Joyce was brought up in a God-fearing Roman Catholic family.
Being the eldest of 10 surviving children (5 other siblings had died in
infancy); he was regarded as the favorite by his mother.
His father was a Micawber-like character possessing much charm, but little business acumen, and his irresponsible behavior led his family into poverty. However, his father quickly recognised his son’s abilities and ensured that he obtained a good education.
Before the financial slide, Joyce attended a Jesuit Boarding School,
Clongowes Wood College. Even at this relatively young age, he was a sickly child and didn’t respond well to the strict regime at the Boarding School.
However, he impressed the teachers with his excellent memory and musical prowess.
Like many families at this time, the Joyce household supported the
Nationalist Movement for Ireland, so at an early age Joyce was aware of the political situation in Ireland and the Church’s role in these events.
The Joyce family’s financial situation was such that they were unable to pay
the fees for the Boarding School, and James finished his education at Belvedere College, which was a Jesuit day school. The environment was less harsh and this enabled Joyce to flourish, where he distinguished
himself as a playwright and award-winning essayist. Many of these were published in the School Magazine.
At the age of 14 James came to a major crossroads in his life.
He became a prefect of the school’s Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary and he also started consorting with Dublin prostitutes. Mentally, he was trying to burn the candle at both ends, and his behavior caused much conflict inside the psyche of James.
At 16 he left Belvedere and continued his education at University College,
Dublin, and although this was still a Jesuit Institution, much less emphasis was given to religious instruction. It was a time when Dublin was emerging from being on the extremes of Europe and trying to become
a cultural centre. During his time at University, he became interested in the works of Wagner and the myths he used in his operas.
He also studied the works of Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright. He considered Ibsen to be more than a match for Shakespeare or the Greek classics and produced an essay supporting his viewpoint. He received much criticism regarding this work, but this did not prevent him having it published in the Fortnightly Review.
He clearly enjoyed literary debate and championed many a controversial topic.
Joyce did not think he would ever make a living through writing and he
intended to embark on a medical career, and he traveled to Paris in order to finish his studies in medicine, but he lacked the desire for this subject and he soon halted his studies.
Just when his finances were in disarray, he obtained sponsorship from Lady
Gregory and her friend William Yeats, who encouraged him to continue his literary work. He wrote several reviews for the Dublin Daily Express and this enabled him to avoid starvation.
Due to his mother’s failing health he left Paris for Dublin in 1903.
She died aged 44 on August 13th 1903. With the loss of Mrs. Joyce, the Joyce household was now in turmoil and James withdrew from the situation and engaged in a life of heavy drinking and carousing in Dublin.
The works that he produced at this time had a heavy sexual undertone, which
hindered their publication. Joyce also composed many poems at this time and an anthology of these was published in 1907 entitled ‘Chamber Music’. It was then, in 1904 that he met and fell in love with
The couple moved to Zurich because Joyce had been promised a teaching position at the Berlitz School. However, when they arrived the job was not forthcoming and they decided to move to Trieste, which was their base for the next 10 years. During this time ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ was developed from an original work entitled ‘Stephen Hero’.
Joyce had also been working on another project ‘Dubliners’, which was a
collection of short stories.
He was unsuccessful in getting this work published and through frustration it is reported that he threw the only manuscript of ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ on the fire. Fortunately, the work was rescued.
James and Nora had 2 children, a boy and a girl.
Whilst Joyce had been away from Ireland, his homeland had suffered much
turmoil and he felt drawn back to see for himself first-hand, what had happened to his country.
He left Trieste for Ireland taking his son, but leaving his wife and daughter. During his absence he wrote many letters to Nora and these were kept, and are regarded as important literary works.
Joyce continued to be a prolific writer obtaining continued support from
Yeats who was instrumental in the publication of ‘A Portrait’ in a serial form in The Egoist. The publication of ‘A Portrait’ as a single volume was not so easily accomplished, and with the help of two
literary patronesses, it was finally published in New York in 1916.
Joyce had always suffered with poor eyesight, but in 1917 it was necessary
for him to undergo eye surgery, but after numerous operations their effectiveness was limited.
During the 1920’s Joyce attracted much publicity through his epic work
Although copies of this work were available on the Continent, it had not been published in Great Britain due to its sexual explicitness. The book had certain notoriety, similar to that of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.
Joyce’s final major work was ‘Finnegan’s Wake’.
We sense that throughout his life, James Joyce needed to live in an
environment that would allow him to express himself freely. Initially he wished to cut the ties with Ireland and the strict upbringing he experienced.
His subsequent moves in Europe were mainly governed by the outbreak of two World Wars. No doubt he felt that he could distance himself from war-torn Europe by living in Switzerland, which is where he died on January 13th 1941. He was buried in the Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich and his headstone is decorated simply with a green wreath woven in the shape of a lyre, the emblem of Ireland.
He was a devoted father and it was a constant source of frustration to him
that he was never able to alleviate his daughter’s mental instability.