Tom Kernan

Tom Kernan

In Brief

After Bloom thinks of Gretta Conroy and M'Coy in Calypso, subsequent chapters introduce many other Dubliners characters. One of the first is "Tom Kernan," mentioned on the first page of Lotus Eaters and seen at the funeral in Hades, along with two of the three men who shepherded him to a religious retreat in the story "Grace." (M'Coy was the third.) Various details of the short story carry over into Ulysses, including Kernan's relationships with the bottle, the Catholic faith, fine clothing, and a grocer named Fogarty.

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Readers of "Grace" meet Mr. Kernan lying "curled up at the foot of the stairs down which he had fallen," in "the filth and ooze" on the floor of a pub's lavatory, with part of his tongue bitten off. (In Penelope Molly calls him "that drunken little barrelly man that bit his tongue off falling down the mens WC drunk in some place or other.") Some of his friends decide that he has hit bottom as an alcoholic and undertake to "make a new man of him" by convincing him to attend a religious retreat. Jack Power, Charley M'Coy, and Martin Cunningham are aware that "Mr Kernan came of Protestant stock and, though he had been converted to the Catholic faith at the time of his marriage, he had not been in the pale of the Church for twenty years. He was fond, moreover, of giving side-thrusts at Catholicism." To encourage compliance, they sing the praises of the Jesuit priest who will be conducting the service, and of the Catholic church more generally.

Many withering ironies attend this campaign, not least of them the campaigners' assurances that the retreat is "for business men," and that Father Purdon is "a man of the world like ourselves." Sure enough, the good father's sermon concerns the exceedingly strange biblical text, Luke 16:8-9, in which Jesus says that the children of this world are wiser than the children of light, commanding his followers to "make unto yourselves friends of the mammon of iniquity." This passage, the priest says, is "a text for business men and professional men," offering help to "those whose lot it was to lead the life of the world." As Father Purdon preaches, a "speck of red light" burns over the altar in the Saint Francis Xavier church, signifying the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. Purdon Street ran through Dublin's red-light district, the Monto. The book's theme of simony sounds very strongly here.

Tom Kernan is indeed a man of business: he tastes and sells tea. In Lotus Eaters, Bloom thinks of "Tea. Must get some from Tom Kernan. Couldn't ask him at a funeral, though." Wandering Rocks notes, and Ithaca confirms, that he works as an "agent for Pulbrook, Robertson and Co, 2 Mincing Lane, London, E. C., 5 Dame street, Dublin)." But the businessman's retreat has not made "a new man" of Mr. Kernan: his alcoholic habit remains intact. In Wandering Rocks, he complacently ponders having just booked a sale with a pub owner by chatting him up and giving him some business: "I'll just take a thimbleful of your best gin, Mr Crimmins. A small gin, sir. Yes, sir. . . . And now, Mr Crimmins, may we have the honour of your custom again, sir. The cup that cheers but not inebriates, as the old saying has it."

Nor has Kernan reformed in the second way envisioned by his friends, by burrowing deep into the bosom of Mother Church. In Hades he seeks out Bloom, a man who like himself is nominally Catholic but privately skeptical, to remark that the priest in Prospect Cemetery has recited the words of the funeral service too quickly. Kernan adds that he finds the language of "the Irish church" (the state-sponsored Protestant religion) to be "simpler, more impressive I must say." The side-thrusts continue.

Finally, it also becomes clear that Kernan has experienced no sudden conversion regarding business ethics. In "Grace," his wife says she has nothing to offer the gentleman visitors and offers to "send round to Fogarty's at the corner." Fogarty is "a modest grocer" whose shop also sells alcoholic beverages, in the Irish tradition of the spirit-grocer. "He had failed in business in a licensed house in the city," because his lack of money kept him from buying top-drawer products. Later in the story, this struggling small businessman shows up at the Kernans' house when Cunningham, Power, and M'Coy are visiting, handsomely bringing with him "a half-pint of special whiskey" to console Mr. Kernan on his accident. We learn that "Mr Kernan appreciated the gift all the more since he was aware that there was a small account for groceries unsettled between him and Mr Fogarty."

In Hades, Mr. Power says, "I wonder how is our friend Fogarty getting on." "Better ask Tom Kernan," says Mr. Dedalus. "How is that?" Martin Cunningham asks. "Left him weeping, I suppose?" "Though lost to sight," Simon replies, "to memory dear." Mr. Kernan, in other words, has continued not paying the grocer what he owes him, and is now so far in arrears that he stealthily avoids meeting him. This detail of Kernan's shabby financial dealings, together with his unreformed drinking and his unchanged religious loyalties, bears out what Mrs. Kernan thinks in "Grace": "After a quarter of a century of married life she had very few illusions left. Religion for her was a habit and she suspected that a man of her husband's age would not change greatly before death."

One final detail carries over from the story to the novel, subtly suggesting the salesman's slow alcoholic decline from respectability. "Grace" notes his reliance on a good appearance: "Mr Kernan was a commercial traveller of the old school which believed in the dignity of its calling. He had never been seen in the city without a silk hat of some decency and a pair of gaiters. By grace of these two articles of clothing, he said, a man could always pass muster." In Ulysses he is still banking on this saving "grace," though one detail suggests it may be wearing thin. After leaving Mr. Crimmins' establishment, he stands looking at himself in a mirror, thinking complacently of the favorable effect his frockcoat had on the bar owner. It is a "Stylish coat, beyond a doubt," which the tailor, "Scott of Dawson street," could not have sold for "under three guineas." Kernan thinks it was "Well worth the half sovereign I gave Neary for it. . . . Some Kildare street club toff had it probably. . . . Must dress the character for those fellows. Knight of the road. Gentleman." Kernan feels satisfied that he is still dressing up to the standards of his profession, but he is doing it with second-hand clothes.

In a letter to his friend Constantine Curran, Joyce mentioned "My father's old friend R. J. Thornton ('Tom Kernan')." Vivien Igoe affirms that Joyce modeled Kernan principally on this man who was godfather to two of the Joyce children, and who worked as a tea taster and traveling salesman for Pullbrook, Robertson, & Co. She reports that Stanislaus described Thornton as "an amusing, robust, florid little elderly man," and that he died in 1903 in "a tenement building" on Upper Mercer Street. This squalid ending reads like an echo of Mrs. Kernan's words in the short story: "We were waiting for him to come home with the money. He never seems to think he has a home at all."

JH 2019
Illustration of "Grace" for the de Selby Press edition of Dubliners, from a 2014 giclée print by Stephen Crowe. Source: invisibledot.storenvy.com.