Bloom’s Catholic wife Molly misuses two well-known religious abbreviations in the quotation cited above.1 She also makes use of the common Catholic consolatory observation "(If) I have sinned, I have suffered".
I.H.S. is a "Christogram" or combination of letters forming an abbreviation of the name of Jesus Christ. In this case "I.H.S." represents the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek capital letters (iota, eta, and sigma: ΙНΣ).
I.N.R.I. is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase "Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum" (Jesus of Nathareth, King of the Jews). It is familiar to all Catholics because it was ordered by Pontius Pilate to be inscribed on the cross at Jesus’s crucifixion (John 19:19).
It seems that neither of Molly Bloom’s misinterpretations of these abbreviations ("I have sinned", familiar from the confessional as well as biblical texts, and the starkly descriptive "Iron nails ran in") are Joyce’s own creations.
We can find evidence for her use of "I.H.S." in the 1880s. The British Architect discussed misreadings of "I.H.S." in mid 1880. On 9 July a correspondent from Boston tells the story of a “clergyman of Salem” who left his parish after some disagreement and was settled in a nearby parish. Some re-slating work was done on the roof of his new church. On one side the slates depicted an immense cross, and the other slope picked out the letters “I.H.S.”:
This was translated by his former parishioners as "I have sinned — I have suffered. I hate Salem!" (p. 12)
This was clearly a well-known popular interpretation of the letters. A Tasmanian newspaper, the Launceston Examiner, has another story, which was doubtless doing the rounds of the "Fancy That!" columns:
I.H.S. - A novel reading of the inscription "I.H.S." on many headstones at the Old Cemetery was given by a child the other day. The little one had returned from a visit to God's acre, and remarked to her family that the initials in question meant "I Have Sinned". (12 September, p. 2)
Molly’s reading of I.N.R.I ("Iron Nails Ran In") seems to have an Irish background.2 To date no records of this interpretation contemporary with Joyce have been discovered, but modern contributors to internet sites and publications in Ireland and America give evidence that it was familiar to earlier generations:
'Another mordant Irishism I remember from growing up in Limerick: INRI (actually: "Jesus of Narazeth King of the Jews") was said by the old women to mean "Iron Nails Ran In".'3
The correspondent added in a private email:
I come from a plain folks background in Limerick (b. 1953) and this quote was often put in the mouth of an "aul shawlie" (these were the ancient old women who still wore black shawls - associated with deep but somewhat uninformed piety (a dash of morbidity and suffering was always a welcome addition). Anyone brought up in a quote/unquote upper working class/lower middle class background would have been well familiar with the phrase as a joke on the less well educated but staunchly pious folks who lived down the little alleyways.
Another American publication confirms:
Reflecting back to the thirties and forties on my uneducated [no high school] Irish/Catholic/ South Bronx extended family, none who ever encroached on your Fordham campus. Yet they still clung to an un-educated Faith. At a large family gathering, I was at eight then, I asked what INRI meant on the large crucifix on aunt Lizzie's wall. None present knew but said Lizzie, a daily Mass attendee, would certainly know as she was the family holy person. Lizzie came in from the kitchen and explained to all who immediately nodded acceptance. "INRI means Iron Nails Ran In." This piece of faith tradition was well promulgated and had the blessing of reception in the South Bronx at that time.
America: the National Catholic Review (2012) 14 September
The dual exclamation "I have sinned, I have suffered", involving two expansion of "I.H.S.", may be found regularly in nineteenth-century Catholic texts. It appears, for example, in Goffiana: a Review of the Life and Writings of John B. Gough (Boston, 1845). Gough was a celebrated English-born American temperance orator of the mid nineteenth century:
When they had foolishly dragged them to the light of day, if Gough had simply said, "I have sinned, I have suffered, I repent and I will do so no more," there are few who would not have forgiven him. (p. 9)
The magazine London Society for late 1884 (p. 684) offers:
I said, "I have sinned, I have suffered; but through all my sorrow and mistakes I have loved you dearly – ask me nothing more."
Molly bundles together a stream of Catholic thoughts which Bloom attempts to untangle.
Eamonn Finn and John Simpson