Father Conmee

Father Conmee

In Brief

"Father John Conmee" is mentioned 72 times in Ulysses, most of them in the opening section of Wandering Rocks, which features him at great length. Conmee was an actual Jesuit priest who held positions of authority at Clongowes Wood College and Belvedere College when Joyce attended those institutions (ages 6-9 and 11-16, respectively), and A Portrait of the Artist records the fact that he did him good turns at both. But while the tenth chapter of Ulysses shows the priest engaged in still another charitable deed, it paints an unflattering picture of the man: he is suave, friendly, and well-meaning but floats in a sea of divine complacency, smug about his clerical authority, equally besotted with the lay aristocracy, and seemingly deaf to human suffering. The narrative describes Conmee in a light tone suited to his breezy walk on a fine summer day, but its wicked ironies can fairly be called scathing. In them, Joyce expresses hostility to the hierarchical authority of the Catholic church.

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Vivien Igoe records that Conmee was "born into a wealthy farming family" in County Westmeath in 1847. He studied at Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare from 1863 to 1867, joined the Society of Jesus at age 20 in 1867, taught in County Offaly (then King's County) for five years in the late 1870s, was ordained a priest in 1881, became Prefect of Studies at Clongowes soon afterward, and was Rector of the college from 1885 to 1891. In 1893 he became the Prefect of Studies at Belvedere College in north inner city Dublin, and in 1898 he was made "The superior" (the priest in charge) at the nearby St. Francis Xavier's church,  down the front steps of whose presbytery he walks at the beginning of Wandering Rocks. Soon after this, the fictional Conmee thinks of writing a letter "to father provincial," the head of the Jesuit order in Ireland, a position to which the real Conmee was elected in 1905, serving until 1909. His book "Old Times in the Barony" was published by The Catholic Truth Society in 1910, the year of his death.

In Portrait a young Stephen Dedalus is subjected to unjust corporal punishment at Clongowes at the hands of the pandybat-wielding Father Dolan. Showing great courage, the tiny boy walks down a forbidding dark hallway after supper to protest directly to the rector of the college and is subsequently cheered as a hero by his classmates. Later, Simon Dedalus throws cold water on Stephen's childish fantasy of righting wrongs when he tells Mrs. Dedalus that Conmee has informed him of their son's protest:

     — And was he annoyed, Simon?
     — Annoyed? Not he! Manly little chap! he said.
     Mr Dedalus imitated the mincing nasal tone of the provincial.
     — Father Dolan and I, when I told them all at dinner about it, Father Dolan and I had a great laugh over it. You better mind yourself, Father Dolan, said I, or young Dedalus will send you up for twice nine. We had a famous laugh together over it. Ha! Ha! Ha!
Despite this disillusionment Stephen thinks of himself in Scylla and Charybdis as "A child Conmee saved from pandies," and Conmee's kindness returns in Circe when a menacing Father Dolan threatens to flog him again: "(Mild, benign, rectorial, reproving, the head of Don John Conmee rises from the pianola coffin.) / DON JOHN CONMEE / Now, Father Dolan! Now. I'm sure that Stephen is a very good little boy!"

A Portrait of the Artist also reflects the fact that, after Joyce left Clongowes (he entered the Christian Brothers school on North Richmond Street, but the novel fails to mention that), his impoverished father ran into Father Conmee on Mountjoy Square and asked him to allow James to attend Belvedere free of charge. Conmee granted the request, saving the gifted young student from the ignominy of a Christian Brothers education ("Paddy Stink and Micky Mud," in Simon's heated words). Ulysses echoes this charitable action too, albeit obliquely. Wandering Rocks shows Conmee walking past Mountjoy Square on his way to the O'Brien Institute for Destitute Children northeast of the city, passing North Richmond Street on the way. He is going to talk to the director because Martin Cunningham has asked that something be done to help Paddy Dignam's orphaned son. The O'Brien Institute was run by the Christian Brothers.

Conmee's kindness toward schoolboys is echoed near the beginning of Wandering Rocks when he banters jovially with three young boys from Belvedere. But other details from his half-circuit of Mountjoy Square suggest the haughty superiority implied at the chapter's opening by Joyce's ambiguous twisting of a titular noun into an adjective: "The superior, the very reverend John Conmee S.J." A one-legged sailor's begging makes plain the limits of his charity: "Father Conmee blessed him in the sun for his purse held, he knew, one silver crown." Briefly pondering the beggar's misfortune, Conmee decides that it can be chalked up to a poor career choice: "He thought, but not for long, of soldiers and sailors, whose legs had been shot off by cannonballs, ending their days in some pauper ward, and of cardinal Wolsey's words: If I had served my God as I have served my king He would not have abandoned me in my old days."

Having himself abandoned the sailor, Conmee runs into the wife of an M.P. and shows himself to be every bit the politician, chatting her up with talk of choice vacation spots and how her boys are doing at Belvedere. Leaving Mrs. Sheehy, he tips his silk hat, smiles, and "smiled yet again, in going. He had cleaned his teeth, he knew, with arecanut paste." He spots another rich matron, salutes her, and admires her aristocratic bearing: "A fine carriage she had. Like Mary, queen of Scots, something. And to think that she was a pawnbroker! Well, now! Such a...what should he say?...such a queenly mien."

Conmee's infatuation with the upper crust appears also near the end of his section, when his walk along the Malahide road makes him think of the Talbot family that used to live in the Malahide castle. Recalling incidents from that and other noble families, he thinks fondly of "old times in the barony." (Baronies, from Tudor times until independence, were county subdivisions, all of them originally associated with feudal titles.) Conmee imagines himself the priest to an old aristocratic family: "Don John Conmee walked and moved in times of yore. He was humane and honoured there. He bore in mind secrets confessed and he smiled at smiling noble faces in a beeswaxed drawingroom, ceiled with full fruit clusters. And the hands of a bride and of a bridegroom, noble to noble, were impalmed by Don John Conmee." The mock-aristocratic title sticks to him, reappearing in the Circe passage quoted above.

Conmee's complacent regard for economic privilege is complemented by his indifference to poverty, which he justifies by assuming that God must have intended for some people to have less than others. In some of the most sarcastic writing that Joyce ever allowed himself after his early poem The Holy Office, the sight of a dirty bargeman sitting with his pile of turf on the Royal Canal sends Conmee into rhapsodies of theological wonder: "It was idyllic: and Father Conmee reflected on the providence of the Creator who had made turf to be in bogs whence men might dig it out and bring it to town and hamlet to make fires in the houses of poor people."

Disliking dirt himself, Conmee boards a tram so as not "to traverse on foot the dingy way past Mud Island," and, having paid the fare, he deplores "The solemnity of the occupants of the car," which "seemed to Father Conmee excessive for a journey so short and cheap. Father Conmee liked cheerful decorum." An old woman gets off and he thinks, "as she had nearly passed the end of the penny fare, she was one of those good souls who had always to be told twice bless you, my child, that they have been absolved, pray for me. But they had so many worries in life, so many cares, poor creatures." Clearly the good father has few such cares himself, no need to cut his rides short at the end of the penny fare zone, little cause to display anything but "cheerful decorum."

Equally appalling is Conmee's indifference to physical suffering. His lack of sympathy for the amputated sailor (poor man, he should have chosen a career in religion) proves to be only a warmup for his reaction to the daily papers' announcement of "a dreadful catastrophe in New York. In America those things were continually happening. Unfortunate people to die like that, unprepared. Still, an act of perfect contrition." Most people are at least occasionally guilty of shutting down empathic responses to distant disasters: there is more than enough pull on one's heartstrings and wallet close to home. But Father Conmee takes such moral shrugging to a new level. Showing no reaction whatever to the physical horror of 1,000 women and children burned, drowned, or crushed to death on New York's East River, he thinks only of how "Unfortunate" it is that these people died spiritually "unprepared," condemned to an eternity in Hell by their failure to receive the last rites of the Catholic church.

In its maternal wisdom, that church has responded to these distressing cases of people dying without a priest nearby by promulgating the doctrine of "perfect contrition." No priest as you're burning to death? Take a few quiet moments to reflect on every sinful thing you've done in your sorry life and express remorse. If it's sincere—and that is most important!—God will exempt you from His otherwise strict requirement of last rites. The kicker in Conmee's absurdly thinking "Still, an act of perfect contrition" is that the women and children on the New York steamer were all German Protestants. No matter how desperately they prayed in their final fiery seconds, they were doomed to an eternity in Hell anyway.

On another question of saving lost souls, the church's missionary outreach to people in non-Christian parts of the world, Father Conmee appears to somewhat better effect. It is a topic that keenly interests him. When Bloom steps into St. Andrew's church in Lotus Eaters he sees "Same notice on the door. Sermon by the very reverend John Conmee S.J. on saint Peter Claver and the African Mission. Save China's millions." Peter Claver was a 17th century Spanish Jesuit missionary who worked for nearly half a century in Cartagena, Colombia, ministering to Africans that the Spaniards were transporting to the New World for slave labor. Conmee is now promoting similar missions in Africa and China. Gifford observes that "In the nineteenth century the Jesuits maintained missions in several cities in China in spite of rather intense Chinese xenophobia. One crisis in the resistance to the missionaries and their efforts was the death of five Jesuit priests at Nanking during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900."

The record of these missions is rife with cultural imperialism and dehumanizing brutality, but little in Ulysses invites the reader to lay such charges at Conmee's feet. In Wandering Rocks he sees a poster advertising the Negro impersonator Eugene Stratton, and, rather than thinking racially demeaning thoughts, he reflects on the desirability of universal salvation: "Father Conmee thought of the souls of black and brown and yellow men and of his sermon on saint Peter Claver S.J. and the African mission and of the propagation of the faith and of the millions of black and brown and yellow souls that had not received the baptism of water when their last hour came like a thief in the night."

Conmee's shift from thinking of "the souls of black and brown and yellow men" to imagining "black and brown and yellow souls" is absurd and deeply racist, but his essentially benign attitude toward these dark-skinned others is suggested in the sentences that follow, when he thinks how "reasonable" is "That book by the Belgian jesuit, Le Nombre des Élus." Father A. Chastelein's Le rigorisme, le nombre des élus et la doctrine du salut (Rigorism, the Number of the Elect, and the Doctrine of Salvation), published in Brussels in the 1890s, argued that God would surely save many more souls than He would damn. Gifford notes that "it was immediately attacked as too 'liberal' by the dogmatists, or 'rigorists', who claimed that all who were not baptized as Catholics were subject to eternal damnation," observing that the same war was also being fought among Protestants at this time. Conmee cautiously entertains the liberal view: "Those were millions of human souls created by God in His Own likeness to whom the faith had not (D.V.) been brought. But they were God's souls, created by God. It seemed to Father Conmee a pity that they should all be lost, a waste, if one might say."

One might say in reply that it is a tad chilly to conclude that these billions of human beings, created by God and born in places whose ignorance of the gospel would inevitably condemn them to eternal torture, represent only "a waste" of precious resources. But Conmee makes a habit of dismissing messy human realities with such airily condescending phrases. He approves of his church's description of Protestant faith as "invincible ignorance": "But one should be charitable. Invincible ignorance. They acted according to their lights." And he feels benevolent pity for human beings caught in the grip of sexual desire: "Father Conmee thought of that tyrannous incontinence, needed however for man's race on earth, and of the ways of God which were not our ways."

For all its snide irreverence, Joyce's fictional portrait does convey some of his feeling, expressed to Herbert Gorman, that Conmee was "a very decent sort of chap." The Conmee we meet in the novel devotes his life to helping the unfortunate. His upbeat banter with schoolboys, shopkeepers, and housewives seems fairly charming. And his interior monologue has flashes of refreshing honesty. His thought about the home for "aged and virtuous females" next to St. Joseph's church could easily be mistaken for one of Leopold Bloom's: "Virtuous: but occasionally they were also badtempered." Clearly, though, Joyce crossed some kind of Rubicon with this aggressive portrait.

Since he was never intimately acquainted with the actual Conmee, it seems possible that the unsavory qualities he attached to the fictive one derived less from personal antipathy than from the anti-clericalism he inherited from his father and the structural requirements of his plan for Wandering Rocks. The chapter opens with a long section devoted to a representative of the Church and closes with a long section devoted to a representative of the State. Both men are engaged in charitable enterprises, but they embody institutions that Joyce despised. The air of indictment in the first section may be driven less by dislike of Conmee than by anger at the indifference to common human experiences, urges, and sufferings displayed by many such princes of the church. 

JH 2021
Photograph of Father John Conmee, date unknown. www.goodreads.com.
19th century line drawing of Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare, held in the college's archive. www.exploreyourarchive.org.
Clongowes today. Source: www.clongowes.net.
Pencil on paper drawing of Belvedere House, Belvedere College, Great Denmark Street, Dublin, date and artist unknown. Source: www.desmondmccarthy.com.

Belvedere College today. Source: wfl.ie.

The Malahide castle today. Source: www.irishshop.com.
Detail from a painting of Saint Peter Claver, by an unknown artist. Source: www.dominicanablog.com.
Another painting of Saint Peter Claver, date and artist unknown. Source: www.wordonfire.org.
Title page of Father Castelein's Le Rigorisme (1899). Source: joyceimages.com.