Tidings of discomfort and Joyce - Frank McNally on recreating a famous Christmas dinner row

I had the privilege of seeing a group of actors recreate the scene, with spine-tingling effect, in the place where it happened

Of the many Dublin homes a young James Joyce lived in, No 1 Martello Terrace, Bray may have been the high watermark, and not just because it’s beside a beach.

In the years the family lived there (1887-1891), his father’s finances were still good enough to afford servants and to send “Sunny Jim”, as he was called, to school in Clongowes.

A gradual decline into poverty soon followed and with it a descent of the property ladder, via frequent changes of address, mostly on Dublin’s poorer northside.

John Joyce had moved to Bray, according to his son’s biographer Richard Ellmann, to be “closer to water and farther from his wife’s relatives”.


But Martello Terrace was a safe house in more ways than one. Guests there often included John Kelly, a Kerry “hillside man” jailed repeatedly for Land League activities.

The fervently nationalist John Joyce risked his reputation by allowing Kelly stay between spells in prison. They once had to be tipped off by a friendly policeman that an arrest was planned next morning, allowing the guest escape overnight.

Also among the residents was children’s governess Mrs Dante Conway, a fiercely Catholic Corkwoman who taught James a lifelong fear of thunder as divine judgment.

Meanwhile, in another factor that helped form the writer, the years Joyce spent in Bray coincided with the great national trauma of the Parnellite split.

It was this conjunction of people and events that led to the Christmas dinner table row, witnessed by a nine-year-old Joyce and later immortalised in his autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Ellmann says the argument was loud enough to be heard by neighbours “across the street” (although then as now, this was a one-sided terrace of eight houses).

But the row reverberates in literature to this day. And thanks to the current owner of No 1, retired politician Liz McManus, it can also still sometimes be heard in the room where it happened.

So it was on Tuesday last, when I had the privilege of being part of a capacity attendance crammed in to see a group of actors recreate the scene, with spine-tingling effect.

Near neighbours may have overheard it again too, as the row over the church’s part in Parnell’s downfall built to a crescendo one more time.

We have had too much God in Ireland. Away with God!

As described in the novel, the dinner has been marked by Simon Dedalus (a fictionalised John Joyce) humorously teasing Dante Riordan (the real-life Mrs Conway), while Mr Casey (Kelly) recalls a bitter incident from the split.

But tempers explode when Dante (played on Tuesday by Maria C McCourt) declares: “God and religion before everything!” Which provokes the smouldering Casey (played by Gavin Barrett) to thump the table and shout: “Very well then, if it comes to that, no God for Ireland!”

Even the cleric-baiting Dedalus (David Butler) is shocked, and tries to restrain his friend as the latter rages on: “We have had too much God in Ireland. Away with God!”

This forces Mrs Riordan to flee the room, but not before temporarily abandoning her piety to the sin of pride. Turning to face the Parnellites again, she exults: “We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!”

And as recalled by a “terror-stricken” future novelist, both his father and Casey are left in tears.

But Mrs Riordan had been a Parnellite too before the split, it seems. At the bandstand on Bray’s esplanade one night, the novel recalls, she hit a man on the head with her umbrella because he had removed his hat for God Save the Queen.

And Ellmann coolly notes that the real-life Dante’s politics may have been influenced by a bad experience of marriage.

On the way to becoming a nun, she inherited £30,000 and left the convent to seek a husband instead, who soon after “ran off to South America with her money”.

The burning, lifelong humiliation, Ellmann suggests, intensified her religious objections to Parnell’s adulterous affair. In any case, only days after the Christmas row, she left the Joyce house for good.

Amid the angry passions of the dinner scene, there is a line that, on Tuesday at least, drew a knowing laugh. Annoyed at Simon Dedalus’s anticlerical talk, Dante warns of the nine-year-old boy: “He’ll remember this when he grows up.” He certainly would.

But Joyce was a ghost at the latest Martello Terrace banquet, and his absence marked a small win for religion. The actor due to play him had received a late and better offer “as a shepherd in his school nativity play”.

There was an irony too in the song with which Tuesday’s show concluded. For all his multitude of Dublin addresses, Joyce became the definitive exile, never returning to Ireland after 1912, not even to attend the funeral of his beloved father.

He lived to regret that. And even in later years, his thoughts were never far from Dublin, as Noel O’Grady reminded us before an achingly sad rendition of an old exile’s lament, from 1823: “There’s no place like home.”