“Professor” MacHugh enjoys an enigmatic position in Ulysses. He appears in the Aeolus episode, in the newspaper office of the Evening Telegraph, but also occasionally elsewhere in the novel. For Joyce he is something of an awkward character, a classicist who clutters a newspaper office, nibbling at biscuits, flossing his teeth in public, responding to conversations between the newspapermen but initiating little conversation himself. His acquaintances tolerate his idiosyncrasies, but it is hard to determine whether they are genuinely fond of him.

We know from Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce, as well as from other sources, that Professor MacHugh is based to some extent on the real-life character Hugh Aloysius McNeill. Joyce had encountered McNeill when he visited the offices of the Evening Telegraph – part of the Freeman’s Journal complex of buildings running between Prince’s Street and Middle Abbey Street in central Dublin – during his “last days in Dublin” in 1909.

Joyce had returned to Ireland for a short while, purportedly as a journalist for the Trieste paper, the Piccolo della Sera.1 Ellmann sets the scene:

On payday Ruttledge carried a money box around with him, paying out from office to office of the old building; and his coming was announced by the phrase, "The ghost walks", spoken in Ulysses by Professor MacHugh. MacHugh himself was, as his name suggests, Hugh MacNeill, a scholar of the classical modern languages, clever and lazy. Ordinarily careless in dress, he had for a time a position as teacher of romance languages at Maynooth, and so was obliged to wear hat and tailcoat; he usually left them unbrushed.

Gogarty, speculating upon his garb, evidently made the remark, "In mourning for Sallust," which passes through Stephen’s mind. MacNeill used to arrive early in the morning at the Evening Telegraph offices, read the paper, and remain all day. The title of professor was accorded to him out of slightly ironic politeness, for in fact he never attained that eminence.

Richard Ellmann James Joyce (ed. 2: 1982), p. 289

Newspaper cutting from the Irish Times (28 October, 1935: p. 4), with photograph of a portrait of Hugh MacNeill, by Aaron (Harry) Kernoff: UCD Digital Collection

Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (cropped)

Joyce’s portrait of MacHugh/McNeill is not particularly warm. But to others, Hugh McNeill was mainly remembered after his death with great affection. He was also remembered for being sometimes rather difficult, as this anonymous tribute relates:2

Often he was a sore trial to the best of his friends, but in him was some indefinable quality that won their affection and esteem, even in his most difficult moments. In the best sense of an abused word, he was a gentleman as well as a scholar, and if sometimes he was "gie [= "gey", very] ill to get on with", he more than compensated for that turn of character by his gentleness and the ease and humour of his conversation.

Through his interests, conversation, and associations he was an engaging link between the Dublin of the twentieth century and the City a hundred years earlier:

I am awed to think that when I talked or supped with that tall, stooped, shaggy, gaunt glensman, whose beard waved wild in the wind around Dublin’s streets, I was partaking of intellectual treasures garnered nearly a century ago.

His knowledge and his memory were amazing, and there was no subject, however recondite, which anybody could bring up in talk with him but MacNeill could say something interesting, fresh and illuminating upon it.

For “Seumas O’Sullivan” (Starkey in Ulysses), McNeill was the only teacher he remembered from his University College days:3

Of my teachers in the institution I can only remember one. But that figure stands out clearly, a loved memory as it must to all who had the privilege of knowing Hugh McNeill.

Robert Smyllie (“Nichevo”), long-time Editor of the Irish Times felt similarly:4

He would argue with you for hours (if you were sufficiently foolish to try dialectical conclusions with him) on some abstruse point of Latin or French grammar. There are few men whom I have known in my life for whom I have had a greater respect as an intellect, or a greater affection as a friend.

Joyce’s friend John Byrne called McNeill “erratic”;5 to Michael Tierney, he was “temperamentally unsuited for the academic life”.6 There was an aspect of his character – as we shall see - which made it hard for McNeill to hold down a job, despite his scholarly brilliance.

Harry Kernoff’s sketch of him (above) does not show all of the distinctive physical features that Joyce attributes to McNeill, such as his thick black spectacles and his “long lips”. It does, however, show McNeill’s long beard:

Ned Lambert tossed the newspaper aside, chuckling with delight. An instant after a hoarse bark of laughter burst over professor MacHugh’s unshaven blackspectacled face. (U 7.333-5)

Tony Gray remembers McNeill’s “big, dangling red beard” in his biography of the Irish Times editor Robert Smyllie,7 and “Seumas O'Sullivan” (James Starkey) affectionately recalls his beard, his smile, his “splendid forehead”, and more:

The memory of the Professor, in the clothes which always seemed to have been snatched up and worn almost haphazard, the long beard which, in his later years, grew so unkempt, and the wild, the splendid forehead, and the smile which lit up the rugged features when he hailed a friend, will remain with me as long as memory lasts.

Joyce alludes to his ink-stained cuffs:

He extended elocutionary arms from frayed stained shirtcuffs […] (U 7.487)

— Wait a moment, professor MacHugh said, raising two quiet claws. (U 7.484)

and as Joyce describes his hands we feel his “thin fingers twitch[ing] nervously as he gathers his papers – the Echo de Paris among them – to step out into the night”.8

Although much of Ellmann’s description of MacHugh (McNeill) the person is accurate, it contains some factual errors and misses some important details, especially because it does not tie assertions to discoverable facts. The issue of whether McNeill was right to assume the title of “Professor” is a vexed one which has not been investigated in detail, and Ellmann’s description of him as “clever and lazy” has passed into folklore without being tested. This article attempts to uncover what facts can be known about Hugh McNeill, and in assessing them seeks to provide a corrective version of his life.

From the Glens of Antrim to Belvedere

Hugh Aloysius McNeill was the third son of the Antrim sailor and merchant Archibald McNeill and his wife Rosetta (née Macauley). He was born on 27 January 1866, at Glenarm, in the Glens of Antrim, and so was approximately fifteen years Joyce’s senior.

Much of what we know for certain about Hugh McNeill derives from solid scholarship on the life and achievements of his brothers Eoin and James, both of whom have extensive entries in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. There is no doubt that the McNeills were a talented family, both academically and professionally. Eoin (John, born in 1867) McNeill was one of the founders of the Gaelic League in 1893 and of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 (of which he served as Chief of Staff).9 He was Professor of Early Irish History at University College Dublin from 1909 until 1941 – a tenure broken temporarily by his conviction and imprisonment by the British at the time of the Rising in 1916 - and he became a Minister in the Free State Government in the early 1920s. James’s early career was spent in the Indian Civil Service, and when he returned to Ireland he assumed political office, eventually becoming the second Governor-General of the Free State (1928-32).10 A fourth brother, Charles, was a noted antiquarian and also an employee of the Collector-General of the Rates, through which connection he is likely to have known Joyce’s father, John Joyce, who worked for the Collector-General until 1893.11

Hugh, along with his brothers John, James, and Charles, received his first education at home, at the hands of the family’s governesses.12 John must have shown substantial promise because, unlike his brothers, he was sent as a boarder to St Malachy’s College in Belfast from 1881-7. The other brothers were placed under the supervision of their mother’s uncle Charles Macauley, Professor of Sacred Scripture and Hebrew in Maynooth, twenty-five kilometres west of Dublin. At first Hugh, and perhaps also James and Charles, was educated in Mrs Fagan’s school in Maynooth, where we find Hugh passing the Boys’ Junior grade of the national Intermediate Examination at the age of eleven.13

Perhaps Mrs Fagan was not thought to stretch him sufficiently, and in the following year he was sent as a day-pupil from Maynooth over to Dublin to attend Belvedere College, which Joyce of course later attended. McNeill passed both years of his Boys’ Grade at Belvedere in 1880 and 1881,14 and in the next year he was one of three pupils at Belvedere to be awarded an Exhibition at the Boys’ Middle Grade of the Intermediate. This is the first indication of his intellectual ability.15 He proceeded to pass the Boys’ Senior Grade in 1883, though by now his brother James in Belfast was proving to be something of an academic star, winning the national Boys’ Middle and subsequently the Senior Grade Gold Medals, and amassing substantial financial prizes as he progressed.16


John Simpson


1 See “The Prince and the Freeman” on this website.

2 A Friend, “Tribute” in Irish Times (1935), 26 October.

3 “Seumas O’Sullivan” in IT (1943), 25 September.

4 “Nichevo” in Irish Times (1951), 15 September.

5 John F. Byrne, Silent Years (1953), p. 41.

6 Michael Tierney Eoin MacNeill: Scholar and Man of Action 1867-1945 (1980 Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 2.

7 Tony Gray, Mr Smyllie, Sir (Gill and Macmillan: 1991), p. 43; Irish Times (1943), 25 September; referred to by Terence Killeen in the Irish Times (2009), 16 June.

8 Irish Times (1935), 26 October.

9 McNeill: Hugh used the spellings M‘Neill and then McNeill with some consistency. When his brother John became actively involved in Gaelic League matters he preferred the Gaelic form “Eoin”, and spelled his surname “MacNeill” and “Mac Neill”.

10 Alan O’Day & N. C. Fleming Longman Handbook of Modern Irish History (2005), p. 715.

11 John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello John Stanilaus Joyce (1997) ch. 22 p. 294:

Some months later he also sent copies of the Italian newspaper Piccolo della Sera containing articles he had written. John got one or two of them translated into English for publication in Dublin by an acquaintance, Hugh MacNeill, but, despite promises, failed (if he ever really tried) to place them with Mr Meade, the then editor of the Evening Telegraph, or anywhere else.

12 Michael Tierney Eoin MacNeill: Scholar and Man of Action 1867-1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), p. 5.

13 Irish Times (1879), 25 September p. 3.

14 Freeman’s Journal (1880), 22 September p. 2; Freeman’s Journal (1881), 4 October.

15 Freeman’s Journal (1882), 1 December.

16 Freeman’s Journal (1883), 14 September; Belfast Newsletter (1884), 20 September.

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