The short but remarkable life of John O’Mahony

U 7.292: Cleverest fellow at the junior bar he used to be. Decline, poor chap. That hectic flush spells finis for a man […]

U 7.305-7: Believe he does some literary work for the Express with Gabriel Conroy. Wellread fellow.

Most of the minor characters in Ulysses can be clearly identified; only a few, such as Father Cowley, Lord John Corley, Ned Lambert and J. J. O’Molloy, have so far withstood efforts to disclose their real-life counterparts.

J. J. O’Molloy in real life?

A few lines in C.P. Curran’s memoir James Joyce Remembered provide a first, but unobtrusive, clue to the identity of Joyce’s inspiration for barrister J. J. O’Molloy:

Young barristers like Tom Kettle had come down from the Law Library, and with them the brilliant and short-lived John O'Mahony who was to advise us on the legal steps to be taken against the plainly illegal action of the Senate …

Constantine P. Curran, James Joyce Remembered (London: 1968), p. 61

     The adjectives “brilliant and shortlived” applied to a barrister with the initials “J O’M” might suggest a connection, and once we look closer at the life of John O’Mahony (born in Cork on 27 January 1870,1 where he was educated at Queen's College; died of chronic heart disease at Howth, on 28 November 1904), we find so many elements corresponding to what Ulysses tells us about J. J. O’Molloy that it seems highly likely that O'Mahony is the model or inspiration for him.

     The Freeman’s Journal’s obituary of John O’Mahony, published on 29 November 1904, provides background about his life:

The son of a respected citizen of Cork,2 he began life as a journalist in that city, where he was a brilliant member of the staff of the "Cork Daily Herald". Coming to Dublin he became attached to the metropolitan Press, and at the same time studied for the Bar. Only a few years ago he was "called". His success at the Bar was instantaneous, and not only the Munster Circuit, which he joined, but the whole profession loses one of its most promising juniors.

     O’Mahony worked for a while on the staff of the Dublin Evening Herald, and his professional training as a lawyer developed alongside his literary interests. His most high-profile case was the "Tallow conspiracy" of 1902, in which he (unsuccessfully, in the end) defended a number of the farmers and shopkeepers accused of attempting to ruin the business of David O'Keeffe, another shopkeeper in Tallow, Co. Waterford. The Freeman continues:

He had a great love for literature and especially for that dealing with Ireland and his native city and county. For a considerable time he was one of the joint editors of the "Cork Archaeological and Historical Journal", and he wrote for various Irish and English publications, and wrote well and effectively. He was a Nationalist, and never under any circumstances abated his opinions, while at the same time ranking amongst close friends many who differed from him in politics.

     As well as his professional and literary pursuits, O’Mahony was a convivial friend:

Finally, he was the best of good fellows. It is difficult for those who had been linked close with him through many years by many interests to write on this topic, or indeed to realise that the gifted young comrade who had so often "set the table in a roar" has passed from their midst — he was so virile in mind and spirit and so likely to avail to the full of the splendid career before him.

     Bloom’s comment “Cleverest fellow at the junior bar” is echoed again in O’Mahony’s obituary in the Irish Times of 29 November, 1904: “He was one of the most promising juniors of the Irish Bar.”

  But perhaps the clearest indication of O’Mahoney’s identity comes in a passage from My Brother’s Keeper, when Stanislaus Joyce is discussing his brother’s suggestion to the Dean of University College, Dublin that he might “try the career of letters”:

The dean urged upon him the practical necessity of following some less hazardous occupation, and instanced one of the leading lights of the Dublin bar, named in 'Eolus', who, while studying law, had maintained himself at the University by doing journalism. (p. 188)

Further correspondences between O’Molloy and O’Mahony

Editor Myles Crawford challenges J. J. O’Molloy in the Aeolus episode to name “a man now at the bar like those fellows, like Whiteside, like Isaac Butt, like silvertongued O’Hagan”. Little does Crawford seem to be aware that he could be addressing the alter ego of John O’Mahony, the celebrated recipient of the O’Hagan Gold Medal of the Students’ Debating Society of Ireland for a speech published in 1899, entitled “The Liberty of the Press”.

    Lord Justice FitzGibbon’s remarks on the Auditor of the Debating Society, John O’Mahony, on this occasion are quite revealing:3

Usually the Auditor was one who worked his way in the Society for several consecutive years to the point when at the end he stood on the platform at the Inaugural Meeting: but he thought Mr. O'Mahony's career was somewhat different. 'Veni, vidi, vici' had been very much his motto, since he had been actually been carried into the position he occupied that night by the voice of a popular election resting upon the impression that he had made in a time shorter, he believed, than any auditor of recent years had occupied in reaching that place.

      FitzGibbon lavishes further praise on O’Mahony for his eloquence:

As he heard his voice that night — staid, dignified, musical; as he heard his style — clear, deliberate, and self-possessed; and as he found his language eloquent, his address well considered and also well delivered, it led him back to a time many years ago when an equally brilliant and eloquent young Irishman carried by storm the auditor's chair of the College Historical Society. And he was sure that the verdict that that meeting would pronounce that night upon the address would be that the society did right in selecting Mr. O’Mahony for that place.

     Encouraged by Mr O’Madden Burke to speak up for himself after Crawford’s attack on the younger generation of orators at the bar J. J. O’Molloy at first asks the editor ironically: “Why not bring in Henry Grattan and Flood and Demosthenes and Edmund Burke?”, and when Crawford retorts, “Who have you now like John Philpot Curran?” J. J. O’Molloy suggests [Seymour] Bushe K.C., whose qualities as an orator Crawford has to concede grudgingly.

William O’Leary Curtis, Seymour Bushe, and William Magennis

The links between John O’Mahony and others appearing in the Aeolus episode are noticeable. Several of their real-life counterparts appear in a report in the Freeman’s Journal, which brings together Edmund Burke, William O’Leary Curtis (alias Mr O’Madden Burke), John O’Mahony and the much ridiculed orator Dan Dawson (alias Charles Dawson). Dawson chaired a meeting of a committee to commemorate Edmund Burke, which included O’Leary Curtis and O’Mahony.4

     As regards Seymour Bushe, John O’Mahony and Bushe were together at the Green Street Court House round the corner from Barney Kiernan’s only a week before Bloomsday, with Bushe prosecuting and O’Mahony defending, in the case of a bicycle stolen from Mr James Henry (also of Ulysses fame). In March 1903 the Weekly Irish Times quotes Seymour Bushe as saying that “he recognised the great propriety of the language used by Mr O’Mahony” in a case before the recorder.5 Both men participating in the high-profile Du Bédat case later in 1903, in which Bushe again prosecuted, and O’Mahony appeared in behalf of Francis (“Frank”) Du Bédat’s co-defendant.6 Bushe was also among the prominent representatives of the legal profession who paid their last respects at John O’Mahony’s funeral.

     When J. J. O’Molloy tells Stephen that “Professor Magennis was speaking to me about you”, it is possible to see a further biographical link to John O’Mahony, as O’Mahony knew William Magennis from the Solicitors’ Apprentices’ Debating Society (see the Irish Law Times and Solicitor’s Journal of 6 November, 1897).

     J. J. O’Molloy turns up as Bloom’s barrister in the court scene in the Circe episode (15.939 ff.), and in view of his professional background it is hardly surprising that Joyce included him in the cast of the Cyclops episode in Barney Kiernan’s public house, the haunt of lawyers and Nationalists alike.


Katherine Tynan and her brother-in-law John O’Mahony

John O’Mahony was also, through his marriage to Honora (Nora) Tynan on 29 April 1895, the beloved brother-in-law of writer Katherine Tynan (1861-1931). He had strong, though far from narrow-minded Nationalist ties.7 After his premature death Tynan wrote a moving literary monument for him: A Little Book For John O’Mahony’s Friends,8 in which she alludes to his final years: “For some two years before his death he suffered greatly, but put his sufferings out of sight” (p. 17). She also mentions the high esteem he was held in by people from all walks of life:

'I never saw men crying as openly as they did at his funeral,' someone wrote. 'Everyone was crying.' Indeed people cry yet at his grave, his grave in the village street [at Tallaght] below the mountains, the street that he used to trudge so cheerfully in the nights and the bad weather. (p. 21)

     The Tynans would also prove a reliable link to O’Mahony’s likely appearance in one of Joyce’s more cryptic epiphanies:

(Dublin: in the Stag's Head, Dame Lane)

O'Mahony Haven't you that little priest that writes poetry over there Fr Russell?

Joyce O, yes ... I hear he has written verses.

O'Mahony (smiling adroitly) ... Verses, yes ... that's the proper name for them.

Robert Scholes, Richard M. Kain, ed., The Workshop of Daedalus, Evanston 1965, p. 20

     Jesuit Father Matthew Russell (1832–1912), editor of the Irish Literary Review, had encouraged Katherine Tynan to contribute to his journal and would have been familiar to and familiar with John O’Mahony. He was also appreciative of Nora Tynan’s talents as a poet.9 Joyce may be hinting at Russell’s Erin, Verses Irish and Catholic (Dublin 1881) with his ironic use of the term “verse”.

     Bloom’s remark about O’Molloy, “Believe he does some literary work for the Express”, creates another correspondence with John O’Mahony in the light of the information about his career as a journalist in the Freeman obituary above.


Success and not decline

Only one element in the narrative of Ulysses does not seem to fit the picture of John O’Mahony: J. J. O’Molloy’s desperate financial worries resulting from his professional decline, as Bloom has it:

Practice dwindling. A mighthave been. Losing heart. Gambling. Debts of honour, Reaping the whirlwind. (U 7.303-4)

     When he is unsuccessful in raising the wind from Crawford J. J. O’Molloy turns to Ned Lambert for help in Wandering Rocks (section starting at 10.398). His password-like greeting, “Ringabella and Crosshaven”, shows that Joyce presents J. J. O’Molloy as a Corkman, too.

     The rumour-mongering spiteful I-narrator of Cyclops knows it even better, of course:

J. J. getting him [Ned Lambert] off the grand jury list and the other give him a leg over the stile.  With his name in Stubbs’s. Playing cards, hobnobbing with flash toffs with a swank glass in their eye, adrinking fizz and he half smothered in writs and garnishee orders.  Pawning his gold watch in Cummins of Francis street where no-one would know him in the private office when I was there with Pisser releasing his boots out of the pop.  What’s your name, sir?  Dunne, says he.  Ay, and done says I. Gob, he’ll come home by weeping cross one of those days, I’m thinking. (U 12.1023-30)

     John O’Mahony died at the height of his career and would hardly have been in serious financial trouble in spite of the fact that he was famous for his generosity. Joyce obviously had other plans for his fictional counterpart, and may have chosen the disguise of J. J. O’Molloy for that very reason. O’Mahony’s spotless reputation and the strong affection people felt for him just would have been incompatible with the character Joyce intended for his novel.10

Harald Beck

I am grateful to Vincent Deane for visits to the National Library of Ireland on my behalf.


1 He would be the fourth Cork man present in the editor’s office on 16 June 1904, the others being Myles Crawford, Ned Lambert and Simon Dedalus.

2  John Francis O’Mahony (?1833-1910).

3 Image of John O'Mahony from the Evening Herald (Dublin: 1904) 29 November; The liberty of the Press: an address by the Auditor, John O'Mahony (Dublin University Press: 1899), p. 9.

4 Freeman’s Journal (1897), 26 July.

5 Weekly Irish Times (1903), 7 March.

6 Freeman’s Journal (1903), 10 July p. 3. Frank Du Bedat was first cousin to Marie Du Bédat (born Martha Jane Du Bédat), the ‘Irish Nightingale’ referred to several times in Ulysses.

7 The 1901 Census  shows that he spoke Irish and English.

8 Petersfield, Hampshire: Pear Tree Press, 1906. (One of the copies in the National Library is inscribed for Mrs Holloway by O’Mahony’s wife.)

9 Matthew Russell, ‘Poets I have known, ix: Nora Tynan O'Mahony’, in Irish Monthly (1908), vol. 36.

10 Matthew Kane (alias Martin Cunningham) is another case in point.

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See also The reluctant professor MacHugh, Undertones of the sacred offices, and John O’Mahony and the Language of the Outlaw  on this website