Prison, the second time
The professorship at University College Dublin held by Hugh’s brother, Eoin McNeill, was not renewed when it came up for seven-year review in 1916. Eoin had been involved in political dealings with the Irish Republican Brotherhood on behalf of his Volunteers at the time of the Rising, and was subsequently imprisoned. In mid 1917, Hugh’s mother Rosetta, long-time widow of his father Archibald McNeill, died in Rathfarnham, Dublin.1 The family was unsettled again. When Eoin was released, he received further letters from his brother Hugh – again concerning Hugh’s financial situation. Things were clearly so bad that Hugh and his family were likely to lose their accommodation in Sandford Place.
Further matters of an obscure nature are discussed in the letters, and it is clear that the rest of the family is temporarily involved in caring for his children, much to Hugh’s concern and dismay.3 By late 1917 Hugh, and presumably his family, are living in his mother’s old house in Rathfarnham, and Hugh’s state of mind seems unsettled.
By now Hugh McNeill was almost 55 years old. He was no longer employed in any substantive academic capacity, had a prison record and a history of antagonism to the British authorities. He had been in constant debt for about twenty years or more. But the low ebb that he had reached was not the final indignity he was to suffer.
A pauper’s death
The official documentation does not support this, but it is not surprising that such a story should arise around the death of a long-forgotten but fondly remembered friend to so many of the students and newspaperman of Joyce’s Dublin.
His death certificate reveals a sadder story. After being taken ill and treated in the Meath Hospital in Dublin, he was conveyed to south Dublin, to the City’s remaining workhouse, where he died.6 He died in obscurity: there were no obituaries and only a passing reference in the Belvederian. Seumas O’Sullivan visited him, dying, in hospital. When most of his friends did hear about his death, weeks later, the newspapers were led by a handsome and lengthy “Tribute” by “A Friend” in the Irish Times, cited here numerous times.7
Hugh McNeill’s life started with great promise. He was born into a talented family, and achieved excellent academic results, leading to a post at University College Dublin. He certainly came into contact with the Joyces and the writer's circle at this time, and there are signs in early Ulysses drafts of a genuine warmness between McNeill and the Joyces. While McNeill was teaching at University College he was at first accorded the title of “Professor”, but soon lost that distinction. However, he continued to use the title in academic contexts, and in due course his journalist friends and others used it familiarly when speaking or writing of him.
Joyce also met McNeill in 1909, after McNeill’s career had turned sour. He was unsuited to the academic life – for reasons that are never made absolutely explicit – and had supplemented his salary as a tutor with examining for the Royal University and the Intermediate Examination Board.
From the very early years of the twentieth century he had fallen into debt, apparently unable to manage his money or (at times) to support his growing family. This had led to a spell in prison for refusal to pay his Income Tax bill. As his brothers Eoin and James became significant players on the political stage of the new Free State, Hugh tended to vanish into obscurity, dying at last almost forgotten in the Dublin workhouse.
Joyce will probably not have known much of the detail of Hugh McNeill’s life, but the facts complement the image of McNeill portrayed by Joyce. We see his idiosyncrasies of thought and dress both in the novel and in his life – the one complementing the other, and some reasons behind with curious relationship with the newspapermen in Ulysses.
I would like to thank the UCD Archives and the Irish Jesuit Archives in Dublin for their courtesy and assistance during my research for this article.
1 Freeman’s Journal (1917), 7 July.
2 Tony Gray Mr Smyllie, Sir (Gill and Macmillan: 1991), p. 43.
3 UCD Archives: Eoin MacNeill Collection LA1/G/301, 302 (November 1917).
4 A Page of Irish History: Story of University College: 1883-1909 (1930), p. 195.
5 Tony Gray Mr Smyllie, Sir (Gill and Macmillan: 1991), p. 43. See also “Telephone Kiosk” in Irish Times 2 May, p. 7 for an illustration of the concrete College Green kiosk soon after it was erected.
6 McNeill does not appear earlier in the Dublin workhouse records. I am grateful to Vincent Deane for checking the admissions and discharges registers (not yet online for this late period) at the National Archives in Dublin.
7 Irish Times (1935), 26 October.