In Brief

The "McCann" whom Stephen recalls owing one guinea in Nestor is apparently the "MacCann" with whom Stephen spars in part 5 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who in turn is the McCann called "Phil" in Stephen Hero. The character was based on a real-life university friend named Francis Skeffington (after his 1903 marriage to Hanna Sheehy he took the surname Sheehy Skeffington) who was four years older than Joyce but only two classes ahead of him at University College, Dublin. Despite his passionate pacifism, Sheehy Skeffington was arrested by British troops during the Easter Rising and summarily executed.

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The many appearances of McCann in Stephen Hero are pared to a single scene in A Portrait. There he is a political activist—he is called a "propagandist" at one point—who with "flushed bluntfeatured face" is rounding up signatures on a "testimonial." Cranly says it is for universal peace and Moynihan says it's for a "Brandnew world. No stimulants and votes for the bitches." In an effort to get Stephen to sign, MacCann "began to speak with fluent energy of the Csar's receipt, of Stead, of general disarmament, arbitration in cases of international disputes, of the signs of the times, of the new humanity and the new gospel of life which would make it the business of the community to secure as cheaply as possible the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number." Stephen declines, prompting MacCann to call him a "reactionary." As Stephen politely differs and walks away, MacCann says that he has "yet to learn the dignity of altruism and the responsibility of the human individual."

This portrait seems faithful to the political affiliations of Skeffington, whose causes included pacifism, socialism, feminism, vegetarianism, and opposition to "stimulants" like alcohol and tobacco. But by representing only one sharp-edged intellectual exchange it obscures other qualities which strongly attracted Joyce to Skeffington. The two men were friends, as Stephen Hero makes clear, and Fargnoli and Gillespie note that "With the exception of himself, Joyce considered Skeffington the cleverest man at University College, Dublin." After his marriage in 1903 "Skeffy" worked as a journalist, supported by his wife's teaching job, and compiled a substantial record in publishing. He edited or co-edited the Nationalist (with Tom Kettle), the Irish Citizen, and the National Democrat (with Fred Ryan) and wrote pieces for various newspapers and magazines. His book-length biography of Michael Davitt was published in 1908, and his novel In Dark and Evil Days was published after his death in 1916.

Skeffington supported Home Rule and sympathized with some of the militants agitating for Irish independence, but he categorically renounced violence. When the Rising began in April 1916 he avoided the fighting but organized volunteers to stop poorer citizens from looting shops. Arrested on the streets by British soldiers, he was taken to the Portobello Barracks and executed by firing squad the next day. His murder was probably not due so much to government or army policy as to the blood lust of one minor officer. Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, a decorated Cork-born officer in the Royal Irish Rifles who had seen action in South Africa, Tibet, and France, seems to have snapped during the street fighting in Dublin. In addition to his order to kill Skeffington and two other journalists, Colthurst himself shot other Dublin residents in the streets without any justification. He was arrested on May 6, court-martialed on June 6, found guilty but insane, and sentenced to the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for one year.

The story was a bitterly sad one for Colthurst, for the commanding officer who reported him, and not least for Sheehy Skeffington and his wife and young son. Ellmann records that Joyce "followed the events with pity; although he evaluated the rising as useless, he felt also out of things. His attitude towards Ireland became even more complex, so that he told friends, when the British had to give up their plans to conscript troops in Ireland, 'Erin go bragh!' and predicted that some day he and Giorgio would go back to wear the shamrock in an independent Ireland" (399). The sadness continued when Tom Kettle, Skeffington's journalistic collaborator and brother-in-law, was killed while fighting in France. Kettle was one of those Irishmen who volunteered to serve in the army in the hope that Britain would later reciprocate by giving Ireland home rule. The impulse was generous but naive: it would have been wiser for politicians to try bartering service in exchange for independence.

Elllmann records that when Joyce returned to Dublin in 1909 he "ran into Francis and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. Skeffington wanted to be friends, and seemed to have forgotten, as Joyce had not, his refusal to be friendly in October 1904. He pronounced Joyce 'somewhat blasé,' but Hanna said he was not a bit changed. Joyce treated them coolly, as befitted an old debtor with an old creditor, and subsequently refused an invitation to dine" (278).

JH 2022
Francis Sheehy Skeffington in a photograph of unknown date.
Skeffington and Sheehy near the time of their marriage.
Wwallacee's 2020 photograph of public art commemorating "Skeffy," as he was commonly known, in the suburb of Rathmines where he lived and was murdered. Source: Wikimedia Commons.