“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.
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.
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
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.
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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