Storm clouds of debt

McNeill’s tutoring and examining may appear to represent a period of stability in his life, but such an impression would be false. There were storm clouds brewing, and the McNeill whom Joyce doubtless knew at University College around 1900 found himself dogged by financial worries – or by his inability to manage his finances. On the one hand, his family was expanding and we read that he enjoyed the cut and thrust of society debate:

At the January meeting of St. Mary’s Literary Academy, Miss Mary Pelly, M.A., read a paper on 'The Niobe of Nations' […] [Afterwards] When Mr. McNeill had finished speaking, the opposition ought to have been finally crushed.

"Girl Graduates’ Chat" in St. Stephens (1902) March pp. 93-4

and he joins in a general meeting of students of University College on whether the students’ magazine, St Stephens, should change its profile,1 but on the other, the University College Archives (Eoin MacNeill Collection) reveal a much blacker picture of Hugh McNeill and his financial stability.2

In the summer of 1903 Hugh writes to his brother Eoin that he has not yet been paid the money he is owed (presumably from the University), and desperately needs funds to travel to Galway. In the summer of 1906 he begs his brother for money to cover his hotel and transport costs to Cork, Clonakility, and Waterford. He is clearly in a state of financial embarrassment, and relates how he had to give his name and address to every ticket collector he encountered on a journey to Waterford. It is not clear why he is travelling to the west of Ireland: perhaps he was teaching in Galway and Cork, or maybe even following race meetings. But perhaps a different hint suggesting a drink problem is dropped by Lenehan in Ulysses, who wonders in a limerick why McNeill wears glasses:

As he mostly sees double

To wear them why trouble? (U 7.580-1)

The situation was severe enough for another clutch of correspondence between his brothers Eoin and James in 1904 and 1906 (doubtless other similar correspondence has not survived) discussing how they can resolve the problem of Hugh and his money difficulties. Substantial payments are mentioned which might resolve the problem, but Eoin in particular is dubious. The issue seems to extend way beyond travel money. The brothers wonder if they can lease Hugh a house, so that he does not need to worry about the rent.

For a while the problem seems to ease, but it remains a worry for Hugh and for his family, who had hoped that work as an Examiner for the Royal University and the Intermediate Education Board might provide at least some respite from debt. It is perhaps typical of Hugh that, despite his own troubles, he was generous enough to subscribe one guinea to the fund for the distressed wife and children of the brilliant Dublin lawyer John O’Mahony, who died in November 1904.3 The friendship between McNeill and O’Mahony is something that we can now see Joyce pick up in Ulysses. O’Mahony has been identified as a model for “J. J. O’Molloy”, with whom McNeill chats casually in the Aeolus episode:

— Is the editor to be seen? J. J. O’Molloy asked, looking towards the inner door.

— Very much so, professor MacHugh said. To be seen and heard. He’s in his sanctum with Lenehan. (U 7.297-300)

— The moot point is did he forget it? J. J. O’Molloy said quietly, turning a horseshoe paperweight. Saving princes is a thankyou job.

Professor MacHugh turned on him.

— And if not? he said. (U 7.545-8)

— Professor Magennis was speaking to me about you, J. J. O’Molloy said to Stephen. What do you think really of that hermetic crowd, the opal hush poets: A. E. the mastermystic? […] Magennis thinks you must have been pulling A. E.’s leg. He is a man of the very highest morale, Magennis.

Speaking about me. What did he say? What did he say? What did he say about me? Don’t ask.

— No, thanks, professor MacHugh said, waving the cigarettecase aside. Wait a moment. Let me say one thing. The finest display of oratory I ever heard was a speech made by John F Taylor at the college historical society. (U 7.782-93)

The newspapers identify Hugh McNeill in his familiar university guise over the next few years, in contexts distant from his debts. In December 1907 he proposed a motion that the University College Classical Society was “deserving of support”, and in December 1908 he chaired a debate of the University College Literary and Historical Society “That a love of science is antagonistic to a love of poetry”.4

Tutor and journalist

In 1908 the old Royal University was replaced by the National University of Ireland, with three constituent colleges, in Dublin, Galway, and Cork. This tidied up the previous situation and gave University College Dublin a new charter. This was a time in which a staff review was clearly held, and it would appear that Hugh McNeill lost his formal position as “Tutor” with University College, and was retained only at the level of an Assistant.5 His difficulties had seen him fall from the level of Professor in 1890 to lowly Assistant (comparable to a Scientific “Demonstrator”) in 1909. He remained listed as an Assistant until 1917-18, aged just over 50, when he faded from the University College Calendar.

With this reduction in his pay, he needed to look around for extra work, and – like many others – he found it in the colleges surrounding Dublin. Thom’s Directory for 1909 records a return for Hugh to Maynooth, where he had lived with his uncle when commuting to Belvedere College in his youth. He was appointed Lecturer in Ancient Classics, along with his old colleague at University College, Patrick Semple (Semple was also a Professor at University College Dublin). Hugh’s brother Eoin MacNeill (also still a Professor at UCD) is also appointed a Lecturer in Maynooth:

Royal College of St. Patrick, Maynooth

Lecturers on Ancient Classics, Patrick Semple, esq. M.A., F.R.U.I, T. P O’Nowlan, esq., F.R.U.I.; Hugh MacNeill, esq., B.A.

Lecturer on Irish Archaeology, John MacNeill, esq. M.A.

Thom’s Directory (1909), p. 893

This appointment confirms the comment of Richard Ellmann, cited above, that McNeill was a teacher in Maynooth when Joyce met him in 1909 (Ellmann incorrectly calls McNeill a “teacher of romance languages”). Piaras Béaslaí, drama critic of the Evening Telegraph, who was interviewed several times by Ellmann about this episode, additionally remarks that Joyce:

Must have seen that half the people he met in the "Evening Telegraph" (Hugh MacNeill for instance) were not journalists at all.

Piaras Béaslaí "I Introduced Joyce to a Dublin Newspaper Office" in Irish Independent (1962) 4 July p. 5/4

Hugh McNeill’s appointment at Maynooth continued through 1910, but he seems to have lost the post by 1911, when he is not listed by Thom’s. If he could see beyond his present troubles, it must have been galling for him that his brother Eoin and colleagues William Magennis and Patrick Semple continued as full Professors at University College Dublin.

Joyce presents McNeill in Ulysses as a hanger-on in the newspaper office. He may have written a leader, and badgers the editor for information about whether it would be published:

— What about that leader this evening? professor MacHugh asked, coming to the editor and laying a firm hand on his shoulder. (U 7.378-9)

There is ample third-party evidence that McNeill was often to be found in newspaper offices. Piaras Béaslaí introduced him to the Evening Telegraph in 1909, and Tony Gray’s biography of the Irish Times editor, Mr Smyllie, Sir reports on McNeill as a “supporting player” in the offices of the Irish Times around 1910:6

Then there was a Professor MacNeill who lived in the Irish Times reporters’ room, though he had never been a reporter, nor had he ever indeed worked for the newspaper in any capacity whatsoever. He subsisted on cups of tea which the reporters were always making for themselves – this was in the days before the department boasted a secretary – and on buns bought over to him from Bewley’s Oriental Café in Westmoreland Street by various members of the staff.

[…] for one reason or another had moved out of that job and into the Irish Times reporters’ room, where he was a permanent fixture. He had a big, dangling red beard and he just sat there, day after day, waiting for the end.

McNeill was spotted on his way to the Evening Telegraph offices in 1916, when the Proclamation of Pearse was being read on the steps of the GPO building in Sackville [O’Connor] Street:

Just after 11.30 a.m., Linnane saw copies of the Proclamation being handed out to the crowd gathering outside the GPO. One was handed to him by Professor Hugh MacNeill, who said that he was on his way to the Evening Telegraph office in Prince's Street, at the side of the GPO, to give some to the editor, Paddy Meade and his staff.

Hugh Oram, The Newspaper Book: A History of Newspapers in Ireland 1649-1983 (1983), p. 126

Tony Gray recalls that once in the Irish Times editorial offices, McNeill would often be nibbling away at buns and cups of tea; Joyce remembers him nibbling a biscuit:

— The ghost walks, professor MacHugh murmured softly, biscuitfully to the dusty windowpane. (U 7.237-8)

— That will do, professor MacHugh cried from the window. I don’t want to hear any more of the stuff.

He ate off the crescent of water biscuit he had been nibbling and, hungered, made ready to nibble the biscuit in his other hand. (U 7.256-9)

At the time of the 1911 Ireland census “Hugh Mac Neill” lived at No 6 Sandford Parade, Pembroke West, in southern Dublin, quite near to his brother Eoin in Herbert Park Road. The family consisted of Hugh, his wife Mary, and their four children Hugh, Dermot, Roisin, and Olaf. Hugh was by then aged 45, and persisted in maintaining his occupation as “Professor of Classics B.A.”, perhaps applying “Professor” in the loose meaning of “teacher”. That he had come to be associated familiarly with the title within the newspaper fraternity, as Joyce and others imply, may explain references as late as this to “Professor McNeill”:7

Literary and Historical Society, University College […] The subject for debate is "That a Dramatic Censorship is injurious to Art". The chair will be taken by Professor Hugh McNeill.

One of McNeill’s specialities is not alluded to in Ulysses: his prowess at chess. According to Byrne, Joyce himself had no time for chess, so this is hardly surprising. At some point in his later career, McNeill was Chess Correspondent for the Irish Times, and he was a keen setter of newspaper chess posers, but his association with the game goes much further back. John Byrne recalls chess at UCD in the mid 1890s:8

The group [in UCD] never amounted to anything as a chess center, this being partly due to the fact that there was only one person in it who seemed to have any idea of what the game was about. This person was Hugh MacNeill.

As newspaper columns were rewritten anonymously, it is not possible to track down McNeill’s chess contributions, but they were clearly significant. But in 1905 he was Adjudicator in a Chess Competition held in connection with the Oireachtas, the festival of national competitions. His report was published in the Freeman’s Journal for 31 August. As with his examination reports, he is seldom happy with performances, but is willing to give praise when it is due:

The most prominent defects are haste and want of consideration. Some of the strongest players again failed through nervousness and want of decision at critical positions. It was pleasing to find that conventional "book-play" was practically absent. Its place was taken by a rare exercise of intelligence and resource.

Hugh McNeill and his brother Eoin were fixtures for a time at the chess tables of the Dublin Bread Company, referred to in Ulysses as a Dublin chess centre:

Drop into the D. B. C. probably for his coffee, play chess there. (U 8.510)

But this is not an aspect of McNeill that Joyce addresses.

Prison, the first time

The Calendar of National Archives of Ireland contains an unsettling entry with respect to Hugh McNeill. The index notes on Document GPB/SFRG/1/42 reads:

Creator: General Prisons board

Scope and Content: Gives details of the case of Arthur Fagan, who went on hunger strike in Mountjoy Prison during 1913 and who underwent forcible feeding. Also includes papers on the treatment of suffragettes in prison, with the case of Hugh A McNeill, a debtor prisoner in Mountjoy during 1913, used a a precedent, and further papers on the government strategy for dealing with the suffragettes.

Further investigations in the Mountjoy Prison register for 1913 show the following entry:

Place of birth: Glenarm, Co Antrim

Age: 47

Name: McNeill Hugh A

Pre[vious] Con[viction]s: -

Reg[istration] No.: 2387

There is no doubt that this is Hugh McNeill, the brother of Eoin and James McNeill. He was convicted at the Four Courts and imprisoned on 3 July 1913 for non-payment of a debt amounting to £46 14. 0. owed to the Inland Revenue and which he refused or was unable to pay. Bailiffs had been instructed to seize goods and property to the amount of the debt on 26 June, before McNeill’s conviction, but presumably they had not been able to find enough to satisfy themselves. Thom’s Directory for 1913 shows that McNeill was then renting the reasonably expensive property Annaville House in Upper Annaville, Ranelagh, southern Dublin, but of course this was not his property to sell. It was also the address given by his wife, Mary, when she visited him in prison.

Despite his desperate plight – it seems his brothers were not ready to pay his debts for him – he made himself rather a nuisance to the Prison Governor. From the prison records it is clear that a handful of Mountjoy prisoners at any one time were problematic for the Prison Governor: at this period of suffragette activity in Dublin the Governor was required to force-feed prisoners who refused nourishment. Hugh McNeill did not refuse his food, but he wished to exercise his right to be treated as a “passive resister” to the British authorities. He demanded recognition in this role in a test case, and to be accorded the additional privileges allowed to “passive resisters”. From a list of fifteen possible concessions available to this category of prisoner, these were the ones Hugh McNeill requested:9

(1) To occupy, on payment of a small sum fixed by the Board, a room or cell specially fitted and furnished with suitable bedding and other articles in addition to or different from those furnished for ordinary cells;

(2) To have at his own cost the use of private furniture and utensils suitable to his ordinary habits, to be approved by the governor;

(3) To have, on payment of a small sum fixed by the Board, the assistance of some person to be appointed by the governor, relieving him from the performance of any unaccustomed tasks or offices;

(4) To be allowed to have supplied to him, at his own expense, such books, newspapers, or other means of occupation, other than those furnished by the prison, as are not, in the opinion of the governor, of an objectionable kind;

(5) (a) To be allowed to follow his trade and profession, if practicable;

(b) By his consent to be employed on the industries of the prison, and in the latter case to earn such gratuity as the rules allow.

The authorities agreed with his demands, after a case made by the Deputy Prison Governor to the Chairman of the Prisons Board, on 7 July 1913:10

I beg to submit case of Hugh McNeill debtor with regard to the application of the general rules to his care, as indicated in Rule 247 of special rules for debtors.

This debtor is a professor of the Royal University Dublin, and the sum of non-payment of which he has been committed to my custody is a comparatively small one; viz £46.14.0, which sum he states he will not pay; in these circumstances he would appear to be a 'passive resister'.

Once released from prison, Hugh McNeill appears to have slipped back into his previous life. His employment by University College as an Assistant in teaching Latin seems to have continued over this unfortunate spell, but he had not been offered examining work for some years now. He writes a letter to the Freeman’s Journal in September 1913, and a few months later attends the funeral of his old colleague at University College, Professor Cadic, along with his brothers Charles and Eoin.11 It is likely that he was helped out by his family, as in 1915 Thom’s Directory records him living back in Charlemont Place, at No 13. The house had a reasonably high rateable value of 21 shillings.


John Simpson


1 St Stephens (1903), February 23. Joyce and his friend Byrne heard a speech by John F. Taylor at UCD in December 1901 (St Stephens December p. 45) and it is possible that Joyce and McNeill both heard the speech by Taylor to which MacHugh alludes in Ulysses at the Trinity College Law Debating Society two months earlier (Joyce's presence at least is confirmed by Stuart Gilbert).

2 University College Dublin Archives: Eoin MacNeill Collection LA1/G/298, 299, 321, 322)

3 Irish Times (1905), 7 February. For more of Joyce and O’Mahony see “The short but remarkable life of John O’Mahony” on this website.

4 Irish Times (1907), 11 December p. 9; Irish Times (1908), 16 March p. 10.

5 University College Dublin Calendar (1909-10), p. 58: “Assistants (Session 1909-10) […] Latin: Hugh McNeill, B.A.”

6 Tony Gray, Mr Smyllie, Sir (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1991), ch. 14 pp. 42-3.

7 Irish Times (1912), 14 December.

8 John F. Byrne, Silent Years (1953), p. 41; Michael Tierney Eoin MacNeill: Scholar and Man of Action 1867-1945 (1980 Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 2.

9 National Archives, Dublin GPB/sfrg/1/42 General Prisons Board (1913): No. 5124. Dublin Castle. Chief Secretary's Office, dated 11 July 1913.

10 National Archives, Dublin GPB/sfrg/1/42 General Prisons Board (1913):No. 5026.

11 Freeman’s Journal (1913), 27 September; Freeman’s Journal (1914), 13 January.

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