royal Warrant of 28th April, 1876. Dated 3rd February, 1878: - […]

James Pedlow, M.D.

Jules Isham Routh, Gent.

John Mulrenan, M.D.

London Gazette

Successive editions of the Army List record that he saw service in Templemore in North Tipperary (1878), in Madras (1879), and at Secunderbad (the area of Hyderabad in central India under British rule) with the 21st Fusilliers. His health was not good:

Military Intelligence. Army Medical Department [… ] Surgeon John Mulrenan, doing duty with the 1st Battalion 21st Fusiliers at Secunderabad, has been granted leave to Europe for the purpose of appearing before a medical board.

Freeman’s Journal (1879) 22 November

His health was good enough, however, for him to marry, in Limerick, in early 1880:

Mulrenan and King – April 20, at St. Michael's Church, Limerick, by the Rev. John O’Shaughnessy, C.C., Surgeon J. Mulrenan, A.M.D., to Elizabeth Mary, eldest daughter of W. King, Esq., of Dublin.

Freeman's Journal (1880) 27 April

By mid 1882 he had retired from his position in the Army “upon temporary half-pay” (London Gazette, 8 August, p. 3691), but from 16 January 1883 he was back in service as a Surgeon “vice T. C. Nugent, resigned” (London Gazette, 13 February, p. 794). He was posted to Carlisle and Waterford in 1883-4 (Army List) and the prospect of further foreign service was dangled before him:

Military Intelligence… Surgeon J Mulrenan, of the Army Medical Staff, has been ordered to hold himself in readiness to embark for service at the Cape of Good Hope as soon as passage can be provided for him.

Freeman’s Journal (1884) 17 November

But circumstances closed in on him, and on 14 May 1885 he was again placed on “temporary half-pay, on account of ill-health” (London Gazette, 29 May, p. 2472) and finally on the Retired List on half-pay on 14 May 1888 (London Gazette, 15 May, p. 2768).

He was back in his home town in Limerick by at least 1901, in time for the national census, living at a boarding-house with three other boarders at No 41 Catherine Street, a few hundred yards from the house in which he grew up, but now a retired pensioner of the Army Medical Staff, and sadly a widower.

John Mulrennan remained in the Army List for 1903, but in mid 1904 (just near to Bloomsday) he died, in Limerick.

Mulrennan and Joyce

The bare facts offered for John Alphonsus Mulrennan in A Portrait include these:

his name (though records so far examined for John Mulrennan of Limerick do not show a middle name)

the fact that he visited Dublin from the west of Ireland (Limerick is in the west of Ireland, south-west of


the fact that “European and Asiatic papers” might be interested in carrying the information that he has died

“European and Asiatic papers” is an unusual formulation; normally the Irish death notices say “American [or Australian] papers please copy”. But we know that Mulrennan served in India – and was referred to a medical board in “Europe” on account of his ill-health.

In addition to these points, we have the potentially significant fact that John Mulrennan’s and John Joyce’s university careers overlapped for several years (as they were both involved with the Faculty of Medicine at Cork in the late 1860s and early 1870s), and that John Mulrennan left the army in good time to be back in Ireland in the late 1880s, when Joyce was imbibing stories from his father which would find their way eventually in his novels.


As mentioned above, we do not have enough information about John Alphonsus Mulrennan to make a categorical identification, but there is sufficient circumstantial evidence, it would seem, to suggest that he is generally modelled on the ardent Gaelic scholar Richard Joseph O’Mulrenin (c1832-1906). Joyce was for a while attracted to the Irish language movement and describes Stephen Daedalus in contact with some of the prominent figures of the Gaelic movement that O’Mulrenin knew well:

The Irish class which Stephen attended was held in a very sparely furnished room lit [with] by a gasjet which had a broken globe. Over the mantelpiece hung the picture of a priest with a beard who, Stephen found, was Father O'Growney.

Stephen Hero (1955 ed.), p. 60

Perhaps the class was even taught by R. J. O’Mulrenin.

Languishing somewhat further behind, but not to be discounted entirely as a possible influence on the character of John Alphonsus Mulrennan, is John Mulrennan of Cork, whose career took him for a while to Europe and India (and whose death might jokingly be of interest to the “Asiatic and European papers”). Like many of Joyce’s prototypes, neither survived long into the twentieth century, but they may have lingered longer in his writings.

John Simpson


1 According to his own statement in the 1901 census. His obituary in the Freeman’s Journal (1906), 29 October, states that he was born near Castlebar, Co. Mayo (though of an old Roscommon family), and spent his early years in Kerry and Cork.

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